On the Loss of False Male Privilege

Guest post by Trinity Pixie

False Male Privilege is experienced by some trans women prior to transition. It only affects us externally, and only until our presentation changes.

Back in May, I traveled to Women in Secularism 2. It was far from my first time getting somewhere by greyhound bus, but it was my first time taking one while presenting distinctly feminine, as I generally opted to travel while presenting androgynously even after my transition. I arrived at the bus station early, only to find out it was running late, leaving me at the station for well over an hour and a half. I passed the time listening to music and texting, generally trying to ignore the world around me. A young man was sitting on the other side of the station on a laptop when I arrived, and he stayed for about half an hour before putting away his computer and getting up to leave. On his way out he stopped in front of me and started to talk to me. I looked up and took out one headphone, assuming he might be from out of town and asking for directions. Instead he asked me what kind of music I like, and what I was listening to, even asking me to show him some, indicating the earbuds I was using (gross…). Eventually he gave up and left, only to come back a minute later without his things to try again, asking me what concerts I had been to and other small talk before finally giving up again after too many single word answers.

The bus itself was fairly empty, and the ride uneventful apart from being late and nearly missing a connection. I arrived in DC, found my way down to the metro and started reading the machine to figure out how to buy myself a ticket that will get me to my friend’s house. Two men immediately came over, and started explaining the machine to me as if it were something I was incapable of figuring out, including asking such personal information as where I was going and why I was in town, stuff I didn’t think much of giving out at the time. The metro ride itself, to my friend’s house and then to the conference and back everyday, was constantly full of stares. One man, riding with what I assume were his wife and children, spent the entire thirty minutes we were on the train staring very intently at my thighs. Other times I’d occasionally catch whispers between groups of men about the “chick with red hair.”

Arriving back in Pennsylvania, my ride from the bus station to home fell through, and I wouldn’t have another one for about six hours. I decided to walk a couple miles to an area with some shops to pass time. While walking next to the road I noticed an unusual frequency of people honking their horns. For an area with such a small population, and so little traffic it wasn’t usual to hear it every couple minutes as I did. It finally struck me as a single car honked passing by, with no other cars or people in the area: it was all being directed at me. Why was more obvious when a man in a red convertible pulled over to offer me a ride, with an expectant “are you sure?” when I declined.

Not a single thing listed is something I had experienced while male-presenting, and none of it was pleasant. An even worse set of events happened just a couple weeks ago, walking by myself on my way home through a more populated city. I passed by a crowded bar with a few men outside smoking cigarettes. One of them looked at me, his eyes obviously going straight from my breasts to my butt. He said “Hey there, sweetheart” followed by something I couldn’t quite make out. As I got past him I muttered “I’m not your sweetheart” under my breath, quiet enough he likely didn’t hear. I got a few feet away and I heard him yell behind me “Hey! Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” I quickened my pace without turning around, and my hand instinctively rested on my knife.

As I got to the corner where I needed to cross, I heard two men coming up behind me laughing, both wearing tuxedos. They looked at me and said “Don’t worry, we’re not going to creep you out… well maybe we’ll creep you out a little” and one stepped towards me reaching his arm out. I backed up putting distance between me and him, and refused to blink until after they crossed. The traffic light cycled once more before I crossed, and made my way to my bike, thankful the rest of the way wasn’t as populated. Riding home, on the empty path I got one more comment, shouted anonymously from some home nearby. “Hey good looking, going for a bike ride?”

In the span of ten minutes, I was persistently harassed in a way I never experienced previous to transition, by people treating me as they would any other woman passing by. I never felt more terrified of the people I passed on the street previous to transition including when a man once pulled a switchblade and demanded my wallet while I was still in university. These people weren’t interested in my purse or my jewelry, they wanted my body, and that made me feel incredibly small.

All else being equal, the levels of harassment from strangers on the street I experienced before and after transition went from a single attempted mugging to nearly every man I pass staring, whispering, or shouting about my body, or even outright threatening me. To treat anyone this way is unacceptable even if it were just one incident, and the reality is far worse than any isolated encounter. The world is teaching me that it does not value my comfort or safety as a woman, and I have little choice but to listen.

Trinity Pixie is a member of the Secular Woman advisory board.

On the Loss of False Male Privilege

34 thoughts on “On the Loss of False Male Privilege

  1. 2

    Wow. This if giving me a rather sober view of my upcoming trip to New Orleans. Thank goodness I’ll have my own car for most of it, but not for random tourism.

    Why can’t society just be better? Blah.

  2. 3

    Most of these events are definitely sexual harassment, but some of them seem like they might be motivated by concern. Not to put too fine a point on it, you look very ill. Very seriously unhealthily ill.

