By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
There’s a trope present in certain lesbian feminist circles, aimed at discrediting trans women, which claims we, as a group, prior to transitioning, enjoyed “male privilege.” Those who argue this often claim that we bring “residual male energy” with us into social situations.
Throughout all culture, cis people, when speaking about trans folk, make reference to the genders we were assigned at birth, in phrases such as, “born a man,” or “female to male.”
Statements such as these, like our culture overall, are cissexist. They view all identities through a cisgender lens.
For instance, the male privilege trans women are accused of having enjoyed prior to transitioning is specifically a cis male privilege. Likewise, the people making such claims are cis women. Cis people enjoy a whole host of privileges not enjoyed by trans people, beginning with being correctly gendered at birth. Likewise, cis women experience the privilege of never having to socially transition or medically transition during their lives, the way trans women do.
Perhaps because cis identities are seen as more valid than trans ones in our ciscentric society, some cis women see fit to scrutinize and invalidate trans women’s experiences in the way they do. If a person believes I am a trans woman, it would stand to reason, they believe, as I do, that I’ve always been trans. That means I was a trans girl and grew into a trans woman.
By this reasoning, being misgendered at birth—and closeted as a result of culture-wide transphobic hostility through my first 38 years as I was—would be seen as a horrible misfortune, rather than a privilege.
We are not yet at a level of cultural understanding around trans identities, however, to see them as continuous and valid in this way. Parents still write essays about mourning “the son they lost” when their child transitions. Likewise, friends ask for time to “say goodbye to (dead name)” when the trans person in their life sheds the false identity they’d been saddled with since infancy.
Cis identities are still the sun around which all other identities orbit in our society. From the first ultrasound picture, we gender fetuses according to cis standards. Our government affixes each newborn with a cis binary “sex,” even if that newborn in question is intersex. Trans people are all “born cis,” according to this model, and the media parrots this whenever it reports on trans subjects: trans women are “born men” and trans men are “born women.”
Rather than exercising the presumption to label trans people in this way, and to misapply notions of cis privilege onto experiences, it would be nice if cis people would recognize the privilege they themselves enjoy in always having their identities validated in our culture, and begin to imagine ways they can create equity for trans folks.
Doing this would decenter cis identities and experiences as “normative” and standard. In this way, trans bodies and trans behaviors would not be subjected to scrutiny and judged as legitimate or not as seen through cis eyes. Ironically, this would free everyone from the pressure of being a “real” man or woman, a bizarre notion to begin with, which is hopefully eroding now with the overdue recognition of nonbinary identities.
It’s natural that lesbian feminists would want to critique the privilege cis men possess in our culture—in fact, it’s a favorite pastime of most trans lesbian feminists I know; it’s time, however, that cis lesbians, and cis women in general, recognize their own privileges. Working for equality means working for equality for all, and recognizing and naming inequality wherever it exists.
Falsely attributing trans women with “male privilege,” not recognizing the myriad privileges one enjoys as a cis person—privileges that often seem invisible due our culture’s ciscentric practices—works to reinforce transmisogyny and transphobia, rather than erase it.
Trans women did not ask to be assigned male at birth. We were born “ourselves,” and funneled into a culture that forcibly molded us according to a ciscentric understanding of gender. This was a trauma, not a privilege, as evidenced by the 41% suicide attempt rate reported among trans adults.
For trans folk, transitioning is a time to, at long last, experience their true identities. For those identities to be repeatedly framed through a cis lens, to be told we were “born” as the government declared us to be, or accrued privilege via an illegitimate identity forcibly foisted upon us, is discriminatory and hurtful; it’s yet another occasion in which we’re defined by cis standards in a manner that seeks to negate and delegitimize our trans selves.
It’s time for such practices to cease. Trans folk, like all folk, deserve the right to define their identities and histories, not according to outside standards, but their lived truths. That’s a privilege we should all enjoy.
Ginelle is a playwright and journalist living in Portland, OR. You can write her at email@example.com.