On Male Privilege

Today’s post is guest authored by my old friend Shiloh Stark.

I know male privilege because I went from not having it, to having it.

At different points in my life, I’ve been perceived as a girl, perceived as a boy, perceived as in-between. As straight, as lesbian, and as a gay male. I’ve always been the same person, but the Rubik’s cube of my life was extra jumbled up there for a while. Each different setting, though, uncovered a new lesson in how gender works.

When people perceived me as a straight, white, heterosexual teenage girl, every time I took a walk alone, in the back of my head, a part of me worried that I might be raped. It was more present than a fear of being mugged, and carried more dread. I don’t know if all women feel that, or if it gets better over time — I just know that it was the kind of feeling you actively try to discredit, and can forget about for stretches of time, but that you can’t shake.

When I cut my hair shorter and donned more gender neutral clothes, people saw me as a lesbian. Occasionally a man would shout “dykes” when I walked down the street with a girl. I still worried about being sexually assaulted, but the tenor changed: the concern was that some straight man would feel compelled to “teach me a lesson.” 

When I began taking hormones and binding my chest, people weren’t quite sure what to make of me. Their confusion often turned to anger or fear. A stranger called me “it” with a look of such disgust it is forever seared into my memory. During that time, a mother took her young child by the hand and pulled her across the middle of the road to avoid sharing a sidewalk with me. I knew then what it meant to be an outcast.

When the hormones took root and I was perceived as a young teenage boy, I got attention from young teenage girls — the kind I now know I would had gotten 10 years earlier, had I been perceived male in high school. That may have been the most fun time (though I promise I did not flirt back!). Something else happened when I began being read consistently as male — men stopped looking at me *like that.* Like they were sizing me up, checking me out, imagining what I looked like without a shirt. Men simply ignored me. It was like a bro code. I was in the club.

Then I began being perceived as a gay man, by men I perceived to be gay. The frank and open looks of interest I got were so…non-threatening to me, compared to the way straight men looked at me when they saw me as a straight woman. If I didn’t reciprocate a gay male with a look of interest, he simply dropped it.

Now I’m mostly perceived as a straight, white male with thinning hair. When I am walking by another man on the street, he doesn’t bother to hide it when he turns around to check out a woman’s backside as she passes.

When I walk around town with my wife, we’re seen as heterosexual. We don’t give a second thought to wearing our rings or holding hands or sharing a quick kiss, the way we did a dozen years ago. For a while, I noticed the shift in my thinking, but now I take that privilege for granted.

I’m not expected to smile. If I’m grumpy, or neutral-feeling, it’s fine. I’m not teased that it’s my time of the month. It just is — and that’s privilege.

There are far fewer things expected of me, appearance-wise. No one thinks I should buy bras, or wear uncomfortable shoes, or shave my legs, or figure out makeup or curling irons or any of that. Aside from a weekly shot in my thigh, life is pretty low maintenance. And that’s the kind of privilege I use to watch one more episode of House of Cards a day.

I’m 50 pounds overweight, but that’s not seen the same way as it used to be when I was perceived female — it doesn’t undercut my credibility as much as it would if I were a woman.

When I run into the boss in the bathroom and we casually chat about management structure with our pants unzipped, that is a form of privilege.

It is easier to ask for a promotion or raise now. Men are expected to advocate for themselves, to demand what they’re worth. It’s a less charged conversation — privilege.

When I walk alone at night and don’t have any thoughts of rape, that is privilege.

Through all of these iterations of perception, I’ve always been seen as unequivocally white, and I have never lived in poverty; that has shaped each of the interactions I’ve had in ways that are not spoken about here — more privilege.

There’s something kind of amazing about having occupied so many places on the gender spectrum — both in my understandings of myself and who others have understood me to be. Each day is a delicate dance of expectation, embodiment, and interaction. And these days, I’m generally given the lead.


Privilege primers –


Shiloh Stark is a people-watcher, director of online teams, and a trans man living in Washington DC. He enjoys long walks, mid-length bicycle rides, and short runs. Formerly a board member of the DC Area Transmasculine Society, Shiloh has a BA in Women’s Studies from the University of Maryland and a Graduate Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Georgetown University. 

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, Pop Culture


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One Comment on “On Male Privilege”

  1. March 30, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    Thank you for this article Shiloh! I’m “heading the other way” and am learning so many of the things you discuss. My view of safety is now radically different. I get looks from strange men and I get uncomfortable. Some are wondering what’s up but many are very different.

    I transitioned in the IT corner of the business world and watched as people revised their assumption of my capabilities. I used to call technical support with a guy name and a guy voice and get sent straight to upper level support. Then I started calling with a woman’s name and a softer voice and had to go through 45 minutes of low level troubleshooting full of insulting questions. And I learned how to politely get ignored in meetings, but I learned it the hard way.

    And my wife and I have gone from the lap of hetero-normative obscurity right into lesbian territory. And yes, we have changed how we go about things so we can avoid being treated badly. When we travel we call each other “Sis” so we can blend in. At a deep level I think I’m the same person, but the rest of the world disagrees.

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