Content warning: This essay contains discussions of mental health, mental illness, honor killings, murder, suicide, transphobia, misogyny, trans misogyny, biphobia, abusive relationships, sex selective abortions, oppression and privilege. That is the trigger warning. Leave now if you wish.
There was also the fact I was socialized as a boy from the outside.
If you want to anger trans women then there is no more certain way of doing that then saying something like ‘trans women are not women because they have male socialization’ or ‘trans women have male privilege’. There are good reasons why this angers a lot of trans women and trans feminine people. All too often it is used as an excuse for transphobia and transmisogyny. All too often it is used to deny trans women’s womanhood and place in women’s spaces. There is a long tradition of radical feminists such as Germane Greer, Mary Daly, and Janice Raymond[i] who have adopted this stance. Recently Chimamanda Adichie has been criticized for her comments on trans women.[ii] So, I’ve decided to try and unpack this whole idea of socialization and transgender women. Should be fun and might get some water boiling somewhere. My own personal experience of being a trans woman is that due to the context around my body and identity I had a limited circumstance based access to male privilege. However, that privilege came at a great cost all of its own. Other trans women and girls with different experiences may never have had or had less access to that privilege. Others may have greater access. But the bottom line is that trans women are not cisgender men and we never have the type of privilege cisgender men have.
To begin with let’s start with the obvious and ask what exactly is socialization. This is usually defined by how one learns and adheres to social and cultural norms.[iii] When one is speaking in terms of gender this typically means you have learned the social and cultural norms that are considered appropriate for men and women.[iv] Of course, this differs by what society or what culture you are in. In my last blog posts about trans issues I said I was socialized as a boy from the outside during childhood and teens but as with everything to do with trans people what that means isn’t simply or straight forward. For starters, that was simply how the outside world saw me, there were a lot of other things the world didn’t see that need to be considered as well. Also, that is my experience alone, many trans women transitioned much younger than I did.[v] Others transition much later.[vi]
Similarly, so transitioning is not as clear cut for many trans women. There are trans women who transitioned from being gender variant children who expressed femininity to adult women. These women such as Laverne Cox[vii] and Candis Cayne[viii] speak of being bullied and stigmatized for such a gender expression. Janet Mock has a complicated story of transitioning young and becoming who she is today[ix]. My experience is different to theirs as well. The first time I was read as female was when I was nineteen. My hair was long and I was wearing a women’s pants suit. But that was all it took. As I said in my last post on trans identity I am not very overtly feminine. Even now when I am perceived as female many people think I am butch or a lesbian. So here in lies the first problem with claiming trans women have this experience called ‘male socialization’-there are as many stories of trans women as there are trans women. For cis women it is no different, there are as many stories of cis women as there are cis women. In short there are as many stories of womanhood as there are women.
The argument of male socialization is a flawed one because it is a simplistic one. It does not bring nuance to the table. It does not capture all the different experiences trans women have. The second problem is that some argue that anyone who is perceived as male gains male socialization and therefore male privilege. One example of this is how assigned female foetuses are being aborted in certain parts of the world.[x] This argument however is also flawed. For starters if you want to argue that this effects only cisgender girls and women, then you are overlooking another group: trans men. Some of those ‘girls’ being aborted would have been trans men and boys but they had been assumed to be female. Because of that they were victims of sex selective abortions. Another problem is that some trans women are intersex[xi] and may also fall victims to sex selective abortions[xii] and intersex genital mutilations.[xiii] Also, the preference for male children does not stop once an infant is born. Transgender women and girls can be the victims of honour killing for failing to live up to being a boy or a man.[xiv] That is just one example of how the families of transgender women can kill us. Once again, this argument is overly simplistic and does not take into account all these different facets of the situation.
