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Imagine the following scenario: You’re talking with a cisgender gay acquaintance, and they start opening up about their past. They share an anecdote that begins, “Well, back when I was still in the closet . . .” and you immediately interrupt them by saying: “Don’t you mean back when you were enjoying heterosexual privilege?”
How do you think your acquaintance might react to that? They’d probably find your comment to be crass and dismissive, wouldn’t they? And it wouldn’t be because they doubt heterosexual privilege exists, but rather because this singularly focused framing erases the complex reality of what “being closeted” entails. For many of us, our closeted years are some of our most difficult — if not the most difficult. They tend to be times of secrecy: pretending to be “normal” and suppressing our true selves for fear of the stigma and ostracization we’d likely experience if we “came out.” Being in the closet is typically an isolating and traumatic period, during which we may be exposed to and internalize all sorts of queerphobic sentiments, often resulting in feelings of shame and self-loathing that may take us years to eventually overcome.
In response to your comment, your cis gay friend would likely retort: “I wasn’t ‘enjoying’ heterosexual privilege. Going along with other people’s presumption that I must be straight was simply what I had to do in order to survive. And you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to that!”
While most of us would be inclined to side with the cis gay person’s perspective on this, many trans people — especially those of us who were assigned male at birth (AMAB) — find that we are denied the closet. Instead of garnering expressions of sympathy and understanding for that period of our lives, we are often mischaracterized as having “had it easy” during our pre-transition years, with some imagining that we must have been “basking” or “reveling” in “male privilege” all along the way.
In this essay, I will highlight three biases that contribute to this disparity.
A general disbelief in trans realities.
When an acquaintance comes out to us as gay, most of us tend to interpret that coming out in accordance with the person-in-question’s perspective. That is to say, we accept their personal truth and lived reality (that they are gay), and we discard any previous preconceptions we may have harbored (such as mistakenly assuming that they were heterosexual).
Unfortunately, coming out as trans is often viewed differently in many people’s eyes. As someone who is typically assumed to be a cisgender woman, when I come out as trans, what I’m trying to convey is that, while I am indeed a woman, I’ve had a transgender experience — that is, my gender isn’t aligned with the gender I was assigned at birth, which led to a slew of obstacles and invalidations while growing up. In contrast, perceivers will often misinterpret my coming out as a “revelation” that I “am really” or “used to be” male. This latter conceptualization completely contradicts my personal truth and lived reality.
So why does this discrepancy between gay and trans coming outs exist? Well, some of it likely has to do with gender essentialism, which I discuss a bit more in that link. But another way to frame what’s happening is via what I call (in my forthcoming book) delusional fakeness: when perceivers who are ignorant of, or in denial about, a particular LGBTQIA+ identity conceptualize such individuals as otherwise “normal” people (typically straight, although sometimes gay) who are pretending to be something they are not.
Delusional fakeness is the mindset that leads people to mischaracterize trans women like myself as “really men” who are “pretending to be women.” It’s also what leads people to mischaracterize bisexual individuals as “really gay men” who are in denial, or as “really heterosexual women” who are merely experimenting or seeking attention. And so on.
While exclusively gay and lesbian people are not immune to the delusional fakeness trope (e.g., some people might claim that their sexual orientation is “merely a phase” or the result of them “seeking out an alternative lifestyle”), most people nowadays view same-sex attraction as a real phenomenon. Thus, gay people’s identities are taken at face value — they’re viewed as “really gay,” even in cases where the perceiver may hold negative views of gayness itself.
If you find yourself bothered by claims or insinuations that gay people are “really straight” but merely “seeking out an alternative lifestyle,” but are not so bothered by claims or insinuations that trans women are “really men” and trans men are “really women,” then I’d entreat you to ask yourself why that is. Is it because you view gayness as inherently “real” and transness as “fake”? On what grounds do you pick and choose which LGBTQIA+ personal truths and lived realities “count” and which do not?
