Here we go again

by Danielle Navarro, 30 Apr 2021

The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing
Toni Morrison, 1975

When people talk about ‘are trans women women?', my feeling is ‘trans women are trans women’. If you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men and then switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, 2017

Since transitioning, one of the most utterly tiresome discussions I have found myself dragged into is the question of male privilege as it relates to the lives and experiences of trans women. Over and over again it comes up, and over and over I have to waste my limited time and emotional resources trying to explain to cisgender people that their intuitions about transgender women are wrong. This effort is wasted in at least three senses. First, because every cisgender person asks the same tiresome questions under the mistaken impression they have valuable insights to offer me, I have to repeat my answers over and over. Second, it is a wasted effort because this is not how I want to spend my life: there are so many things in this world that I love, and this is not one of them. Third, and perhaps most depressing, the effort is a waste because it doesn’t matter what I say: cisgender people will believe whatever they want to believe about trans women, irrespective of what we say. It was a waste of time when I wrote about transgender rights. It was a waste of time when I wrote about whether trans women are women. It was a waste of time when I wrote about my transition, my fears, my rape, and it was absolutely a waste of my time when I wrote about what it is like to be a trans woman in academia. So I write this in full knowledge that I am wasting my time, but here I am again, writing. I write because I can’t get it out of my head if I do not write. In the end I am writing this not for the benefit of the cisgender people who will inevitably ignore me, but for myself and for my trans sisters who are as frustrated as I am with this absurdity.

The quote from Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie at the top of the post has annoyed me for a long time. What annoys me about it is not merely that she is wrong, but that she had the presumption to think she is an authority on the subject of trans women and our lives. She is no more an expert on how trans women live and what we experience than I am an expert on the life of cisgender women in Nigeria. Had I been interviewed by the BBC and were asked to comment on the lives of Nigerian women, the correct answer would be “I think this is a question you should ask a Nigerian woman, not me.” This is how Adichie should have responded when asked about the lives of trans women. Unfortunately, she did not. Rather, she presumed that her opinion was relevant, that her knowledge of the subject was sufficient to justify her offering an answer. The question of whether (or in which respects) trans women receive male privilege was not hers to answer, and she should have known that.

The difficulty facing any trans woman who makes this point – that we are better placed to comment on our lives than cisgender feminists – is that in doing so, an expectation is invoked that she will now provide the desired explanation. She falls into precisely the trap that Toni Morrison lays out: she must divert her energy from living her own life as best she can to dealing with whatever foolishness happens to have captured the attention of cisgender people. But what else can I do? This absurdity is stuck in my head and I won’t be able to return to my life until I deal with it. So, with an exasperated sigh, I tell myself to get started. Here we go again…

::: :::

Any time the subject of male privilege arises, there is a certain amount of ambiguity that needs to be resolved at the beginning. What precisely do we mean when we refer to male privilege? Usually we mean something along the lines of this: “male privilege refers to a collection of advantages and benefits that society typically provides to men, but women are typically denied”. It seems like a reasonable working definition, but the word “typically” is doing a lot of work in this sentence. Not every man receives every male privilege. Not every woman is denied every male privilege. The term “male privilege” picks out a statistical pattern in our social world; it does not describe any absolute rules. Consider, for instance, the privilege of being permitted to express anger. Soraya Chemaly makes a compelling case in Rage Becomes Her that women are systematically denied access to expressions of anger; anger to which men are entitled as a kind of birthright. As a statistical pattern I think Chemaly’s claim is entirely accurate but, as she points out at the very beginning of the book, there are systematic exceptions:

in some cultures anger is a way to vent frustration, but in others it is more for exerting authority. In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men, as criminality; and in black women, as threat.

In other words, while the entitlement to anger could indeed be labelled a male privilege, it would be wrong to claim that Black men and white men have equal access to this privilege. Showing anger is a risk for Black men in the United States in a way that white men rarely experience. To state the obvious intersectional point: racism and gender interact here in a way that means we should take care in generalising from white men to Black men. In fact, as Ruby Hamad documents at some length in White Tears/Brown Scars there is a long history of white women being complicit in racism in ways that are actively harmful to people of colour. All of which is to make the obvious point that a narrow focus on “male privilege” is unwise in any situation where race is also a factor. This point is generally uncontested in feminist thinking nowadays, even among white writers, and so what surprises me most about Adichie’s comment about trans women and male privilege is that there is no comparable recognition that it makes no sense whatsoever to generalise from cisgender men to transgender women. Trans women are not a random or representative subset of male-assigned people: literally no-one believes that, not even the bigots who despise us and would seek to have us eradicated. Our lives are systematically different from theirs before transition as well as after1, and my claim here – which I am astounded that I have to keep making – is that our lives and ostensible privileges need to be understood on our own terms. This is the fundamental error that I see cisgender writers make over and over again when they try to “reason from first principles” about what trans women experience. To my mind, the fact that even someone as insightful and talented as Adichie makes this very basic reasoning error is revealing.

