Sacrificing Privilege

Natalie Reed discusses losing ‘male privilege’ in her transition to life as a woman.

by Natalie Reed (

By far one of the most challenging obstacles to building a meaningful dialogue about privilege is the extreme ease with which we’re able to take it for granted. Quick: when was the last time you thought about proprioception? Unless you’re a neurologist, or read a lot of Oliver Sacks, the answer could very well be “never, I guess”. We don’t think about it because we’ve never gone without it. Proprioception, the sense of ownership of one’s body and the ability to know the location of different parts of it, the ability to sense its position in physical space without relying on other sensory cues, is something completely, totally innate; something we can have difficulty even imagining living without. Unless for some reason (stroke, brain damage, etc.) we end up losing it, it’s something we just don’t think or worry about.

Privilege can work similarly.  Many of the more prominent types of privilege- along lines of race or sex- are things we are born into and have never really lived without. Even in cases where it is technically possible for the privileged group to “pass” as the unprivileged group, or vice versa, an attempt to pass as other is rarely made by the privileged, except perhaps as a sociological experiment, such as Black Like Me. Passing as the privileged group, though, such as a gay man or lesbian being in the closet, is far more common, but doesn’t add much to the dialogue since they’re not the ones who are able to ignore the issue or take it for granted. They receive constant (often daily) reminders of being on a lower rung of the social ladder.

But for things like race and gender, we have them, we always have them, they’re a part of us. A man never gets to experience what it is to live as female in our society, and so it is all too easy for him to underestimate the degree of sexual discrimination that occurs. How often have you found yourself discussing workplace gender discrimination with a man to hear him say “Well, I’ve never noticed any sexism where I work”. Given that he’s not the party being targeted, of course he’s going to be less likely to notice it.  It becomes all too easy for men or white people to imagine that things like sexism and racism are things of the past… far removed problems that, since they’re unnoticed, must no longer exist.

When the subject of male privilege comes up, in addition to the many cognitive distortions that can get in the way of acknowledging it, like the basic human emotional need to believe we deserve everything we have, men are also limited by their set of lived experiences and observed reality in being able to see that they do indeed possess certain social privileges, and that their lives are in many ways easier than those of others. It becomes difficult to accept that they have any specific advantages over women because they have no basis of comparison. Male life and privilege is the only thing they (directly) know. And even if rationally aware of misogyny, even if they are sincere, genuine feminists and allies (I love you guys!) they’ll still have limitations to really deeply understanding the experience of being on the receiving end of it.

Worsening the issue is that women also lack a basis of comparison. They aren’t fully aware of what male privilege feels like and how it operates. They may themselves believe that certain aspects of sexism are something that men experience too; something that is just a part of life. A woman may think, for example, that the reason people treat her condescendingly at her job is because she’s stupid, not because she’s a woman.

Men and women alike only ever have their own specifically gendered experiences to draw from, and can’t make any direct comparison between how they would be treated as a man versus how they would be treated as a woman. This makes it very difficult to isolate sexism for the purposes of holding it up to examination.

Well… most men and women can’t make any direct comparison.

There are us trans people who have lived as both genders. Back in October, I found in one of Jen’s quickies a fantastic article about the experiences of trans men in the workplace, and how they noticed that they were taken more seriously, were listened to with greater interest, and felt more respected after transition. It made me realize that people who have transitioned are uniquely well positioned to observe the disparity in how our society treats men and women. We have the differing points in our lives as comparison. We have our new lives as experimental group and our memories as the control. It’s not in any way hard science, but it gives us more to go on than most people get, at least in terms of drawing from our own experiences. Hard scientific data is pretty scarce in sociology anyway, but qualitative research and ”soft science” is still a whole lot better than no science, and anecdotal evidence is better than no evidence.

When someone claims “Women have it way easier than guys”, I get to confidently say, “No, we don’t”. And I have something pretty substantial to base that on.

The social dynamics of my transition were admittedly a lot more complex than just being a boy and then being a girl. Along with male privilege, I sacrificed certain aspects of cis privilege as well… those aspects pertaining to living as one’s assigned sex, anyway. I never enjoyed the aspects related to actually identifying as your assigned sex. I also gained a certain sort of provisional, conditional straight privilege… conditional in that I’m still queer, I’m not always regarded as straight, my experiences as a gay man are still a part of me, and I still have to deal with many of the same legal and social hassles. And then there’s my relative passing privilege… the more I pass, the less I deal with discrimination on the basis of being gender variant, but the more I deal with discrimination on the basis of being a woman (and even that’s a huge over-simplification of the enormously complicated subject of passing privilege). There are all kinds of aspects of my social existence and circumstances that have all affected the way transition played out for me and affected my social position.