Non-intersectional uses (and abuses) of the concept of “privilege”
What if I were to tell you a story of a young cis girl whose parents raised her as a boy against her will. And, after many grueling years of pretending to be male in order to survive, she finally reclaimed her female identity upon reaching adulthood. How might that story make you feel? You’d likely feel fear and sympathy on her behalf, wouldn’t you? The mental image of her having to navigate misogynistic male-only settings, and living with the constant threat of what might happen if she were accidentally “found out” for who she really is, would likely seem horrifying to you, wouldn’t it?
That’s how my childhood felt to me. I often describe it in terms of me being forced against my will into boyhood; many other trans women and trans femmes have shared similar accounts. It was fucking awful. Traumatic. Despite all the misogyny and transphobia I’ve experienced since coming out as a trans woman, those closeted “pretending to be a straight boy” days were far far worse. To borrow from my opening anecdote: You couldn’t pay me enough to go back to that.
But from the perspective of someone who denies or discounts my identity and lived reality (as per delusional fakeness), they may view me as having been “really a boy” who was “basking in male privilege” the whole time. However, if male privilege truly did play a central role in shaping my life, or is supposedly an inextricable facet of my being, then why on earth was I (and the countless other trans female/feminine people who ultimately come out) so willing to part with it? Indeed, doesn’t my transition to female and the fact that I am far happier now suggest that, while male privilege is certainly real, it pales in comparison to cisgender privilege?
Come to think of it, why are we even talking about “privilege” in the first place?
The concept of privilege functions best as a tool to help people in the dominant/majority group see otherwise invisible advantages that they may be experiencing as a result of *not* being a member of a marginalized/minority group. In other words, a heterosexual person might not be fully aware of the many ways in which they can take their sexual orientation for granted (e.g., not having to explain it to anyone, or face discrimination for it, or manage other people’s misconceptions about it) as a result of heterosexual privilege. Or someone who has only ever moved through the world as male might be unaware of the advantages that they have in being taken more seriously, or not being routinely sexualized, and so forth, as a result of male privilege.
Arguably, no one is more aware of what male privilege actually entails than trans women and trans femmes. After all, many of us have firsthand experiences of losing that privilege upon coming out as trans, as people stopped taking us seriously and began overtly sexualizing us upon perceiving us as female and/or transgender. In both my first book Whipping Girl and my forthcoming book Sexed Up, I share many anecdotes of how differently (and inferiorly) I was treated after my transition. So why the fuck are people raising the issue of “male privilege” with me?
People who employ the “male privilege” gambit against trans female/feminine people are clearly not using “privilege” as a teaching tool. Rather, they are wielding it as a weapon. In short, they are playing a game of “Oppression Olympics,” portraying themselves as uniquely or supremely marginalized, while painting those whom they dislike or disagree with as “oppressors” who are supposedly responsible for inflicting said marginalization upon them. Despite its popularity, Oppression Olympics is not activism; it is merely an attempt to establish or reinforce new hierarchies — I discuss this at length in my second book Excluded.
It must also be said that wielding “male privilege” in this manner is a classic TERF move. I am not one to throw the term “TERF” around willy-nilly — in fact, I wrote an entire article about why we should refrain from doing this. But what I am saying is that this rhetorical maneuver — painting trans female/feminine people as entitled “men” who merely “appropriate” femaleness and femininity, and pose potential threats to “real women” — has long been a central strategy of trans-exclusionary feminism. So I find it astounding that some people who (at least nominally) consider themselves to be pro-trans cannot recognize this blatant tactic for what it is.
Another hallmark of TERFism is its denial of intersectionality. From a TERF perspective, men are the oppressors and women the oppressed, end of story. Of course, this ignores many other axes of privilege (e.g., white privilege, middle/upper-class privilege, able-bodied privilege), some of which also impact gender and sexuality (e.g., heterosexual privilege, monosexual privilege, masculine privilege, and of course, cisgender privilege). Any conversation about male privilege that fails to account for these many other forms of privilege is non-intersectional, and therefore bullshit (as the saying goes).