::: :::

If trans women are indeed an unrepresentative sample of male-assigned people whose lives need to be understood on our own terms, what do trans women have to say about our relationship to male privilege? The last time I wrote anything on this subject, this is how I began my answer:

As much as I am a firm believer that male privilege exists in our society, I think it’s an abstraction that comprises many, many advantages – both large and small – that men are given over women, and when it comes to transgender lives the abstractions start to break down. If you read what trans women have to say about their own experiences with “male privilege” you find that it varies a lot. Some women talk about having experience male privileges that evaporated after transition, others tell a story of never really receiving male privilege at all, while still others – myself include – give an answer that boils down to “it’s complicated”.

This variability is not disagreement; it is genuine variation. As an example of someone who tells a story that roughly mirrors Adichie’s interpretation, I’d recommend this excellent personal account written in 2016 by Rachel Williams, about having given up the male privilege she was accorded at birth. Here’s how her essay begins:

I grew up with male privilege and then I gave it up.

I grew up as a relatively “normal boy”. I never had any struggles with my gender identity until my late 20s. I was homeschooled. As a child I played Legos with my brother, built tree forts, played sports, rode bikes around the neighborhood, swam all day in the summer, played manhunt, collected random things, played videogames, and was generally a pretty normal boy with normal “boyish” predilections.

From there she goes on to list a lot of male privileges that she once had access to, and which she has been denied now that she has transitioned. She is extremely careful, however, to note that this is a characteristic of her own life and not a general claim about the experiences of trans women. In fact, in 2017 she wrote another piece that makes the same overall claim that I want to make, namely that “there is nothing universal to say about trans women and male privilege”:

[M]y 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 heed 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.

To this I have little to add. She is exactly correct: some trans women have had the privilege of growing up in a cultural milieu that accorded them male privileges, and were conferred advantages over their cisgender counterparts. Other trans women have not.

::: :::

Historically, the mere existence of trans women has been deemed a threat to the moral and political order in a fashion that is completely incommensurate to our actual influence on the world. So much so that, as Susan Stryker notes in Transgender History “the most familiar photo of Nazi book burning depicts Hirschfeld’s library of materials on sexual diversity going up in flames”, Magnus Hirschfeld being the author of The Transvestites, the first book-length discussion of transgender people, written in 1910. Now of course, it is entirely possible that even in that social world trans women might somehow have benefitted from male privilege, but it ought not seem implausible that the lives of trans women and cis men were drastically different in such a world. The moral panic that surrounds and envelops our lives from the moment a trans girl begins to express femininity (or indeed, begins to desire to express femininity) means that our lives are very, very different to those of other male-assigned people. For so very many of us, fear is the dominating emotion of our lives from the start.

To pivot to more modern examples, consider the plight of “Bradley” described in this 2008 piece by NPR. From very early childhood he2 behaved in feminine ways, preferring the company of girls and so forth. The “therapy” to which he was subjected began because even as a young child he was already a target for male violence:

It was a single event that transformed her vague sense of worry into something more serious. One day, Bradley came home from an outing at the local playground with his baby sitter. He was covered in blood. A gash on his forehead ran deep into his hairline.

“What had happened was that two 10-year-old boys had thrown him off some playground equipment across the pavement because he’d been playing with a Barbie doll – and they called him a girl,” Carol says. “So that sort of struck me, that, you know, if he doesn’t learn to socialize with both males and females … he was going to get hurt.”

This was my experience as a child. Sometimes I was beaten for my expression of femininity, but mostly I withdrew from the world. Fear of male violence meant that I learned to suppress every natural impulse I had, and I lived in terror through my childhood and teenage years. By the time I reached my 20s I was unable even to articulate the source of this fear, and it was not until my mid 30s that I had begun to make sense of why I have been utterly terrified – mostly of men – for my entire life. Even so I count myself lucky. Nobody, not even my parents, discovered my secret stash of girl things, and thankfully I was never referred to a “therapist” like Ken Zucker. I cannot work out any way to paraphrase what he did to this child, so here’s a longer description from NPR:

So, to treat Bradley, Zucker explained to Carol that she and her husband would have to radically change their parenting. Bradley would no longer be allowed to spend time with girls. He would no longer be allowed to play with girlish toys or pretend that he was a female character. Zucker said that all of these activities were dangerous to a kid with gender identity disorder. He explained that unless Carol and her husband helped the child to change his behavior, as Bradley grew older, he likely would be rejected by both peer groups. Boys would find his feminine interests unappealing. Girls would want more boyish boys. Bradley would be an outcast.

Carol resolved to do her best. Still, these were huge changes. By the time Bradley started therapy he was almost 6 years old, and Carol had a house full of Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets. She now had to remove them. To cushion the blow, she didn’t take the toys away all at once; she told Bradley that he could choose one or two toys a day.

“In the beginning, he didn’t really care, because he’d picked stuff he didn’t play with,” Carol says. “But then it really got down to the last few.”