All of this is naturally pretty horrible. As a trans woman I have heard of, read about, and mate many transgender and intersex people with many of these stories. I believe that the crux of the problem with claiming trans women have unlimited and non-circumstantial male privilege before our transition, comes down to a misconception over one central concept: that privilege has to do with only how you are perceived. To show the problem with this let’s take some examples with other times members of marginalized groups have been perceived as members of a privileged group. For example, LGB people who are coercively or otherwise perceived as straight. I am bisexual. This is not something that is readily obvious about me just from talking to me. You may guess from my behaviour or from my appearance that I am not straight as has happened but you have no way to confirm that unless I told you. Now let’s say I was in a relationship with a man. I would be perceived as straight and no one would have to know otherwise. So, do I have access to straight privilege?
Well to answer that lets have a little look at some research of bisexual people in relationships perceived as heterosexual. In 2010 the CDC reported that bisexual women were more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence then both lesbians and heterosexual women.[xv] The vast majority of these bisexual women have been abused by a male partner.[xvi] Meanwhile bisexual men were more likely to experience intimate partner violence then gay or heterosexual men.[xvii] Most bisexual men identified only female partners as their perpetrator.[xviii] These people were in what were perceived as straight relationships yet were more likely to be abused then their monosexual counterparts. Including monosexuals in same sex relationships. Yes, those in different sex relationships clearly have some privileges those in same sex relationships do not. They can get married anywhere in the world and can openly express affection in public without fear of homophobic backlash. But as this research shows it is far too simplistic to say that removes all oppression, stigma, and inequality bi+ people face. It does a disservice to bi+ people to say that once we are perceived as straight we are no longer part of a group that deals with inequality and oppression.
Not convinced fine then let’s look at other studies of bisexual people. Bisexual people are at greater risk to be homeless, unemployed, and live in poverty then gays, lesbians, or heterosexuals. [xix] We are at higher risk for depression, mental illness, and suicide.[xx] Have a look at research such as the bisexual invisibility report which contains many stories that demonstrates bisexual people in many different types of relationships face these struggles. Of particular interest is the story of bisexual man who was accepted when he came out as gay but once he started dating women was stigmatized and ostracized.[xxi] This is not even taking into account again the concept of intersectionality. The experiences of oppression and inequality are altered by thing such as gender, race and that is just two examples. I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. Being perceived as a heterosexual when you are not one does not does not remove inequality and oppression from your life. If anything, it makes things more complicated.
If you still think that that privilege has to do with only how you are perceived then fine let’s take another group of people who are not easily identified as being members of marginalized demographic. Let’s take people who have mental illnesses. People with a mental illness are by very definition an invisible demographic. Also, I feel it is important to mention here that I myself have a diagnosis of depression and been told I have traits of borderline personality disorder. Yes, by doctors and mental health professionals before we get started. Because you cannot tell this just be looking at me does that mean any inequality and oppression relating to my mental health disappear? Of course not. Let’s have a look again at some research on the matter. Only one in four people with a long term mental illness are employed.[xxii] Mental illness is far more common among those who are homeless.[xxiii] Homeless mentally ill people are also less likely to receive the help and support they need. Just because being mentally ill is not a visible factor does not mean it is not a factor at all. Just because you can’t immediately see something does not mean all the inequality and oppression it brings vanishes.
I could go on with so many more examples such as POC that are perceived as white, people with neurological disabilities and gays & lesbians who are perceived as straight. But I think I have made my point. Privilege, oppression, and inequality are not simply about how you are perceived. They are also about things such as internalization, mental health, and access to resources. All things that are not always visible with the naked eye. With all of this in mind let’s get back to the topic at hand: Do transgender women have male privilege? When a trans woman has transitioned it is clear that any access to male privilege she may have had is gone. So, what about before her transition? Well let’s have little look at some research of the lives of transgender women before transitioning. Transgender people as a whole before transitioning experience higher levels of depression and anxiety in comparison to their post transition counterparts.[xxiv] This is true across all ages from children to teen to adults. The trans population as a whole deal with far mental health issues then the cisgender population.[xxv] The idea that privilege has to do with only how you are perceived I think I have demonstrated is clearly false. It is so much more than that. What people need to understand is that being perceived to be of privileged group when you experience oppression and inequality is in fact a two-way sword. I have been both visible and invisible at different times and with my different identities. Whether you are perceived as a member of a marginalized group or a privileged one does not change the fact you experience oppression. Rather it changes how you experience it.