But nonetheless, male privilege ends up being something very real and very concrete for me. Something specific and palpable, that was there and then it wasn’t. I’m able to point to specific advantages I used to have that I no longer get to enjoy, and specific ways my life is different now as a woman.

They aren’t negligible, either. One is that people used to often assume I was “smart”. I wore tortoise shell glasses and tweed vests and ties and stuff. I had soft features, and spoke with a loquacious verbosity that educed a phantasmagoric perspicacity. People often asked me to fix their computers despite my having a complete lack of any background in computer engineering, programming, IT or anything of the sort. “You know about computers, right?”…”a little, I guess”… “GREAT! Can you help me fix the printer?”… “is the cable hooked up properly?”… “Oh”…

That doesn’t happen any more. While obviously the manner in which I dress has changed, I’m still pretty much trying to present the same kind of self-image. I still shop at similar stores. I’m still doing the quasi-bohemian, clever, cute, indie-ish thing with a teensy dash of punk and goth. And I still wear glasses. But nobody asks me to fix their computers anymore. Now they speak really. Slowly. To. Make Sure. I Understand. All This. Complicated. Guy Stuff. … sweetheart.

There’s also, well, being often evaluated during first impressions on the basis of my appearance itself rather than whatever traits are inferred from my appearance. There’s a lot more comments on it in general. There’s no longer being able to feel safe while walking around after dark. There’s the stuff about taking a backseat in flirting situations. There’s the issue of guys talking down to me, talking over me, interrupting me, and expecting me to do a lot more listening than talking. And don’t even get me started on my experiences with dating.

Basically? There are a lot of differences.

But by far the thing that has been the biggest adjustment, the most prominent issue, the one that has caused me the most stress and emotional difficulty, and has been the biggest surprise and took me most off guard, is learning to live with cat calls and sexual harassment.

I don’t know why I was surprised, really. But I was. Very much so. I had been a guy who was sympathetic to feminism, and knew there were these shitty things that guys do and say. I knew it was a problem for women. I knew it was something I would probably have to deal with.

While transitioning, and preparing to go full-time, I did a great deal of emotional preparation. I knew my life was going to be very different, and likely much, much more difficult. I did a lot of feminist reading, I reflected a lot on what I knew about sexism and women’s experiences, and I spoke to other trans women about their experiences. I contemplated all the potential horrible things I may have had to deal with… stuff like being stared at, being misgendered, having people snicker at me as I passed, overhearing comments like “that’s totally a dude!”, children asking their parents if I’m a boy or a girl, being hassled for using the women’s restroom, or even the truly dark possibilities like being assaulted. And I steeled myself against that.

But I did not expect, or prepare for, what the problems actually ended up being. I’m not sure I even could have prepared myself.

Although my life has not been entirely free of transphobia and cissexism, the majority of discrimination I’ve dealt with has been in the form of misogyny and sexual objectification. And as said, it took me completely off guard. Despite not having been totally ignorant of the existence of sexism, I had had absolutely no idea just how common and ubiquitous sexual harassment and cat calls are. I mean, really… GOD DAMN. Like a lot of guys, I thought it was something that only a few creeps did, and usually only happened to especially pretty young women, and would be something that would only happen every once in awhile. NOT several times a week.

Several times a week, yes. And once four times over the course of a single particularly hot August day when I chose to wear a slinky spaghetti-strap dress without a cardigan or jacket. But immediately upon going full-time, regardless of how I was dressed, sexual harassment became a constant element of my life. Cat calls. Dudes telling me how much of a cutie I am as I pass by. Guys proudly announcing that they’d like to fuck me. Getting a blatant up-down once over look as a man wears a disgusting grin. Being ordered to smile. “Gimme a smile, baby”. I’ll look prettier if I smile. Apparently. Never mind my actual feelings or mood. Being pretty is what counts! Apparently. “YOU! I love YOU most! I would tap that so hard!”… “Hey I’m single if you want a quickie, babe”… etc. etc. etc.

For awhile, I toyed with the idea of just responding by shouting “I HAVE A PENIS!” as loudly as possible, to see if I could make them as uncomfortable as they had just made me. But then I remembered that’s a really good way to get myself killed. Especially given how much sexual harassment and cat calls are based around insecure men feeling the need to assert their masculinity through emotional control and dominance.