As his pile of toys dwindled, Carol realized Bradley was hoarding. She would find female action figures stashed between couch pillows. Rainbow unicorns were hidden in the back of Bradley’s closet. Bradley seemed at a loss, she said. They gave him male toys, but he chose not to play at all.

“He turned to coloring and drawing, and he just simply wouldn’t play with anything. And he would color and draw for hours and hours and hours. And that would be all he did in a day,” Carol says. “I think he was really lost. … The whole way that he knew and understood how to play was just sort of, you know, removed from his house.”

His drawings, however, also proved problematic. Bradley would populate his pictures with the toys and interests he no longer had access to Рprincesses with long flowing hair, fairies in elaborate dresses, rainbows of pink and purple and pale yellow. So, under Zucker’s direction, Carol and her husband sought to change this as well.

“We would ask him, ‘Can you draw a boy for us? Can you draw a boy in that picture?’ … And then he didn’t really want us to see his drawings or watch him drawing because we would always say ‘Can you draw a boy?'” Carol says. “And then finally after, I don’t know, a month or two, he just said, ‘Momma, I don’t know how. … I don’t know how to draw a boy.'”

Carol says she finally sat down and showed him. From then on, Bradley drew boys as directed. Male figures with anemic caps of hair on their heads filled the pages of his sketchbook.

Does this honestly seem like a description of male privilege? To me it sounds like torture. By virtue of their femininity, trans girls and feminine boys often grow up in a world of constant terror and violence. When you live in a world like this, the privileges that you might otherwise have been accorded by virtue of being male-assigned quickly become inaccessible to you. In other words, male privileges are revocable, and for a great many trans women, those privileges are revoked from the very beginning of our lives.

::: :::

I suppose I should say something about my own experiences. As I mentioned at the start of the post, my answer about my own life is “it’s complicated”. There are some forms of male privilege I was unequivocally accorded from the beginning, and I only started to lose them once I transitioned. One of the more obvious ones is that I was considered to be a suitable person to study technical subjects. I was never subjected to the “girls are bad at maths” stereotype, and it’s only post-transition that I’ve had to deal with men insulting my mathematical abilities. That is a form of male privilege, and one that I benefitted from considerably.

The right to bodily autonomy, on the other hand, is one that I never really had. While it is obviously true that all transgender people lose this privilege the moment we seek to transition – our lives and bodies being subject to the whims of legislators, doctors, and everyone who thinks they have some entitlement to know every detail about our genitalia – it is not always obvious to cis folks that trans women can lose our bodily autonomy before this point in time. In my case, one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with is that my “male” socialisation left me vulnerable to rape in a way that has a lot more in common with cis women than cis men. I don’t particularly want to talk about the details, but the short version is that the violent gender policing I endured when I was young left me unable to assert boundaries: to avoid violence, I would freeze any time I perceived a threat. I never fought back, never protested, I just… accepted whatever treatment I was given. So when I became sexually active, is it any surprise that one of my very first sexual experiences was coercive rape? To me that doesn’t seem a surprise at all: rather, it was an almost inevitable consequence of how I was socialised. In some respects, I would argue that I was more vulnerable to coercive rape than a cis woman might have been. At a bare minimum cis women are taught that rape is an actual threat, and they learn safety measures as a survival mechanism. I didn’t even see it coming: nothing in my life taught me to listen to my own fears, and the consequences of that were shattering.

::: :::

I started this post with a resigned conviction that nothing I write here will make a difference. This has all been a waste of time. It will change no minds. It will solve no problems. As I reach the end of the post, my feelings are unchanged. There is nothing I could have written here that will stop this frustrating debate from coming up again. It will cross my path again and again, because cisgender people have opinions about gender and they do not listen to transgender people when we try to speak. So if my goal in writing this had really been to speak to cisgender people, it would have been a completely pointless effort. However, I am long past the point of thinking that I write these pieces for the benefit of cisgender people. To my mind, cisgender people are a lost cause in that respect. They will do whatever they want, believe what they want. Instead, my real audience here is my past self and my trans sisters. I spent years trying to make sense of this question, and it was not worth it. Toni Morrison was right about racism: it functions as a distraction, it prevents people of colour from living their lives and there will always be more white nonsense to deal with. So it is with transmisogyny: there will always be another thing because inventing spurious moral panics about us is just what cisgender people do.

None of this is necessary. Don’t waste your time on this nonsense.

  1. This does not need to be a causal claim about the origins of transgender identities, incidentally. Everything I have to say in this essay would still be completely true even if the only reason why trans women are different from cis men prior transition is that we are conditioning on a collider. The only thing that is relevant is that trans women are, purely by virtue of being trans women, a highly unrepresentative subset of male-assigned people: this in itself is a reason for taking care in how one generalises from cisgender men to transgender women. ↩︎

  2. I have chosen to adhere to the same pronouns used in the NPR article simply because I have no idea whether Bradley later transitioned. For the purposes of this essay, it isn’t actually important, because the point I am trying to make is that the socialisation that both feminine boys and trans girls tend to receive is unremittingly violent and cruel, and is in no sense of the term “male privilege”. ↩︎