The Problem with Passing Privilege

trans logo/iconI 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?

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights


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2 Comments on “The Problem with Passing Privilege”

  1. Zander Keig
    July 16, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    Reblogged this on Zander's Blog and commented:
    “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?”

  2. July 16, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    You know me and science. I thought it might be interesting to look at the National Transgender Discrimination Survey ( to compare “who has it worse.” I’m open to other interpretations, but in my reading of the data, it seems that when there’s a significant discrepancy between the adverse experiences, trans women tend to have it rougher than either trans men or gender non-conforming people, especially when it comes to employment. Male-assigned individuals reported experiencing more violence in school, while female-assigned people reported experiencing more harassment. The thing is, that doesn’t make a ton of sense unless you assume that male-assigned folks were most frequently attacked by mute assailants. Even the authors of the study attribute this to an under-reporting of harassment in conjunction with violence by male-assigned respondents. Mostly, mtf and ftm respondents in this study experienced relatively similar rates of adversity. One data point I noticed where ftm people significantly “beat” mtf people was in “Harassment When Presenting Incongruous Identity Documents,” which is interesting when considered within the context of discussing Passing Privilege.

    Of course, this study is severely limited in that it relies purely on survey data, which can not be assumed to be completely reliable. What if, for example, mtf individual tend to have a narrower definition of harassment? What if ftm respondents were generally disinclined to be open about their experiences of violence? And furthermore, the study does us little good unless we can really get in there and look at some intersectionality. What does the data start to look like when you control for gender AND age AND race AND education AND employment status AND HIV status? It’s limited and would take a lot of work on the part of folks with the raw survey material. Until they put that work in, all we’ve really got in conjecture, observation, and anecdotal evidence. Come to think of it, that’s basically what this study is, but on a much larger scale.

    Anyway, you mentioned a 2+ year period between the start of your transition and your arrival at a place where you were almost universal read as your chosen gender. I’m guessing based on what I know of you (because we’re friends!) and the way you framed that, those days are behind you. For me, that period is at 8 years and counting. It’s gotten “better” over the years, but the end is still nowhere in sight. I think that’s the crux of the “passing privilege” conversation. Our individual experiences could probably serve as somewhat typical examples of the ftm and mtf transition experience respectively. Trans men generally have a shorter, more demarcated “awkward period.” What’s more, life at the end of the awkward transition tunnel is very different depending which way you’re headed. Like or not, in the misogynistic world we live in, the road is much smoother on the “men’s” side. And that’s not trans men’s fault! What’s EVEN MORE, I think I’ve totally gotten myself side tracked on the “trans men vs. trans women!”

    “Passing Privilege” isn’t just about whether or not you pass as a man or a woman. In fact, passing is only that specific when it’s being discussed in narrowed down ways. Generally, passing ACTUALLY means “passing as cis.” I will also point out that it IS a pretty permanent state of affairs assuming that a person doesn’t take intentional action to remove themselves from it. “Passing” here is more akin to “passing the BAR” than “a passing breeze.” For me, the problem with the “passing privilege” conversation isn’t that it’s vague or that the conclusions are uncertain. The problem is that everyone involved takes it WAY too seriously! I think we’d all be much better off if folks could acknowledge that A, it’s real and B. it’s not the greatest evil in the world. And it’s not just a “men vs. women” thing. For example, a person that’s been on hormones for an extended period of time, has had facial surgery, chest surgery, bottom surgery, etc. etc. is likely to enjoy a pretty serious amount of passing privilege when compared to someone that hasn’t. Furthermore, having access to those things can often be an indicator of access to other privileges, especially around class.

    None of this is justification to demonize someone and spending a lot of time and energy arguing about who is more or less privileged within our generally super underprivileged community isn’t exactly productive. But at the same time, that’s sort of the point: trans people generally have a hard time and “passing” as someone that ISN’T trans should rightly be considered a boon to anyone fortunate enough to do so. In fact, for the most part, when a person from a marginalized group “passes” as a member of the mainstream, that person enjoys a degree of privilege and has some responsibility to acknowledge it. For example, I generally pass college educated, despite the fact that I barely graduated high school. One advantage of people believing that I’m educated is having my opinions generally taken more seriously in online forums and casual conversation. On the other hand, I still can’t qualify for many specialized jobs and I did not establish my social network in a college setting the way many of my peers did. In other words, my passing as college educated is an advantage, but it’s hard to say if it’s something substantial enough that it should push me into “feeling guilty” territory.

    Anyway, I hope it’s not completely obnoxious that I wrote all this crap in your comment section. Feel free to take it down. I haven’t really slept the last few nights, so I’m in a very ranty mood. You know I love you and I hope this doesn’t come off as me yelling, because I’m trying to be super diplomatic, actually. I guess I’d summarize my point by saying that I don’t think the concept of “passing privilege” should be completely discarded, but I don’t think anyone should be crucified for having it. It’s real, but it’s not the greatest threat to the trans community. People who “have it” should be aware of it, but not be ostracized within our marginal community. People who “don’t have it” should probably spend less time being angry at the people that do and more time being angry at the system of oppression that makes it a meaningful distinction in the first place.

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