  3. 4

    So it is okay to put someone into a position where they feel objectified, uncomfortable, and concerned for their safety- in short, a position pretty much identical to sexual harassment- if it’s because of a facet of how they appear? Can we just rewind on that one real quick.

    Nothing, especially someone’s appearance, justifies behavior such as what was addressed here. And implying so rings of ableism, victim blaming, and implies the erasure of the the writer’s right to not be put into situations such as these.

    1. 4.1

      Oh I did not mean to imply that it was appropriate or acceptable in any way. Just that some of it may have been motivated by concern, and when the author was percieved as a man, this happened less frequently, possibly due to perceptions of gender in society. But I am sorry that my comment appeared to support such actions.

        1. How best to put it politely? Some fraction of what the poster experienced may have been due to her having been perceived as ill or vulnerable by strangers, and due to the different ways in which society perceives men and women, they acted differently to seeing an apparently ill woman, than an apparently ill apparently male person. I apologize if this upset the poster, but I do not see how better to have phrased it.

  4. 5

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    There are many different ways male privilege can play a part (or not play a part) in the lives of trans women; I personally find it impossible to use a generalizing “we” when making statements about it. Some trans women have been able to express themselves since as young as four years old, and it’s hard to argue they’ve received any male privilege whatsoever.

    Then there are many who experience, as you say, the partial “external-only” privilege, but that privilege has along with it the extreme pain of not being able to live openly. It can be painful and isolating. Often times one has to put on a rigid act to avoid abuse, that drives some to suicide. In that sense it’s more of a cage than a privilege. One may gain benefits in a few cases, but take massive hits elsewhere.

    It’s generally acknowledged that even cis men are damaged by male privilege, but that is nothing compared to the experience many trans women face when forced to pretend they’re boys for survival. While men take a slight hit from the expectations of maleness but still come out with a net positive, the forecast isn’t so bright for many trans women. (Probably on account of, you know, not being men.)

    There are also trans women who change the gender they identify as, meaning they completely identified with maleness at one point but no longer do, and their experience with male privilege is different as well.

    There can be other complicating factors. My own history is one of objectification and sexual abuse, prior to transition, where my femaleness came out in ways that my abusers used to justify what they did. I didn’t even know the terminology for “trans” yet, but it was obvious I wasn’t a “normal boy”, and that was used against me to justify being sexualized and taken advantage of. I knew on some intuitive level that they were abusing me because of my gender, and I knew I wasn’t actually a boy, so I didn’t experience any of it through the lens of maleness or masculinity. I was being abused because I was a girl. While also being told I was “crazy” and a fraud for being a girl.

    That experience has haunted me ever since. I have not experienced a lot of the things others attribute to “male socialization”, even when it comes to the “external-only” variety. I was always on defense, always hiding my body to avoid being sexualized. After the abuse I went out of my way to force-masculinize myself, I experienced it as butching it up to protect myself, hiding my gender, and that strategy worked. I was consciously wearing a disguise.

    Treatment by others *did* change after I transitioned. But I wouldn’t describe it as “losing male privilege”, or even “false male privilege”. I was transitioning back to something I had previously been. I already knew I was female and that it made me a target, I already believed my opinions were worthless, the only difference was that the things I worried about started happening regularly again. It wasn’t a surprising adventure into new territory, it was a nightmare once confined to memories of abuse that spread into the rest of my life in the present.

    Most of us have histories that don’t fit neatly into the models of privilege that fill the mainstream dialog. I’m glad we can continue to have more and more nuanced discussions on how privilege or lack thereof affects us as individuals, instead of treating privilege as a simple on/off switch. The reality is a lot more complicated, and a lot more insightful.

    1. 5.1

      Thanks for commenting Amy. I didn’t mean to generalize the experience so much as give a definition of what I mean by “false male privilege” without spending three or five paragraphs on privilege nuances as it made the article too unfocused. I apologize for the mistake and have asked Zinnia to change it to be less universal.

  5. 6

    There is a sense that there is the line of ethics in a lot of men that could easily cross and fall into barbarism or jungle law if the “right” opportunity comes up. The disturbing thing is that while there was always a portion of the male populace that was like this the percentage of those that participate in bad behavior is on the rise. Morals, mores, ethics and the concept of being a gentleman is no longer valued. It is seen as stupid and old fashioned today on TV and in the news people are incapable of understanding what bad behavior is because it is celebrated in all sorts of TV programs, mistreating others is seen as a way to fortune in reality shows. Jerry Springer and Maurey Povitch shows equate bad behavior as fame as in you 15 minutes of fame. We have created a valued system that reverts back to what we have fought off for so long. We try to make human nature to be kind and protective of the weak. these are the sensibilities that we try to raise above. But the natural man is the animal man more comfortable with the lash to get what he wants than a sense of fairness, ethics or love of his fellow human being. Just about every place in the world is 1 to 2 incidents away from a riot and mob mentality. Children go through all of the schooling and yet turn out to be less ethical and more likely to do bad things to advance themselves than ever before in the last 100 plus years.