Not all trans women experience male privilege, as some socially transition at a very early age. But even those of us who were forced into “boyhoods” (and thus, may have experienced some degree of male privilege) may nevertheless have faced other forms of marginalization: for being feminine or gender nonconforming, for being queer with regards to our sexuality, and so on. Not to mention the fact that, unlike 99-ish percent of the population, we were unable to rely on cisgender privilege.
When people raise the issue of male privilege — sans the aforementioned contextualization — when discussing trans female/feminine people, what they are actually doing is dwelling on a single (often exaggerated, and sometimes entirely imagined) aspect of our past, to the exclusion of our many other characteristics (including our identities and lived histories moving through the world as women, as well as our struggles with other forms of marginalization). This feels invalidating to us. It erases our lived realities. More often than not, it is an attempt to overtly or tacitly exclude us from the communities to which we belong, whether they be women’s, feminist, LGBTQIA+, or trans in nature.
“Male privilege” as a form of misgendering
I cannot speak on behalf of the Patreon supporter who requested this post. But as for myself, writing this piece feels timely due to recent infighting I’ve seen online between AMAB and AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans people. Some of these debates have been centered on transmisogyny and who precisely experiences it. I’ve addressed some of these concerns in my essay What Is Transmisogyny? and references therein — TL;DR: while all trans people may experience traditional and oppositional sexism, trans female/feminine people tend to experience the intersection of those two forces (a.k.a., transmisogyny). As I discuss in those writings (see e.g., the “Transmisogyny, Femininity, and Artificiality” section of my “Transmisogyny” encyclopedia entry), the widely held presumption that femininity itself is “artificial” and “frivolous” often leads people to view trans female/feminine people’s gender identities and expressions as especially “fake” — this makes it even easier for them to deploy the “delusional fakeness” trope against us in order to deny our lived realities.
Other recent AFAB/AMAB debates have centered on the issue of visibility. Because trans female/feminine people tend to be more visible in the media and in the culture more generally, some have cited this as a sign that we are “privileged” relative to trans male/masculine people. While visibility can certainly be advantageous in some cases, this is not universally true. For instance, sometimes visibility can take the form of unwanted attention or increased scrutiny. In the aforementioned “Transmisogyny, Femininity, and Artificiality” passage, I argue that cisgender media producers who are inclined to portray trans people as “fakes” will favor trans female/feminine characters and subjects given that it is easier to depict us in a seemingly “artificial” manner. Furthermore, the fact that anti-trans propaganda relentlessly spews out sexualized and demonized caricatures of trans female/feminine people demonstrates that visibility can sometimes be outright bad, rather than good or neutral.
Sometimes these AFAB/AMAB debates raise the specter of “male privilege” and the presumption that trans women and trans femmes either continue to benefit from it, and/or exert it in intracommunity discussions and spaces. It strikes me as bizarre that any trans male/masculine person would wield this accusation at us, given that they too are susceptible to it. In fact, one of the more common TERF talking points is that trans boys/men transition, not because they are “really trans,” but because they are “really girls/women” who are attempting to escape sexism and acquire male privilege. As I emphasized in the previous section, trans realities are far more complex and intersectional than overly simplistic TERF narratives about “male privilege.” For this reason, I think that it’s in all our interests to avoid conducting these trans-related intracommunity debates on TERF’s turf.
Regarding the accusation that trans female/feminine people continue to exert “male privilege” long after we’ve literally lost it: This charge is nearly identical to past TERF claims that trans women continue to express “male/masculine energy” in perpetuity. As I explain in Whipping Girl:
[This] implies that “male energy” can be measured in some way independent of whether the person expressing it appears female or male. This is clearly not the case. Even though I am a trans woman, I have never been accused of expressing “male energy,” because people perceive me as a woman. When I do act in a “masculine” way, people describe me as a “tomboy” or “butch,” and if I get aggressive or argumentative, people call me a “bitch.” My behaviors are still the same; it is only the context of my body (whether people see me as female or male) that has changed. [Whipping Girl, p.51]
Ergo, if a trans woman gets upset, angry, or assertive, and someone attempts to pin that on her supposed “male privilege” — yet they would never have considered calling out those same behaviors if they thought that she was a cis woman — then they are leveraging her assigned sex over her identity and lived experiences as a woman. That’s about as cissexist as it gets!
