Trans Women, Male Privilege, Socialisation, and Feminism

In Depth

There is a common refrain among some trans activists that male privilege either does not exist or is insignificant to trans women’s experiences. There is a common refrain among some radical feminists, largely trans exclusionary radical feminists, that trans women never lose male privilege at all and that male socialisation during childhood and adolescence is unavoidable, too deeply ingrained, and therefore constitutes a significant difference between female assigned at birth women (hereafter referred to as FAAB or cisgender) and trans women which would either render trans women “not-women” or call for their exclusion from women’s spaces. I reject both of these assertions as fundamentally flawed.

Male privilege exists. It is real. Trans women may not have it during periods of female presentation, but this does not mean it does not exist during those periods of male presentation. To argue otherwise is absurd. One need not enjoy privilege or feel comfortable with privilege for privilege to exist. Nor is this experience of privilege insignificant. A trans woman’s own experience should be evidence enough of its significance, for it is one of the many ways in which she is shoved into a gender which is not her own. A trans woman may fight male privilege’s application to her person, but she cannot stop it from being offered initially, nor can she succeed at all times in preventing its application against her will. It is still privilege, even though it may sound like oppression, because it is one which as at an intersection of lacking cisgender privilege. That intersection does not erase the fact that it is still privilege. If she is presenting as male and she keeps her mouth shut, she can benefit from male privilege. And no doubt she has done so at some point in her life. In order to move the discourse forward, this is a fact that trans women, and especially so-called trans activists (who claim to speak for all of us) must understand and embrace as true. Otherwise there can be no place for trans activists (as separated from trans activism) in feminism.

Is this lived experience of sometimes having or gaining from male privilege, but finding it painful, significantly and radically different from the experience of never having and never gaining from male privilege as experienced by cisgender women? In order to answer this meaningfully, we need to set our goalposts. Terms like “significantly” and “radically” are relative. If we lived in a world where our only basis for comparison was cis women and trans women, then yes, this lived experience of sometimes having or gaining from male privilege most certainly would be significantly and radically different. However, we do not live in such a world, and our goalposts need to compare both cis women’s lived experiences and trans women’s lived experiences to cis mens lived experiences (and trans men’s lived experiences. Although not the topic of this article, trans men’s experiences are often closer themselves to women’s experiences in comparison to cis men’s, as so many men’s spaces consider trans men to be women, or at least, “non-men”). When we look at that comparison, we begin to see that we have more in common than we do not.

Yet there is an objection to this assertion that cis women and trans women share more lived experiences than trans women share with cis men. What about male socialisation, the objector asks, isn’t any period of time being socialised as a male automatically placing that individual in one category while those who were not are placed in another category? We can do that grammatically, in that we can construct a sentence whereby we create such categories, but it does not reflect reality. The lived experience of a trans woman, or a trans girl as is more often than not the case, is not the same as that of a cis man/boy. Cis boys do not cry themselves to sleep wishing they were girls. Cis boys do not start arguments with authority figures over being thought of and addressed as boys as some trans girls do. Cis boys do not worry that their “manly” gender performances will be revealed to be fraudulent because they’re actually girls as other trans girls do. These experiences are experiences that clearly separate trans girls from cis boys, and therefore separate trans women from cis men.

Fine, the objector says, I accept that trans women do not have the same socialisation or internalisation as cis men, but why is a trans woman’s lived experiences closer to a cis woman’s, why not place trans women’s experiences in a third box? Excellent question. There are two major ways in which a trans woman’s experiences are like a cis woman’s experiences. The first is trans girls’ internalisation and attention to patriarchal messages intended for girls and women.

Feminist blogger Pheenobarbidoll (a cis woman of color) recently made this blog comment on Twisty Faster’s “I Blame The Patriarchy“:

And when little children KNOW they are girls on the inside, and should be girls but something has gone wrong, do you not realize they internalize all the ways females are oppressed? They’re being given male privilege, all the while terrified that someone will discover they’re not boys and knowing that because of that they’re worthless. Knowing secretly they’re bad and at any point someone could find out just how bad they are…Hey you! A body part that doesn’t truly belong to you and shouldn’t even be there is the only reason you’re valuable! Yeah, that’s some privilege right there. That’s not damaging at all.

