Don’t Call It Privilege: The Tangled Mess of Pre-Transition Passing

I told myself I wouldn’t write this. I told myself this was a conversation that, quite frankly, no one outside the transgender and especially transfeminine community has any business in having. I told myself that indulging this topic at all is dangerous in a world where the idea that men and trans women have anything socially in common gets people killed. Yet here we are.

There is a widespread public misperception that trans women are people who were once boys or men and, at some discrete moment, “became” girls or women. This transformation hinges on any of various aspects of transition, from the moment of recognizing one’s true gender to the moment when one is no longer pretending at the old one to the moment after bottom surgery, depending on the ignorance of the person using this idea, but the core conceit remains. In this view, we were once male in every sense that matters, and during that time, these people imagined, we enjoyed all of the fruits of maleness.

It will surprise no one passably versed in trans issues that this is a blatant falsehood that owes more to TERF talking points than it does to any real engagement with the reality of being a transgender woman.

First things first:

I am a woman. My experiences were women’s experiences. My childhood experiences were girlhood experiences. Experiences like mine are part of the grand tapestry of what a woman’s and a girl’s experiences can look like, because I’m a woman and I had those experiences. To dispute this is to dispute my womanhood. Period.

More precisely, I was a girl that people thought was a boy, and grew into a woman that people thought was a man, and that is an altogether different thing from actually being what people thought I was. I spent more than two decades in continual dissociation and depersonalization, barely able to have a self-concept at all and with the person in the mirror being, always, a stranger. I took in feminine norms without even noticing and made my body language small, demure, polite, and gentle. I faced my own masculine clothing with bored disinterest while having a studied eye for women’s clothes and accessories, for which I faced a bewildering mix of approval (“what a catch!”) and derision (“is [deadname] gay?”) I found the company of men slightly alarming even when everything else lined up behind my safety and interests, and faced explicitly male spaces with terror I learned early to keep hidden. I made much stronger and more natural friendships with women, filled with emotional intimacy, but these came with a hint of unnatural fear as well, as the cis women in them did not understand why it felt so normal.

None of this was rewarded. I was far, far too womanly to reap the rewards of this falsely-ascribed manhood. I faced parents who thought me unacceptably soft, peers who were fundamentally unrelatable, romantic prospects who could tell I wasn’t as I appeared to be, and a mind in aimless revolt against its own broken chemistry. My culture found me alien and barely recognizable, let alone acceptable. I looked for caring and found cruelty. I was lucky, though, in that I was not brutalized for my transgressions against the proper bounds of masculinity, unlike so many of my fellow trans women. Existing in public in a dissociated, emotionally withdrawn haze made me an oblivious, boring target.

The thing is, I also benefited from not being viewed as a woman by strangers and authorities. In addition to the thoroughly sex-negative message I absorbed from society at large and from the talks my parents had with my sister, they directed at me a different, equally misogynistic message: “Use a condom. Don’t get a girl pregnant and throw your life away.” Even as I received and accepted society’s broader message about women being in constant danger if alone at night, around alcohol, or in male-heavy spaces, they were not (usually) repeated into my face or cited as reasons to keep me from having a social life, the way they were for my sister. If my teachers and professors were privately steering female students away from science and math courses and fields, they made no such effort with me, and instead offered recommendation letters. For all that I received plenty of derision as an avowedly nerdy child who grew into a nerdy adult, I did not receive the additional, often sexualized abuse that visits nerdy girls and women. My sexual and romantic drives being firmly gynophilic raised no alarms when people thought I was male, and were instead doubted in proportion to my effeminacy, whereas my female partners now immediately render my queerness public. Where the only part of me a person had as a basis for pinning me to demographics was my name, I could be targeted for my race but provided no hint of my actual femaleness.

All of these are advantages I had, or disadvantages I avoided, in my certain yet unwitting masquerade. All of them were received, not because I was a member of a privileged demographic, but because my true identity was being denied. I had no sense that being transgender was even possible for much of the time that I spent trying to make unwanted and incomprehensible maleness work for me, and the people around me strove to keep it that way. Offering these perks to closeted trans women is part of a society-wide effort to keep us from recognizing ourselves and finding each other, the flip side of making sure that media depicting us as people and depicting transition realistically were impossibly hard to find until recently. I did not give them maleness to read as a basis for how to treat me; they imposed that reading upon me, and every iota of what I received that my cis-female friends, colleagues, and fellow society members did not stung in a way I only recently gained the language to describe.

All of those advantages are things I would have lost if I wasn’t constantly accepting lies about myself. Every one of those perks was conditional, and the condition was they cannot find out about you, and the chance that my false masculinity would be enforced with anti-queer violence shadowed every hint of my true self. My escape from their gaslighting came at the cost of my oldest friends, the remaining respect of much of my family, an enormous sum of money spent on medicine and clothing, and more, costs that would not have been mine to bear if I were the kind of person who has male privilege.

It’s not privilege if you have to lie to get it.

It is not a privilege if receiving it is contingent on erasing a piece of oneself. It is not a privilege to hide, it is even less of one to have to hide, and the benefits secured from an effective deception are in no way equivalent to the thoughtless ease and social fixity of actual privilege. To have privilege is to not live in continuous terror of losing it.

For this reason, framing what pre-transition trans women experience as “privilege” is profoundly inaccurate and inimical to our long-term safety. To imagine that I enjoyed anywhere near the fullness of the unearned ease that follows cis men, and thereby exceeded the privilege of women who did not endure what I did, is to declare that those benefits were not conditional. And the only people who get the benefits of male privilege without the conditions I faced are men.

“Privilege” is an inadequate term for the ways that potentially-hidden minorities maneuver in our world. The ideas embedded in the concept of privilege do not fit here, they do not make sense, and they invite views of transfeminine experiences that, to be frank, misgender us. Those who insist on the vocabulary of privilege here can console themselves with the truer phrase “conditional privilege,” and remember that unlike actual privilege, it can be revoked.

The rest of us have better terms:

Gaslighting. Alienation. Emotional abuse. Confusion. Sadness. Erasure.

Don’t Call It Privilege: The Tangled Mess of Pre-Transition Passing

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