I currently experience a number of forms of privilege (e.g., white, middle-class, able-bodied). As someone who transitioned over twenty years ago, I can assure you that male privilege is not one of them. Thus, whenever someone attempts to dismiss my comments or concerns as supposedly being a by-product of “male privilege” (rather than other privileges that I actually experience), it’s painfully obvious what they are attempting to do. Misgendering is misgendering, whether you dress it up in fancy-sounding activist language or not.
I want to end this essay with a brief history lesson. Until about 10–15 years ago, the most common terminology to describe transgender trajectories was MTF (male-to-female) and FTM (female-to-male). This is why I used “MTF-spectrum” and “FTM-spectrum” as umbrella terms throughout my 2007 book Whipping Girl. In the years following the book’s release, there were understandable debates about these acronyms, and how they seemed to imply that trans people were perpetually rooted in one state of being (e.g., male) while forever striving to become something else (in this case, female).
In response to these concerns, I began using the terms “trans female/feminine” and “trans male/masculine” as umbrella terms for these trajectories. This language intentionally emphasizes who we are in the here and now, without needlessly referencing the sex that we were nonconsensually assigned at birth. I even suggested that we could use the acronyms “TF” and “TM” to refer to them (as I did in my first transmisogyny primer).
While I continue to use these umbrella terms, unfortunately, they were not the ones that caught on. The ones that did catch on were initially MAAB and FAAB, which later evolved into AMAB and AFAB. As this shift was occurring during the early 2010s, I strongly protested it. One of those critiques, “Baby Talk,” was included in my third book, Outspoken; here is an excerpt:
The whole point of trans activism is to get people to respect us for who we are, not for what the straight world expected us to grow up to be when we were mere babies. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who primarily categorizes me based upon how I was assigned at birth is not merely anti-trans, but they are quite literally engaging in baby talk. [Outspoken, p.191]
I have since succumbed to using AFAB/AMAB from time to time (such as in this essay) for the sake of clarity, given that these acronyms are widely used and understood. But I still believe that this was a huge tactical error on our part, as it encourages the cis majority to continue prioritizing “assigned sex” over our personal truths and lived realities. And I am certain that the routine usage of “AMAB” enables those who wish to wield the concept of “male privilege” against us, whether it be to invalidate our perspectives and concerns, or to outright misgender us.
In a world dominated by cissexism, and in feminist communities influenced by TERF framings, it is easy to caricature trans female/feminine people as “oppressive men” and trans male/masculine people as “oppressed women.” Given this, it’s understandable (if infuriating) that some trans male/masculine people (#NotAllTransGuys) may play up their female socializations and the misogyny they’ve experienced in the past in order to cast themselves as victims of the patriarchy, without realizing that this particular framing insinuates that trans female/feminine people are the patriarchy. [this dynamic is described further in Postscript #2 below]
All trans people face sexism, and we are all victims of the patriarchy. And most of us have been forced to live part of our lives in the closet. Those years were difficult and traumatic for all of us, regardless of our specific transgender trajectory. We must stop fixating on the cis-centric construct of “male privilege” and who supposedly has experienced it — in reality, such experiences may differ greatly from individual to individual within each transgender trajectory. Instead, let’s work to promote more complex and intersectional understandings of gender and marginalization.
Postscript: While many nonbinary people describe themselves as being trans feminine or trans masculine, a few have told me that they dislike “trans female/feminine” and “trans male/masculine” because they do not identify as female or feminine, or male or masculine. This is understandable, given that there is no perfect word when it comes to trans-related terminology. And I am completely open to other potential alternatives. But frankly, it’s absolutely ludicrous that, in a world where the standard definition for transgender is something along the lines of “people who do not identify with the sex/gender they were assigned at birth,” we nevertheless categorize said people according to the sex/gender they were nonconsensually assigned at birth!