The objector would like us to think that no socialisation ever meant for girls and women is ever internalised by trans girls/women. This just isn’t so. It is, in fact, verifiably false when another trans exclusionary claim is that trans women support the gender binary (and therefore the patriarchy) by buying into this socialisation when they should soundly reject it. Trans women may, and in fact often do, support the gender binary in some ways (although their very existence undermines it), but who else internalises this socialisation and performs it? Not cis men, oh, they internalise messages about women, but they don’t apply it to themselves. No, cis women do. This is a lived experience that cis women and trans women share in childhood and adolescence, and one which does not cease in adulthood.

There is a reason why Hourou Musuko was chosen as the banner for both this article and Ask a Trans Woman. In my personal opinion, it is the best, most accurate take on growing up trans in Japan or other industrialised, so-called “developed” or “first world” nations, and it is useful in considering this topic. The entire focus of the comic by Shimura Takako (also known for her work on the adolescent Japanese lesbian experience in Aoi Hana) is the way in which its two trans characters, Nitori Shuichi and Takatsuki Yoshino, try to square their self-conceptualisations and internalisation of gender norms with the reactions of the authority figures and peers around them and their own bodily experiences in adolescence. It goes pretty deeply and graphically into the details of puberty and how both Nitori (nicknamed Nitorin) and Takatsuki view their bodies in terms of gendered messages. They go about first attempting to mitigate puberty (something which is typical of cis girls, trans girls, and trans boys, but is atypical of cis boys) and then attempting to deal as best they can without access to medical care and with non-supportive friends and family. Although Shimura is a cis woman herself, the care in which she has constructed her characters’ narratives will surely resonate with many trans men and women. It soundly calls into question the assertions that “male” or “female” socialisation is all pervasive and absolute and that trans women are incapable of coming into a gender which was not “intended” to be theirs.

The second reason trans women have more in common with cis women than they do with cis men is that from the moment they in some way announce they are not men, they are treated as not men. Non-men. Unmen. Man is default, and trans women are immediately othered. This may take the form in childhood and adolescence as bullying, either verbal or physical. It may take the form of the microagressions used by family or authority figures. It may take the form during transitioning of references to trans women being “failed men” or “bad men” or “men in dresses.” The most pervasive form it takes is the treatment of trans women as women. Even when discrimination ceases because a trans woman now “passes” and is read as cisgender, she still continues to suffer misogyny. She is subjected to cat-calling, she is subjected to sexual assault, she has the same issues with being believed if she reports that sexual assault, and God help her if she hasn’t had SRS or her gender markers changed, because then she goes right back to adding on that previous treatment, she will still find herself earning less than a cis man, she will still find herself passed over for promotion, and this assumes, again, her gender history is not found out. She may spend childhood and adolescence struggling with male socialisation, and she may spend twenty to thirty years going in and out of male privilege, but after the point of transition, she will forever be treated as woman.

All right, all right, says the objector. I get it! Trans women and cis women have more in common than I realised and trans women’s experiences are closer to cis women’s experiences than they are to cis men’s. I further understand that trans women are women from the stand point of patriarchy! Indeed, that is the case, and if feminism works for the good of all women and trans women are women under patriarchy, then it behooves feminism to be trans inclusive. Our oppression is not the same, but it is still just slightly different flavors of the same old misogyny. When trans women are excluded from feminism, especially feminism which claims to be intersectional and recognise that all women’s experiences are not identical but still exist in the same nebula of “woman,” it undermines the very foundation of feminism and that is something which only benefits the patriarchy and is ultimately dangerous to us all.

This article was originally published on Groupthink on April 15, 2013.

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