Tag Archives: womanhood

There Is Nothing Universal to Say About Trans Women and Male Privilege

men-vs-women-leaders

There has been a lot of ink spilled lately about trans women and male privilege. I have seen so many discussions recently where people ask the question “Do trans women as a whole have male privilege and if so what kind and how much?” And then you see some trans women writing articles responding to this drivel by arguing “That doesn’t match my experience” and then go on to detail how their lives were not filled with privilege and how in fact they were brutalized for being feminine as children and did not internalize society’s messages about male socialization the same way cis boys did.

And on the other hand, some trans women are writing articles saying “I did have male privilege but I gave it up or am in the process of giving it up oh and btw I’m still a woman” or something along those lines. I’ve seen some of these articles also make the general claim that some types of male privilege were afforded to ALL trans women in virtue of living a life pre-transition as someone who was coded as male. But then other trans women deny this reflects their own experience growing up and we are going in a circle, with universal claims being negated by individuals claims and individual claims being taken as proof of some universal claim.

This is tiresome.

We have a general claim about ALL trans women being refuted by individual claims about SOME trans women. But the trans women who did not experiences themselves as having male privilege often make the same mistake of thinking their experience is universal. That’s what so wrong with this whole discussion. There are no universals. There are no generalizations to be made in terms of ALL trans women – every trans woman has a difference experience of living pre-transition as well as experiences their loss of privilege via transition differently.

And furthermore, people like to frame the discussion in terms of the pointless question of whether trans women’s experiences are identical to cis women’s experiences. But who cares? It doesn’t matter. Our experiences don’t need to perfectly match the cis experience to be representative of womanhood because to think otherwise is to buy into the cis-sexist belief that the cis experience is the “default” and the trans experience is a pale imitation. But in reality the trans experience is equally valid, it’s just more rare.

Personally, my own experience pre-transition featured a good deal of male privilege which I’ve wrote about elsewhere . I’ve retained some vestiges of that male privilege such as the privilege having grown up not thinking of myself as an emotional creature but rather a rational creature. I still have the privilege of not worrying about getting pregnant. But much of the other privileges I gave up during transition or am in the process of giving up. I now fear walking down the street at night whereas before I never did. I now fear cat-calling – before it was not even on my mind. I’ve lost the privilege of not worrying about my drink being drugged at a bar. I’ve lost the privilege of not fearing men. The list goes on.

The point is that privilege is rarely so monolithic or one-dimensional. My privilege as a white person and the vestigial remains of my male privilege is balanced against my loss of privilege as a woman and especially as a trans woman.

But my experience says nothing about the experiences of other trans women, who experienced their gender much differently than I did as a child and as I do now. I was never really made fun of for being feminine – my feminine behaviors were done in secret behind closed doors and so they weren’t a target for harassment. I was able to regiment my personality into a public boyish self and a private feminine self. It’s a myth that gender identity is formed for life within the first 5 years of life. While that might be true for many people it is not a universal truth. My gender identity has evolved significantly since I was 5 years old and I know I am not alone though I have the feeling that many trans people have a bias towards interpreting their memories as having an earlier identity  because that narrative is seen as “more valid” than the ones where gender identity evolution occurs later in life.

Not all young trans girls are able to hide their natural femininity and they are brutalized for it. If someone went through that experience and they are telling you they did not have male privilege then I believe it’s epistemically best practice to head what they are saying and take their narrative seriously. Likewise if a trans woman says she used to have male privilege but has since given most of it up, we need to listen to that narrative as well.

Cishet people seem to be more convinced that if a trait is displayed earlier in life it is “more natural” and thus a product of someone’s core essence. But that’s the wrong question to be asking. Innate or not, natural or not, what we should care about is if a behavior, trait, or personality is authentic and representative of someone’s deepest vision for how they want their life to go, regardless of the “origins” of that vision. If someone’s trans identity originated in their 40’s that does not make their trans identity less authentic than someone who’s trans identity originated in childhood. If someone starts painting in their 40s does that make them “less” of a painter than someone who has been painting since infancy? A painter is someone who paints. A trans person is someone with a gender identity different from their assigned gender. It’s not “gender identity different from assigned gender but also having emerged by five years old”. It just has to be different. But the causal origins of the identity itself in terms of when it originated in the life-line are not relevant for determining the authenticity of of the identity.

My trans identity only surfaced in my late 20s. It would be SO easy and no one could prove me wrong if I began saying things like: “I felt off during puberty but I only learned the words to articulate my feelings years later”. In a sense that would be perfectly true. I did have gender issues at a young age. But I think I would be deluding myself if I claimed I had any awareness of ever wanting to transition at that age. Just like gender identity doesn’t have to be cemented in childhood, neither does dysphoria have to originate in childhood. Dysphoria can surface at any point in a trans person’s life. I didn’t start feeling real dysphoria until my late 20s. The longer we hold onto the traditional narrative that all trans people somehow “knew” then they were children, the longer we will be unable to see the true diversity of the trans community.