Yes, cisgender women have spent their whole lives (maybe even before being born) being perceived as girls and women. With that comes the oppression misogyny brings. I am not denying that. However, what I am arguing is that being perceived as a member of a privileged group (in this case male) when you’re not (as is the case for transgender women) does not simply remove all the oppression trans women as women face. It changes how you experience it. That change may bring some benefits but it also brings some pretty big drawbacks of its own. As a pre-transition trans girl my depression and anxiety nearly killed me. But the first time I was ever catcalled or street harassed was after I had begun to be perceived as female. At the same though my mind began to function because I then had access to the treatment I needed. However, what this conversation almost always centres on whether trans women have male privilege what is often left out is that cisgender women benefit hugely from cis privilege.[xxvi] To give an example when I tried to start hrt to relieve myself of gender dysphoria it was an uphill battle of me vs my family, doctors, and society in general. On the other hand, when my mother and aunt needed hrt, there was no fuss and no fighting. It was between them and their doctors and easy done. Cisgender women have better mental health, employment and their womanhood is not in question. Recognizing that cis women have a form of privilege from being cisgender does not detract from either their womanhood nor their oppression.
Let’s look again at my own statement about being socialized as a boy, while yes, the outside world did it’s best to make a boy and later a man of me it clearly failed. As a girl, I learned toxic ideas about womanhood as well- that I could not be a woman because I didn’t behave like one (whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean). The uphill fight for the treatment I needed. My mental and by extension physical wellbeing was poor. All of these means that yes, I did experience oppression before my transition simply in a different way to how I experience it now post transition. Also, it is different the oppression of cis women but that does not make it any less real. But at the same time, it brought me certain things cis women have never had such as being able to avoid sexual harassment. So, did I benefit from male privilege? I believe that in some ways yes. But in other ways no. My privilege was limited by the context that was around it and oppression was there as well.
Let’s examine this further and have a look at some other trans women and their stories. What happens when transgender people are denied access to transition related healthcare? What happens if trans women and girls never transition do they have the privilege cisgender men and boys have? For an answer we need look no further than the sad story of Leelah Alcorn who after being denied transition related treatment died by suicide. Leelah never got to transition, she lived her entire life coercively perceived as a boy and in the end, that is what killed her. She is just one story there are many others that also have a sad ending. You may say that Leelah’s death has to do with transphobia and her being trans not with misogyny and her being a girl. However, you would be wrong. Let’s have a little look at her suicide note shall we. Leelah said the following ‘The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life…. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound…. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy.’[xxvii]
Leelah was terrified of not being perceived as a cisgender woman. She was convinced that if she failed to live up to what society deems as a woman-cisgender or at least appearing to be cisgender she would never be able to love herself. Or find someone to love her. Thus, we see the problem with claiming trans girls like Leelah have the privilege a cisgender boy does. It acts as if her socialization as a sex she was not, her internalization of cis-centric female social standards and her lack of access to her needed medical treatment were the experiences of a cisgender boy who wanted to switch genders. They were not. They were the experiences of a transgender girl who was killed by society’s transphobia and misogyny (this is what we call transmisogyny kids). Saying that Leelah Alcorn benefited from male privilege because she was perceived as a boy does a disservice to her, other trans girls and women like her. Just because she was perceived in that way does not mean that the forces of oppression and inequality vanished. In fact, it was those very things that killed her.
