I had a great blog post almost ready to launch earlier today, really I did. It was about moving my office from one location to another clear across town, and who thinks what about it, what went wrong during the move, ending with why all of this is funny.
And then WordPress ate it. No matter how much I cursed WordPress, I still was faced with a big blog of empty white space where once tiny words had lived. Sure, I could rewrite that post, as I’ve done before, only this blog post has decided to pop up in its place.
Instead of a trite chucklefest about who inhabits office buildings, what moving is like for a small nonprofit, and how hilarious (and nice) Walla Wallans can be in the midst of mini-crises, I’m going to write about passing privilege. I’m certainly not going for a laugh, but if you feel like having one, feel free to click on the keyword “funny” to the right and read any number of humorous experiences I’ve had. The ones where I’m in intestinal distress are the best, in my opinion.
On to the actual post.
I’ve read a number of online articles, blog posts, and rants lately about who has it worse, trans men or trans women. I’ve also come across at least a dozen pieces about who is more oppressed, transsexuals or transgender-identified people. And I have to say, with great respect to my loved and cherished friends all along the gender nonconforming spectrum/in some category of gender ID’d minority: these frames for discussion are not helping us. Yes, you are free to disagree with me, and call me out, claim I’m speaking with the voice of the entitled, yes. I still would like to pose some questions about several of the presumptions in how this idea of oppression is framed. As an example, I’ll point to established cultural theory from a principled thinker.
Patricia Hill Collins was an early advocate of intersectionality, looking at how multiple oppressions reveal insight into the institutions that mete out that oppression. In this frame, jockeying for position as the most oppressed is considered an unhelpful means of taking hegemony to task. Instead, she looked to a careful examination of white supremacist capitalism and its intersections with race, gender, and class. Attached to a history of disempowerment and slavery, and connected up to modern ideas about who black women are (in the way of cultural stereotypes and problematic role models), Collins inquired about how a group of oppressed people could rearticulate not only an empowering cultural identity, but also use that identity in a material way–to achieve improved/liberatory lives as a class of people.
If we give up on the concept of finding the most oppressed community, some new possibilities open up. Power, for example, is no longer absolutely granted or absolutely forbidden. For another way of looking at it, power is never pure, not in this social system of ours, anyway. Power and its attending privilege is wrapped in social and material history, positionality, and intersectionality with other markers of identity. So when we talk about how trans men are “better off” than trans women (especially, as we’re often reminded, than trans women of color), what do we mean? We mean when those trans men have passing privilege, for one, and for another, we mean that masculinity is regarded as so powerful that even people who did not come into the world as men but who aspire to it now are more privileged than people who are leaving masculinity behind. While it’s true that individual trans-identified and/or masculine-identified people may hold horrible or bigoted views of feminine-identified people, we should not insist this is an issue of the entire community. At the very least, such insistence is yet another demonization of a group of oppressed people. Do we really want to go there in forming our progressive politic?
Let’s also examine this idea about passing privilege as evidence that the question of the most oppressed is problematic. In my personal experience, I spent 15 years as a masculine-looking, female-identified person who was subjected to ridicule, harassment, and physical attacks in both my personal life and at my workplace because I didn’t have normative gender expression. When I figured out the trans thing and began to transition, those events actually increased in frequency until a certain point. Let’s call it the passing tipping point. What passing was for me, in my experience, was a series of short moments in which someone read me as male instead of female. In a given day toward the beginning of my medical transition, they amounted to something like 5 total minutes. Not that I was displeased with 5 minutes! But more than a year later, I still had coworkers asking each other behind my back what my sex was. In that 2+ years of getting to 95 percent read as male every day, how should we understand that passing privilege?
In many of these conversations, passing privilege is thrown around reductively, as if it’s a permanently ascribed status to a particular body in culture. But the very word “passing” describes its impermanence. It also points to the difference between one’s history and one’s current–even momentary–social positionality. In the arguments about who has it worse, there is little nuance given to passing. When did a trans man leave behind his female socialization and simply become an entitled, stage-stealing, unfeminist part of the problem? The first moment he’s read as male? The fifth? After the second month of full-time passing status? What do we make of him when he’s in public with his family and they purposely mispronoun him so others know his transness? Do we really want to argue that his social position is predicated on one moment over another? Or is there a more productive way to understand the navigation between passing and not passing, or “read as oppressed” and “read as privileged” shifts that many transfolk experience?
I’ve said before that most dichotomies are impoverished, inaccurate, and lead us into supporting the status quo instead of deconstructing it. Human beings in western culture have a stubborn insistence on our individual exceptionalism (most people are this way, but not ME), and a lack of solid memory. It can be difficult to spend more time listening than speaking when a person transitions into occupying a male identity, after years of hearing in those wonderful women’s studies classes that women should take up more space. I know as a transsexual that it’s damn hard not holding one’s pre-transition life against oneself for the rest of one’s existence, but this is where we need to be kind to ourselves and others.
Part of the usefulness of intersectionality is that it unpacks how different communities on the margins are pitted against each other, by the culture and institutions of the controlling ideology, and in furtherance of ideology’s continued hold on all of us. If white women and black women are both (but differently) harmed by sexism and misogyny, it helps the hegemonic system if they are suspicious of each other. When we debate whether trans women or trans men have it worse, we necessarily remove accountability from the system of oppression and point fingers at each other, and that leads us to some questionable conclusions–in this rubric, trans women are incapable of leaving behind their male privilege, and trans men are incapable of being anything other than subsumed by that same male privilege.
If we were to look at how culture differently positions trans women and trans men (and in greater context, transsexuals and people under the transgender umbrella), we could identify a more comprehensive theory of gender. Certainly the paranoia among some second-wave feminists that trans women are a danger to nontrans women puts forth a different construction about gender than comments from conservatives that trans men are really confused women who should be raped back into gender conformity. I am not arguing that trans women aren’t murdered in higher numbers than trans men, but I would rather ask why that’s happening and how we can change that reality than use it as evidence that trans women are the most oppressed community.
Perhaps one of the biggest questions here is this: how do traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity adversely mark gender non-conforming people, and how can we re-understand these gender abstractions to our and culture’s betterment? After 40 years of women’s liberation and gender theory working against the idea of “natural,” essential gender, why are those concepts still so prevalent?