Postscript #2 (revised): The day after this piece was published, some people online began sharing the last sentence of the second-to-last paragraph [the one which begins “Given this, it’s understandable (if infuriating) that some trans male/masculine people . . .” ] out of context to insinuate that I am trying to silence trans male/masculine people from discussing their pre-transition years or experiences with sexism. That is not at all what I said. In fact, this misinterpretation contradicts what I said over the course of this 3,300 word essay, including the very next sentence: “All trans people face sexism, and we are all victims of the patriarchy.” It would be pretty weird for me to explicitly say that trans male/masculine people are harmed by sexism and patriarchy if I thought that they were not allowed to talk about it. What I *was* referring to in that sentence is a dynamic that sometimes occurs in women’s-only or TERF-adjacent/sympathetic settings, in which a small subset of the trans male/masculine community emphasize their AFAB-ness and “lack of male privilege” in such a manner that renders trans female/feminine people as “perpetually male privileged” and therefore supposedly “oppressive.” In other words, their petitions for inclusion directly imply that we should be excluded. Examples of this include trans masculine people who have used their AFAB status to enter women-only spaces like MichFest that explicitly prohibited trans women, to more recent and egregious examples such as the Trans Men Fight Back letter. There are many other examples of this occurring online, a few of which were mentioned in replies to this tweet (see also this thread). This is a longstanding dynamic that trans female/feminine people (including myself) have critiqued over and over again, so I thought that it would be clear that this is what I was referencing. Perhaps that was a mistaken assumption on my part. But at the same time, given that we’ve raised this issue repeatedly in the past and present, I’m astounded that some people who are active in trans communities are seemingly oblivious to this dynamic. This lack of awareness may also explain why some people felt as though that passage “came out of nowhere” and thus presumed that it must be a “sideswipe” at trans male/masculine people. But from my perspective, the dynamic that I was referencing is deeply intertwined with the TERFist narratives of “male privilege” that I had already spent two sections of the essay critiquing. Anyway, if you do not engage in such tactics yourself, then that sentence was not about you — which is why I explicitly italicized the word “some” and included the hashtag #NotAllTransGuys in that sentence. Some readers seemingly ignored my italicization of “some,” and jumped to the conclusion that I was specifically using that hashtag in what they consider to be a dismissive manner à la #NotAllMen, when in fact I literally meant Not All Trans Guys! I’ve seen numerous other people use #NotAll___ preemptively to make clear that they are not stereotyping an entire group, and I’ve personally used #NotAll___ hashtags in this manner numerous times in the past without misinterpretation or complaint. I regret that it was misinterpreted this time, and if this issue had been brought to my attention prior to all the smears that I’m attempting to “silence AFABs,” I would have happily deleted it. But given the subsequent pile-on and people sharing screenshots of the original text, I will let it stand as is, albeit with an end-of-sentence reference pointing to this Postscript. Finally, while I was not using that hashtag in a “#NotAllMen” manner (and to the best of my recollection, I’ve never “#NotAllMen”-ed anyone), I do take issue with the notion that that hashtag is meant to be “dismissive.” It is my understanding that it was originally intended to point out attempts to derail conversations. For instance, if a woman was attempting to discuss *her* experiences with sexism, but a man defensively jumped into her mentions to suggest that she must be stereotyping all men as sexists, she might respond with #NotAllMen. That’s how I’ve mostly seen that hashtag used in the past. And the fact that I had to end a long and nuanced essay about how trans female/feminine people are denied the closet (which includes critiques of how “delusional fakeness” and “male privilege” negatively impact trans male/masculine people too) with a mini-essay responding to a handful of claims that I’m somehow “oppressing” or “silencing” AFABs . . . well, let’s just say the irony is not lost on me.