You might be thinking about trans women who were ‘successful men’ before transition such as Caitlyn Jenner, the Wacholisiki sisters and Martine Rothblatt. But once again we need to look at the context around these women. They are all white, adults, transitioned in adulthood and very wealthy. Caitlyn Jenner is probably the most well-known of these three examples. Jenner came out late in life after being an athletic sports champion, a husband, and a father. However, that privilege didn’t exist by itself. Even now post transition Jenner retains her wealth, her whiteness, and her conservative politics. She has gone from being an old fashioned American Patriarch to an old fashioned American Matriarch. Which means there is a lot of privilege she has not lost. It is those other privileges that allow her to remain safe, secure, and content. Even when trans girls like Leelah Alcorn are taking their own lives and trans women of colour are being murdered.
Jenner does not understand these things as can be seen for her continued support for Donald Trump. Because she is privileged in so many other ways she does not understand that things are different for her now as a transgender woman. Well, you might be thinking what about her life before transition? It is clear Jenner did benefit in some pretty huge ways by being coercively perceived as a man. She was an Olympic athlete. This brought her fame and money. But it also must be remembered that part of the reason she was able to compete was not just being seen as a man but a white heterosexual masculine man from a middle-class background. If she had been a person of colour like Laverne Cox would Jenner have gotten so far? If Jenner had been seen as a feminine gay man like Candis Cayne before her transition had been would Jenner have gotten so far? Also, Jenner was not really a heterosexual masculine man, even though she was perceived as that. What did being perceived as a man when she was not, cost her?
Jenner herself gives us a lot of insight into this. She states that her pre-transition self always had a secret, a burden. In many of her interviews she talks about hiding and disappearing before her transition. She first attempted to transition in the 1980s only to go back to living as male.[xxviii] She talks about contemplating suicide due to the struggles of having surgery and the press.[xxix] None is meant to take away from the problematic things she has said nor to try and dismiss the privileges she has. Rather it is to point out that while yes, she did benefit hugely from being perceived as male it also brought her challenges of her own. With her other privileges, her access to male privilege was greater than people like Cox, Candis and Alcorn but she still did not gain the whole of male privilege the cisgender man enjoys. It must also be remembered she is one trans woman with an uncommon story at that. The story of trans women and girls who are murdered by our society are far more common – especially if they are women and girls of colour. From looking at the context around Caitlyn Jenner and her privilege a more nuanced perspective can be gained.
Chimamanda Adichie comments were poorly worded and simplistic. That being said I do not believe she is transphobic. I think it is more likely her comments were well intended even though she is wrong. One of my friends at the time said that while she may be ignorant being trans is not something very well understood. Maybe not but that only makes it understandable not acceptable. Chimamanda Adichie got so much backlash because I believe because of this statement ‘if you’re born a man with all the privilege that entails’. But here is the problem trans women are not men even when we are perceived as such. We never have all the privilege cisgender men have even when we are perceived as male. Because of the context that exists around our bodies and identities we only ever have limited, circumstance access to male privilege at best. That access is lost once we are perceived as female. But if that limited access has to be acknowledged so too does the challenges of pre-transition trans people and the privilege cis women have simply for being cisgender.
While it is important to acknowledge how transgender and cisgender women are different but it is also important not to lose sight of the things we have in common. We are all women trying to make our way in the world. I will leave a few links to people who have written about what trans women and cis women have in common instead of how we are different. I think looking at what we have in common is just as important as acknowledging our differences. If we’re going to make the world a better place for all women I think that is a good place to start.
Why Trans Women Belong in the Fight for Abortion Rights by Diana Tourjee
Trans Feminism: There’s No Conundrum About It by Julia Serano
The Trans Feminist Manifesto by Emi Koyama
I will also be focusing more so on what cisgender and transgender women have in common in a future post from here. Now that I’ve tackled difference I’ll be looking at what we have in common.