The problem comes when we try to generate a one-size-fits-all theoretical framework for thinking about ALL trans women as sharing some kind of universal essence. But that’s a pipedream. There is no universal narrative. The human mind strives to “connect the dots” and create some kind of overarching generalization that is true of all trans women. But we need to resist that and instead focus on studying individual differences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

Was I Ever Cis? Did I Ever Enjoy Male Privilege?

[EDIT – October 1st 2015]] Disclaimer: I now disagree with almost everything I wrote in this post but I’m leaving it up because the arguments are still interesting.

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In this interesting article Leela Ginelle argues that trans people were never cis.

Perhaps because cis identities are seen as more valid than trans ones in our ciscentric society, some cis women see fit to scrutinize and invalidate trans women’s experiences in the way they do. If a person believes I am a trans woman, it would stand to reason, they believe, as I do, that I’ve always been trans. That means I was a trans girl and grew into a trans woman.

By this reasoning, being misgendered at birth—and closeted as a result of culture-wide transphobic hostility through my first 38 years as I was—would be seen as a horrible misfortune, rather than a privilege….

Falsely attributing trans women with “male privilege,” not recognizing the myriad privileges one enjoys as a cis person—privileges that often seem invisible due our culture’s ciscentric practices—works to reinforce transmisogyny and transphobia, rather than erase it.

Trans women did not ask to be assigned male at birth. We were born “ourselves,” and funneled into a culture that forcibly molded us according to a ciscentric understanding of gender. This was a trauma, not a privilege, as evidenced by the 41% suicide attempt rate reported among trans adults.

This is an interesting argument. If I was never cis then I was never a male then I couldn’t have enjoyed male privilege. Some feminists argue that trans women are not “really” women because they didn’t have the social experience of a woman from birth onwards. Ginelle’s response to this argument is to suggest that trans people were never cis and that they suffered a great trauma in being misgendered at birth.

But this trauma of misgendering raises some interesting epistemic problems. Ok, so if misgendering at birth is this terrible tragedy it stands to reason that we should take aims to correct it. But so far as I know it is currently impossible to empirically detect whether a newborn baby is cis or trans. That is, it’s impossible to know what their gender identity is going to be in adulthood. Until we have some kind of genetic or biological marker that’s predictive of trans identities the only way to avoid the trauma of misgendering at birth is to simply avoid the practice of gendering infants altogether. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if the parents and doctors doing the misgendering are somehow morally blameworthy in their actions. Take me for instance. I was born a “normal boy” with normal male anatomy. Based on this the doctors declared me to be a boy. My parents thought I was a boy. Treated me as a boy. I was raised as a boy. I felt like a boy. I never had cross-gender identification until much later though I did strong desires for crossdressing at a young age.

Did my parents make a mistake? If Ginelle is correct that I was trans all along then yes my parents were making a mistake all those years. But I was also making that mistake. I never thought of myself as trans until recently. So I was constantly misgendering myself for all those years. Was I traumatizing myself that whole time?

Here’s an alternative model than Ginelle’s that I call the Higher Order Trans (HOT) model. At the heart of the HOT model is what I call the Principle of Reflexivity:

Principle of Reflexivity: If you are trans you must be aware of yourself as trans.

Those people familiar with higher-order theories of consciousness will see a similar structure. The basic idea is that you cannot be trans unless you have a concept of transness and you are aware of yourself qua trans person i.e. that you self-consciously identify as trans. If the principle of reflexivity is true this means that I was not trans until recently. If I was not trans until recently, then was I cis the rest of my life? Or was I something else? Something not-trans yet not-cis as well? Was I simply an unactualized possibility waiting to blossom?

I have no problem thinking I was cis before I realized I was trans and thus no problem thinking that I enjoyed male privilege growing up. Ginelle was concerned with the feminist argument that trans women are not real women because they enjoyed male privilege. But instead of denying that trans women enjoyed male privilege, perhaps we should deny that having male privilege makes it impossible to ever be a real woman or that it is an obstacle in the quest to transform oneself into a woman.

For me the essence of being trans is the transition itself. The transition from one state of being to another state of being. The feminist argument assumes that if you start with male privilege you cannot transition into a woman. But this argument makes no sense. An acorn starts as an acorn but transform into a tree. Does the tree have “residual acorn energy” or “acorn social experience” that prevents it from transforming? The very nature of transition is to transmogrify – no amount of “male energy” can stop the transmogrification of male energy into female energy. And that transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Sure, there might be some “residual” male energy when first starting to transition. Moreover the whole idea of “male” and “female” energy as being opposites is deeply problematic and reflects binary assumptions about male and female personality. Perhaps there is more overlap in male and female energy and moreover many females have “masculine” energy and that doesn’t take away from their cis-hood so a transwoman with 80% female energy and 20% male energy shouldnt be any less of a “real” woman.

Moreover even if we buy into the “social experience” hypothesis of what makes a woman (which I don’t) then suppose a trans woman transitions at 25 and lives to be 100. They will have spent 75 years of their life as a woman gaining social experience as a woman. Eventually their 25 years of male privilege will be cancelled out by their years of experience living as a woman. So even on the social experience model it’s possible for a man to transition into a woman.