    1. 6.1

      I rather disagree. It seems that with modern media being more and more capable of showing us events as they happen, our society is one which cannot lie about its own morals. The past, especially when viewed through a lense of nostalgia may not have been so bright as we imagine it to be. More crimes are reported now, fewer can be concealed. I personally believe we have become, as a species more ethical, as demonstrated by such things as the universal declaration of human rights and a general acknowledgement that accountability in our leaders is a good thing (although this has been slipping of late). If anything, I believe that modern civilization is suffering more as a consequence of the hopelessness and cynicism caused by the world wars and the encroaching Bolshevism within our own societies. Where now are the Genghis Khans? Where now are the Cecil Rhodes? Where now are the men who vowed to impose their mighty ambitions upon the world? Where is the calling to empire and the will to power?

  6. 7

    Regarding harassment on Metro/public transit in general:

    I have a private theory about “borders” and vulnerability, where one person is totally safe within their proper borders, but totally vulnerable outside them. That is, when people are perceived by others to be “in-group” or “out-group”, and further, if “out-group”, whether they have any of their perceived group-members nearby that might offer solidarity. I see this all over from person-to-person relations to relations between ethnic groups within a country, or between two countries, or between diasporas and multiple countries. Someday I’d like to write a thesis about it, but ANYhow…

    When traveling as a woman, I can *tell*, right away, if I’m gonna have trouble with another person traveling the same way. Even so simple a trip as walking to the corner store, I know as soon as a see a man if he is going to say or do something to make me uncomfortable. (It is nearly always men. When I get hassled by women it is because they are on some substance and/or I’ve confronted them about something.) Now, when I am in the presence of my male partner, this rarely ever happens, to the point that he sometimes doubts my stories of men who harass me. Those *exact same men* will treat him or us cordially, but make remarks on the state of my vagina when I’m alone. Because I’m alone, and they don’t owe me any allegiance, because I am (to them) out-group and female. To some men, a woman without any obvious “protector” or group is fair game for sexual come-ons.

    I didn’t always have this sensibility. It took years of street harassment to develop this sense, and to know the “best” responses, based on the age and apparent sobriety of the man in question. I used to ignore Metro harassment, but then I started reading HollaBackDC’s website (now “Collective Action for Safe Spaces http://www.collectiveactiondc.org/ ) and posting my experiences. I began intervening if I saw an interaction between a man and a woman that didn’t look right. I even testified before the DC city council about sexual harassment on Metro, along with three other women. As a result of CASS’s lobbying, WMATA began a public campaign about harassment, how to report it, and set up a hotline. The few WMATA police officers have taken sexual harassers on Metro more seriously, and have caught several repeat offenders recently.

    I’m proud to be part of this change, but it is going to take cultural-level education to marginalize this behavior, and talking about it is an important first step. Posting my stories made me feel powerful and angry, rather than timid and victimized. Thank you for talking about your experiences and raising public awareness that much more.

      1. Lin

        Despite the sneering undertone I have to agree with the radfem. When you make the commitment to transition you make the commitment to taking on absolutely everything that comes with being accepted as a woman in our society. There is a period during which most of us will continue to present as legally male for a short time to avoid harassment, but the understanding is that once we no longer pass for male we stop.

        This should be a wake up call for every trans woman. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. This is what the loss of male privilege feels like. Zinnia felt uncomfortable being approached by chauvanist pigs who violated her personal space. She felt the discomfort of being ogled by men whose only objective was presumably to get into her pants because they knew she was alone and that made her vulnerable. She understood what it was like to have your intelligence and competence questioned merely because she was operating a machine, something a mere woman should be incapable of, right?

        That’s EVERYDAY reality for many many women. And its not something most get to opt out of. Sure, I know some women who dress and act in ways that are socially coded as masculine and are frequently read as young men and so for brief moments understand what it must be like to go through life as a man, unmolested and safe.

        But the point is that no woman should HAVE to. We should, all of us, be able to dress and act however we want and be able to live our lives without being constantly undermined, bothered and be treated like public property. This is a problem that men are responsible for and its one that they are going to have to fix. We can keep pointing it out, but until men start convincing other men to stop nothing is going to happen.

        The idea that a transitioned woman would voluntarily backpeddle on this for her own safety while other women cannot or will not isn’t fair if she wants to consider herself a part of the discourse on womens’ struggles. And the above poster was right, it doesn’t demonstrate a lot of solidarity with many of us, trans or otherwise.