These guys are typically all much, much older than me. Like my roommate, who’s in his 50s, who once responded to my thanking him for bumming me a couple smokes with a note slipped under my door soliciting sexual favours in return. He felt the need to clarify that he’s not gay, but maybe a “little bi” in the note… which is kind of stupid because, well, I’m not a guy. I still live with him, as it happens. FML.

But one of the most interesting trends has been repeatedly being mistaken for or solicited as a prostitute. That’s been a barrel of laughs. (I hope I didn’t spill any of that sarcasm on your keyboards). I’ve had a total of seven such occurrences since July, and that’s only the overt ones… leaving out the looks, the more subtle suggestions, and the police cruisers slowing to a crawl behind me.

 The first happened pretty much my very first morning full-time in Vancouver. I had just gotten back from a camping trip for trans youth on Galiano Island. It was amazing, and the absolute perfect way to spend my first weekend presenting consistently as female. The evening we got back, a friend of mine from Kelowna stayed the night at my place. The following morning I got up early, and at around 7:30 went out to grab us some coffees from the 7/11 up the street. On my way there, I noticed an elderly Chinese man with very few teeth staring and grinning at me. No big deal, I thought. He probably clocked me, but so what? But on my way out of the 7/11, he was still there, still grinning. And when I got closer to him, he asked how much I charged for a blow-job. After I told him that no, I wasn’t working, he offered me $20. That’s when I became a tad less polite.

Since then, there have been several variations on the theme. The scariest have involved being followed by cars. The strangest was when I was mistaken as a prostitute by a prostitute, who told me I need to dress more feminine and that my boobs weren’t big enough. But all of them have made me feel very diminished, nervous, uncomfortable, sexualized, and very much like I’m less valued as a human being, and instead being evaluated as a product… something that can be bought, used and discarded. And I’m terrified of the possibility that someday a man may not accept my refusal.

I mean no disrespect towards sex workers. That is absolutely their choice. What they do with their bodies is completely up to them, and I absolutely will not judge them negatively for it. It is not the association with sex workers that makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s that the role, the way of being perceived and evaluated, is being applied to me rather than something I have chosen. The sense that the choice is being taken away from me. They will choose how to view me and approach me, and conceive of my body as a sexual object that may be purchased, and there’s really nothing at all I can do about it. My male privilege used to insulate me from that.

 I know that not every woman experiences the same degree and frequency of harassment as I do.  I have a friend in Montreal who despite living almost the exact same life as me, save the difference of her being francophone, says that she noticed virtually no harassment or difference in how she was treated after going full-time. I’ve thought a great deal about why it might be that I seem to experience so much more of this than other women. One possibility might be that I spend a lot of time taking public transit and walking. Or maybe because I wasn’t socialized as female, I never learned and internalized the strategies for avoiding male attention, like remembering not to make eye contact with dodgy guys. Or maybe it has to do with living in a fairly rough part of East Vancouver, and spending a fair bit of time in the infamously impoverished and troubled Downtown Eastside. Or maybe it’s precisely because I don’t have a wholly conventional female appearance, and maybe come across as sort of “exotic” or sexily androgynous. Or maybe some of them just clocked me and happen to have a thing for trans girls. Or maybe they’re buying into the “trap” myth, the notion that the reason trans women dress and present as female is in order to attract male attention; yes, Hypothetical Straight Dude, you’re right. It’s all about you. We want you so badly that we reconfigure our entire bodies and identities just to match your desires!

Damn. Did I spill the sarcasm again? Sorry!

But regardless of the fact that I can’t make any hard, definitive statements about the exact reasons I deal with so much harassment, and can’t tell where the issues of being a woman or being trans or being poor begin and end,… regardless of the fact that I can’t draw any meaningful conclusions about the causal relationships involved, or exactly what aspects of my experiences are different now on account of being perceived as female, I can make a very clear distinction between my old life and my current one. And the differences are impossible to ignore, and fit incredibly well with what is already understood about misogyny and the social treatment of gender. The advantages in life that I no longer have sync up almost perfectly with most contemporary feminist understanding of male privilege and what it entails.

So please, take it from someone who has a basis of comparison, who had it but sacrificed it, male privilege is real. Women don’t have it easier. And while we’re pretty much all being hurt by the gender binary, and no one is really benefiting all that much, women are getting the worst of it.

But that loss of privilege? Completely, totally worth it for the ability to finally feel at home in my own skin.

And really, I’m not a prostitute.