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Friday, March 6, 2009

The Privilege of Recognition

"Passing" is a pretty big concept in the trans (and gay, and many others) community. Seriously, it's like, kind of a big deal. Some people really want to, others don't, some think that the word has a lot of fucked up meaning (for instance: implying there is a deception going on) and other don't.

There is the privilege of passing, and there is the privilege that allows passing. Both of these are frustrating to be on the other side of.

I use the word because a) it IS a common word, and b) it's less unwieldy than some longer phrases*. Also I use "passing" to indicate being perceived as the appropriate gender, and thus use it to talk also about the way that cisgendered** people operate in the world.

If you've never been inappropriately gendered by someone (assumed to be the wrong gender) then you've had the privilege of passing your whole life. Part of the "privilege" of that situation is the fact that you can not even notice when you invoke it. One generally only notices when other people don't pass. We hardly notice when people do (that's the whole point, it's invisible!)

Equally frustrating, from a class stand point is the fact that passing itself is a function of privilege. A lot of what facilitates passing is money. Money and time. Money for new clothes, new haircuts, surgeries, hormones, voice lessons, name change forms, etc.

But all of this is tangential to what I wanted to get to. The fact is, in the trans community I interact with most, these are already understood on some level and discussed. I want to talk about something else, what I think of as the privilege of recognition.

I really enjoyed Julia Serano's book, it gave me a lot of really exciting and challenging things to think through. A whole shit-ton having to do with the way that masculinity is privileged in our society, and how masculine/male identified trans individuals are given a whole hell of a lot of privilege within the queer/trans community that is TOTALLY UNFAIR (ok, I know that's the whole "privilege" schtick!) just because we in line with our misogynistic society's standards for what is supposed to be admired. And especially how, as a feminist and a trans guy, I need to start being way more aware of the ways that my actions/community/lack of action may be exclusionary for trans women.

But Whipping Girl also gave me a couple: "you're overlooking things" moments. As I've mentioned before, I don't pass. When people look at me or talk to me, they invariably gender me as female. Part of the privilege of passing is that I, as a non-passing trans guy feel like I need to justify other people's inability to accurately assess my gender. As if it's my fault. I don't pass for a variety of reasons: a) I'm a very femme-y guy (this will be a whole post unto itself someday soon), b) I have a large chest, c) I am not taking hormones, probably a whole bunch I don't even think to think of ('cause it ain't my job to folks!). But one thing that I DO is wear entirely men's clothing.

In case you're wondering, clothing does JACK SHIT for a trans man (at least in the experience of this trans man). As Ms. Serano points out, feminism has made it possible for women to wear items that traditionally were reserved exclusively for men. So when I, as a trans guy, walk down the street, I'm just one more female bodied person wearing pants. Which is where the privilege of recognition comes in. There is not a day that goes by that I didn't wish that people who looked at me could/would ascertain what gender I was attemping to be seen as. Which is different from passing. Right now, I could give a rat's ass if people who looked at me thought I was a boy. What I long for is for them to at least recognize that I don't see myself as a girl. In fact, as a genderqueer who never wants to be unequivocably gendered male, by (one day, maybe) being gendered male, I won't be "passing". Either I, or society will have overshot the damn mark.

So I'm extraordinarily aware of a privilege that I believe often doesn't affect trans men, and often does affect trans women. It's a symptom of the fucked up misogyny in our society, and it's that trans women wearing women's clothing have a much higher percentage chance of being recognized as gendering themselves female/not gendering themselves male. Regardless of if they pass.

If they don't pass, this puts them in danger. It makes them highly visible. It's perhaps weird and fucked up that I think of this as a privilege. But this is the thing: I would RATHER be stared at and worried about my safety than constantly aware that not one person on the street even realizes that my self-identity is not female. This constant awareness has been wearing away at me as long as I can remember**. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it'd be much worse to be stared at and worried about whether I was in danger.
But... just like when trans activists ask cisgendered crowds whether they'd give up their gender for some amount of money, my roommate (a trans woman) has said she'd rather die than have everyone passing her on the street assume that she sees herself as a man.

Maybe I'm just mistaken about what "passing" means. But I don't think so. I think there is a distinct privilege in knowing that you are indicating to society what you mean to, even if society is an ass and refuses to agree with your assessment of yourself.

Since nothing I will do will be "male enough" until I actually am perceived as exclusively male, "recognition" is going to be a process that I can only approach from one side (supposed maleness). I can't sneak up on having my gender identity perceived from where I am now. That frustrates me. Maybe I'll start wearing a giant pin that just says: "I'm not a girl" or "Trans GUY".

Anyone got a giant pin making machine?

*That said, I'm hardly uniform in my use of it. So if I start using other phrases, tough ganoogies.
**Everyone is born, but someone who is cisgendered is someone who is: born, gendered at birth, raised in that gender, and throughout their life feels comfortable in that same gender. Born, raised, happy (or if not happy, at home).
Whereas someone who is transgendered is: born, gendered at birth, partially (or fully) raised in that gender, and starting at some point (or throughout) their life feels EXTREME discomfort with that erroneously assigned gender.
***There are whole months of my life (post coming-out) that I've lost; too upset at knowing that if I went out I would be not only gendered incorrectly, but not even recognized as trying to gender myself differently, and therefore stayed in my apartment, and on bad days, not even leaving my bedroom.


  1. This is a great point that had never occurred to me before, but I do want to question your statement that it (i.e. this privilege of recognition) is "a symptom of the fucked up misogyny in our society". To me it seems more like a negative side-effect of an otherwise very positive development: women breaking free (however partially and ongoingly) of the limiting roles society gives them.

  2. The point that I was trying to respond to (from Julia Serano's book), is that the reason that feminism has been able to make these inroads is due to the fact that our society already sets masculinity up as the ideal to aspire to. Thus (according to the misogynistic culture we live in), *obviously* women should want to dress and look like men, since men/masculinity is oh so enviable.
    I have to agree that I'll feel a whole lot more excited by feminism's ability to free us from the limiting roles we have when there is no such thing as a "Manny" or a "male nurse", but instead nannies and nurses (of all genders).


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