This isn't the first time I have brought this up, but it bears repeating because of some recent conversations I had with fellow women's college alumna (all different women's colleges, including myself), and even my mother! When discussing how trans women engage in feminism due to their own experiences with sexism/misogyny, it probably isn't the best idea to remind them, "Well, I mean, you're transitioning at age X, so you have X number of years of male privilege."
Stop right there. While there are trans women who do not acknowledge male privilege, trans women actively engaged in feminist discussions with other feminists are unlikely to be in this category. These are women who at one time had male privilege or may still, sometimes, be given male privilege. They are well aware of its existence. It grinds on them even when it gives them advantages. But here's where you start to lose us, cisgender feminists. The moment you imply or explicitly state what male privilege we may have is equivalent to cisgender men's male privilege.
Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
It seems to be a common mistake (and logic fail) that just because society initially identifies us as "men" in many contacts in, at least, the early part of our lives, that we gain all the advantages from male privilege. We don't. And this is because what society initially identifies us as and what it initially affords us is always in danger of being revoked; and, frankly, it often is.
How Can Male Privilege Be "Provisional"?
Excellent question. Unlike my much more generic Trans Women, Male Privilege, Socialisation, and Feminism, with this post, I'm going to describe my own experiences in order to demonstrate why confusing my male privilege with the male privilege of a cisgender man is deeply problematic. First let's consider the definition of "provisional:"
adjective Also, pro·vi·sion·ar·y [pruh-vizh-uh-ner-ee] , (for defs 1, 2).1.providing or serving for the time being only; existing only until permanently or properly replaced;temporary: a provisional government.2. accepted or adopted tentatively; conditional; probationary.
I have a lot of privilege, and most of it is not related to me being assigned male at birth. I grew up in an upper middle class family. I am white. My mother and my stepfather have post graduate degrees. Education, travel, music, art, and especially literature were prominent in my childhood and adolescence. But they were still very socially empty and, indeed, violent periods in my life. The provisional nature of my "male privilege" is at the heart of these experiences.
From a very young age, first grade or so, until high school, I had no friends. None. Not a one. In pre-school and kindergarten, I was, unsurprisingly, homosocial, and my best friends in both years were girls. But, something changed in first grade; no girls wanted to play with me anymore. After all, I was a boy, and boys had cooties, or whatever we were saying in 1989-90. Even if I was overtly interested in the same things as they were. Female companionship, which I had sought out (according to my mother) from about the age of 3 forward, was no longer made available to me. But that wasn't the worst part.
Because the boys didn't want anything to do with me either. Unless, of course, they were making fun of me or beating me up. This would become a pattern for the next eight years of my education, and even into high school even though I had friends. If I was caught off guard while alone, the situation could be particularly bad. I can describe a litany of terrible experiences, from the time I was cornered and repeatedly pelted with basketballs, to the time I was picked up and dropped on my chin on hard tile hallways—I still have the scar from that one. And it didn't stop even after graduating, because I found the same damn shit in the Navy.
And if you think it was just the children, then let me remind you, until high school, I attended Roman Catholic private schools. It wasn't just the children. There were microaggressions from teachers and administrators as well. I often hear the complaint, "but you didn't experience the way teachers treat girls!" No, I didn't, but I certainly have no idea what it's like to be treated as a boy either. Because in all of these cases, what privileges I was given for being a boy were revoked as soon as I did something "girly." Given the strength of my gender identity, I could not help but lose these privileges almost immediately. My choice to wear pink shoes to school. My choice to take ballet (which to this day, I do not regret, as I eventually became a figure skater, and I still skate).
Myriads of small, individualised rebellions which afforded me a personalised sense of identity but assured I had no friendships and the only times I was paid any attention was to attempt, at least, to enforce gender compliance upon me. Yeah, that really worked out great. Frankly the general consensus was; if little Kyosuke said nothing at all, that was preferable to whatever would normally come out of "his" mouth. And so it was a good thing I had all of those other privileges at home, the art, and the music, the literature, and the trip to Paris when I was 12. My life stopped from 8am to 4PM, Monday through Friday. I only "lived" on my own time.
College was a constant struggle between the obviousness of my gender rebellion and the tight restrictions put upon me as a midshipman. Eventually it became too much for me, and too hard to constantly defend my appearance and behavior outside of my times of duty or my naval science courses. My interest in even attempting to balance what I could in all honesty never balance died after that experience.
I have never had a professional job were it wasn't the case that at least some coworkers knew I was trans. Most of my work experience has included partial or total disclosure. I've never had a retail job where I was not a woman. As a teacher in the Japanese school system, I skirt the fine line between polite fiction and the reality everyone knows (and is completely known and my active identity outside of the school walls). And my students are not stupid, either. They know what's up. But they're also dutiful Japanese, and so we play the game, at least until everything is changed over. My documents change this month, so whatever institutionalised male privilege I have within the bureaucracies of Japan and America, that, too, will be gone.
So, please, for the love of all that is good and right, don't confuse the male privilege I have had in my life for the male privilege of a cisgender man. And try to presume that some of my narrative, even if perhaps not all, applies to other trans women feminists you may encounter. That way, we can attack the issue of male privilege together, and not be divided by a hurtful misunderstanding of our shared lived experiences as not-men in a patriarchal society.