But we shouldn’t buy into the social experience hypothesis because if you transitioned at age 25 then you wouldn’t be a “true” woman until you are 50 years old. But according to the principle of reflexivity you are trans as soon as you start thinking of yourself as trans. So even if you have 25 years of male socialization as soon as you start identifying as trans you cease to be male and become a woman, a trans woman. The HOT model is superior because it captures the intuition that each of us is ourselves the best expert on what our own gender identity is.

EDIT:

My friend Maia sent me her comments on this article and they were so good that I want to share them:

———–

My primary feedback can be categorized into two general areas:
1) I have experienced transness and transition much differently from your experience, and I bristle at the attempts to make generalizations based on those experiences. In particular, I reject the general applicability of having experienced male privilege, the “male to female” conception of transitioning, and the commonality of goals/experiences around passing.
2) Political! I think that this posts largely omits the notions of structuralized cissexism and transmisogyny, which are a necessary element to understanding trans experiences.
My thoughts:
Some feminists argue that trans women are not “really” women because they didn’t have the social experience of a woman from birth onwards.
– These are TERFs, not feminists. We can’t cede that label to them.
Ok, so if misgendering at birth is this terrible tragedy it stands to reason that we should take aims to correct it.
– Much of my issue with the article in general is the absence of a notion of the power dynamics inherent in this situation. It does stand to reason that “we” should take aims to correct it. However for those of us most harmed by this process, we are never allowed into the “we” that might take this on. There are so many issues that it stands to reason ought to be addressed, but the “we” in power has at best no interest in addressing them, and more often has an actual interest in maintaining the status quo.
 
But so far as I know it is currently impossible to empirically detect whether a newborn baby is cis or trans. That is, it’s impossible to know what their gender identity is going to be in adulthood. Until we have some kind of genetic or biological marker that’s predictive of trans identities the only way to avoid the trauma of misgendering at birth is to simply avoid the practice of gendering infants altogether. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
– You give up too early! Much of the support for the rest of the article rests on the assumption that simply avoiding gendering children is too far-fetched to have very much of a presence in the solution to this sort of problem.
Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if the parents and doctors doing the misgendering are somehow morally blameworthy in their actions.
– Yes.
Take me for instance.
– There’s the key to the article right there! This article makes much more sense to me as a personal account and an attempt to understand a single experience, rather than an exploration of a generalizable model.
 
I was born a “normal boy” with normal male anatomy. Based on this the doctors declared me to be a boy. My parents thought I was a boy. Treated me as a boy. I was raised as a boy. I felt like a boy. I never had cross-gender identification until much later though I did strong desires for crossdressing at a young age.
– And this was your experience. I’m genuinely happy that you were able to go through childhood with a minimum of dysphoria, but many of us didn’t experience things that way. I was never “normal,” I was never a “boy,” and I completely reject the notion of “male anatomy.”
 
Principle of Reflexivity: If you are trans you must be aware of yourself as trans.
– In the past I have heard this referred to as “I trans therefore I am.”
I have no problem thinking I was cis before I realized I was trans and thus no problem thinking that I enjoyed male privilege growing up.
– Great! I do have a problem and thus I do have a problem!
Ginelle was concerned with the feminist argument that trans women are not real women because they enjoyed male privilege.
– *TERF* argument.
But instead of denying that trans women enjoyed male privilege, perhaps we should deny that having male privilege makes it impossible to ever be a real woman
– I do deny that having experienced something like male privilege should make it impossible to be a “real woman.” However, I also staunchly deny the generalizability of not having experienced some kind of male privilege. Many of us didn’t, and if you feel you did (I happen to feel that I did, for example), then that will be part of your (our) story, but so many trans women did not experience male privilege.
or that it is an obstacle in the quest to transform oneself into a woman.
– I never wasn’t a woman, and therefore I never needed to transform into one. The diversity of conceptions of what transition means to people is pretty staggering, and it’s tough to generalize what this process is to trans people.
 
For me the essence of being trans is the transition itself.
– I know lots of people who feel this way! I also know that if you were to ask 13 year old Jews what the essence of Judaism is, the bat mitzvah would figure much more prominently in the answer than it would if you’d asked someone older. Trans life continues long after transition. And again, this ignores the political realities of being trans; a lot of the identity or status if defined by the oppressor class in opposition to their ideal. An awful lot of cis people won’t accept the idea that we’re anything other than trans even after transition, so the identity necessarily continues in a way regardless of the way we self define.
 
The very nature of transition is to transmogrify
– Not for me! I just wanted to take hormones and wear dresses. No transmogrification necessary!
Sure, there might be some “residual” male energy when first starting to transition.
– Again, this assumes that trans women have “male energy” to begin with, and furthermore assumes that transition is somehow about the from: ___ -> to: ___ model.
The HOT model is superior because it captures the intuition that each of us is ourselves the best expert on what our own gender identity is.
– No model should be thought to be be superior if it purports to generalize on how we trans people experience gender. If it works for you, then it’s the superior model for you! My model works for me, and so on. That said, Lani and I agree that you’re a superior HOT model.

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