        1. Since you aren’t the person I was responding to, I’m unsure if you are interpreting what they are saying correctly.

          One way to interpret what Audrey said – is that she thinks that trans women who present as women and are perceived as women are a threat to her. So, she would prefer if trans women did not present themselves as women. That would be in-line with quite a bit of TERF ideologies.

          The other way, is the way you seem to have interpreted it: that some trans women are able to present in a more masculine way than many cis women; but they should not do that, as it doesn’t show solidarity with other women.

          On what planet should women (in general) be shamed into putting themselves in harms way? If someone is traveling, and feels vulnerable, that person’s personal safety comes first.

          Some cis women present in a more masculine way when traveling (especially by bus) in order to curve harassment. Why in the world would it be somehow disallowed for a trans woman to do that same – especially when she may be at higher risk?

          1. One of my friends is a cis woman who presented as male as she could for three years (including binding) to avoid harassment. If someone had told her she needed to present as female just for solidarity’s sake, she’d have told that person to mind their own business.

  7. 10

    Thanks for an inspiring read. As a cis male I try not to be part of the problem (although I don’t think I can stop occasional unobtrusive/unnoticed glances at people in public).

    When my S.O. reports these kinds of things I’m always a bit at a loss what to say… so mainly I just listen and nod and say “what complete assholes” or something.

    1. 11.1

      Thank you for having the courage and integrity to say that, very few men have any idea what women deal with every single day. I once saw it described as being like a computer game, men go through on easy setting and never realise that’s what is happening. I’ve spent 40 years of adulthood going through what Trinity Pixie described. 40 years of having to work twice as hard as the men to get recognition of my abilities at work, of having leering men gazing at my tits while I am making a technical presentation. 40 years of being treated like an imbecile because I am female. Of being treated as nothing more than an object for the titillation of men. It never gets any easier.

  8. 12

    I’ve recently begun to experience this shift myself. I’ve been on HRT for a little over a year and I’ve been developing nicely for a 32-year old woman. But, still being in the Army, I have to maintain a male appearance with my hair. Between that and voice, I’d say about 2 out of 10 perceive me as a woman when I’m not trying. Yesterday I decided to wear one of my steampunk corsets to class, one of the first times I’ve gone out of my way to maximize my more feminine features. My commute was more daunting than usual.

    As soon as I got to the bus stop I noticed an older man eyeing me up and down. He never broke his stare while I waited the few minutes before the bus arrived, and then made a point of following after me onto the bus and sitting directly across the isle where he continually made blatant looks in my direction. I don’t carry any weapons, relying instead on my military training, but I felt I might want to re-think that decision.

    Once I arrived in town I continued my way, passing through the famous Pike Place Market. I did notice I was receiving many more obvious looks as I passed, but nothing too disconcerting. As I got closer to campus, I passed by a few construction workers. One of them spotted me and nudged his buddy to take a look too. They both stared as I passed until they got the light to cross the street as well.

    I’m used to getting a few odd glances, but this was actually intimidating. That’s something new to me.

  9. Ali

    Please maintain awareness of your escape routes and have a weapon if you are capable of using one.
    I have had creepy encounters turn into kidnapping attempts twice.
    I got out fine, but only the fact that I was clutching a weapon hidden in my bag discouraged the first attempt. I was on foot vs 4 men in a car. There was no one nearby either.
    The car drove by with the men doing the creepy stare first, then when my walking route took me to a quiet area, they returned.
    Most every woman I’ve asked has faced a kidnapping or rape attempt.
    The other issue you may face is the date rape drug. Maintain control of your drink and discard those in a bar that may have been tampered with.
    I wish you the best in your new life.

  10. 14

    Don’t know what’s happening, but maybe it’s a good thing. Opinions can be very different about this and we should respect eachother in our ideas. But some things just don’t have to go around the internet. That’s my opinion.

  11. 15

    […] As Zoe Kirk-Robinson points out in her reaction to CCP’s article, “Having a female body is not a mark of cisgender privilege. If it was, cis men would not be able to be cisgender.” CCP explains in detail how her “female body” is perceived by society and that it causes her to be treated poorly. She mentions later in her article that trans women experience much of that same treatment, but fails to make the connection. The bulk of what CCP describes is not cis privilege, but the lack of male privilege. […]

  12. 16

    Well welcome to being a woman, where creepy men you find scary and repulsive want to stick their penis in you, forcefully if they can get away with it, and generally disrupt your life.

    I don’t really know why anyone would want to be a woman with all the bullshit we are unwittingly subjected to on a regular basis, and the severe limitations on our freedom of movement, but I guess you feel how you feel.

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