Note: I hope you enjoyed reading this and my other posts. I started this blog so I could publish my own work because chances to get your work published are usually far and in between. Because I’m doing this on my own I don’t have anyone advertising this. So, if you are enjoying my writing please share my blog posts with people who you think will also enjoy them. It would mean a lot to me. If you enjoy my work please subscribe for more. A big thank you to anyone who does this and to people who have already been reading. It means a lot to me.
[i] Bettcher, Talia, “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/feminism-trans/ >.
[ii] Channel 4 ‘Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Interview’ ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KP1C7VXUfZQ ).
[iii] Bicchieri, Cristina and Muldoon, Ryan, “Social Norms”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/social-norms/ >.
[iv] Mikkola, Mari, “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/feminism-gender/ >.
[v]McGuire Peter “Ireland’s transgender children” The Irish Times ( https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/ireland-s-transgender-children-1.2171777 )
[vi] Stevens, Grace Anne “My Transgender Life — Transitioning at Age 64” The Huffington Post( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grace-anne-stevens/my-transgender-life-transitioning-at-age-64_b_6615476.html )
[vii] L/Studio created by Lexus “It Got Better Featuring Laverne Cox”
( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MfxtM9N3fw )
[viii]L/Studio created by Lexus “It Got Better Featuring Candis Cayne”
( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ9aMvRBQXY )
[ix] L/Studio created by Lexus “It Got Better Featuring Janet Mock”
( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iedimNVkIXM )
[x] Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopaedia “Sex-selective abortion”
[xi] A. S. “Identity Theft: A Trans* Intersex Woman on Traumas and Surgery”
[xii] Zwischengeschlecht.org “Selective Intersex Abortions: XXY 74%, Indeterminate Sex 47%, Hypospadias 2%” (http://stop.genitalmutilation.org/post/Selective-Intersex-Abortions-Hypospadias-Intersex-XXY)
[xiii] A. S. “Identity Theft: A Trans* Intersex Woman on Traumas and Surgery”
[xiv] While Honour killings are usually talked about in terms of women being killed for things such as marrying someone their family disapproved of, honour killings of trans feminine people have also been documented as have honour killings of LGB+ people. This is in particular a problem in countries such as turkey. For more information see here the following links to these pdfs and articles
[xv] The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation p. 26 (https://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_SOfindings.pdf)
[xvi]The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation pp. 26-27 (https://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_SOfindings.pdf)
[xvii]The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation p. 27 (https://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_SOfindings.pdf)
[xviii]The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation p.27 (https://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_SOfindings.pdf)
[xix]Understanding the Issues facing bisexual Americans pp.2-3
[xx] Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations p.14
[xxi] Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations p.4
[xxii] Pasha-Robinson, Lucy ‘Three quarters of people with long-term mental illness are unemployed, report finds’ The Independent
[xxiii]O’Keeffe, Alan ‘Homeless people suffering with mental illness ‘do not get adequate support’, new report’ The Irish Independent
[xxiv]Ford, Zack ‘Allowing Transgender Youth To Transition Improves Their Mental Health, Study Finds’ Think Progress
[xxv]The William Institute ‘Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults’ Ann P. Haas, Ph.D. and Philip L. Rodgers, Ph.D., American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Jody L. Herman, Ph.D. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law January 2014. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/AFSP-Williams-Suicide-Report-Final.pdf
[xxvii] For Leelah Alcorn’s full suicide note please follow this link to the catholic trans word press blog https://catholictrans.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/leelah-alcorns-suicide-note-full-text/
[xxviii] Corinthios Audrey ‘Caitlyn Jenner on the ‘Dark Days’ Surrounding Her First Attempt to Transition: ‘I Was Very Honest with Kris’ People TV Watch http://people.com/tv/caitlyn-jenner-talks-first-attempt-to-transition-in-the-1980s/
[xxix] Iteale Leanne ‘Caitlyn Jenner talks of suicide, secrets in new book’ The Detroit News http://www.detroitnews.com/story/entertainment/books/2017/04/26/caitlyn-jenner-talks-suicide-secrets-new-book/100951442/