Gender Identity Privilege

Trans100Last weekend, I attended the first annual “Trans 100” event at Mayne Stage Theater in Rogers Park, an amazing night in celebration and recognition of one hundred individuals across the country who are doing important work for the transgender community. And I cannot emphasize that last word enough – community. I am still feeling the warm-fuzzies from being around so much positivity and strength and solidarity and resolve and beauty, all in one place. It was like a two-hour hug. With sequins. This event did exactly what March 31st, the International Transgender Day of Visibility, is meant to do – serve as a time of positive reflection for the trans community. And an unexpected, eye-opening amount of reflection for myself as well. I had no idea that I would walk out of that event as a slightly different version of the person who walked in.

The sold-out theater was alive with the most amazing and intriguing mix of confidence, love, laughter, and belonging. Leaders and role models in the trans community spoke proudly about their fellow trans activists working to build and sustain their communities, interspersed with performances by some amazingly talented trans-identified musicians. As I stepped into the women’s restroom about halfway through the night, I glanced at the people around me. Heels, pants, buzz cuts, broad shoulders. Every person in that restroom was there because of their own, rightful self-definition. That is where they belonged, and no one told them otherwise. It might seem like a small thing, but the ability to walk into a public restroom and feel as if you are in the right place is not a right everyone is afforded. It is a privilege most of us take for granted.

Privilege. That word pulled up a seat and sat right down with me that night, popping up in conversations with my date about his own experiences identifying as something in between the binary stick figures on the restroom doors. As an able-bodied, average-sized white person, raised by a nuclear Christian middle(ish)-class family, I have spent a lot of time examining my own privilege. All of these things give me a leg-up in the world I live in every single day, and I think it’s incredibly important to remain conscious of that. As a queer woman, I have spent a fair amount of time considering straight privilege and its role in my life as a part of the LGBTQ minority. These are all conversations I expected to have with my biracial, trans-masculine, queer-identified date and all of the amazing people she introduced me to that night.

What I was surprisingly unprepared to examine was the image staring back at me in the bathroom mirror. It could have been any mirror in any women’s restroom, anywhere, and I would have felt completely comfortable and justified in standing there looking into it, so much so that I would never even give it a second thought. I am a cisgender woman, and that comes with an incredible amount of privilege. The simple fact that I have never been asked or questioned about my gender identity is an example of this. Using a public restroom does not fill me with fear and anxiety. It is not difficult to find clothes I like that are made to fit my body and size. I am not regularly faced with questions from strangers regarding my genitalia. I do not regularly question if someone is genuinely attracted to me, or if I am being fetishized for presenting to the world the version of myself I feel is the closest to my true self. The dominant language spoken in the society I live in is structured such that my gender identity and expression is accurately affirmed every time someone refers to me using pronouns. This is maybe the easiest example of privilege to overlook.

Unless you have someone in your life who uses pronouns other than those corresponding to their birth gender (including gender-neutral pronouns – they, ze, etc.), you have likely never given it a second thought. Our brains have been trained since our very earliest experiences with language that there are only two ways to describe a person on a very basic level – female, and male. Our education system re-enforces this for years of our lives (how do we respectfully address our teachers if not by “Mr.” or “Ms.”?) Gender is the only identifier that is so intimately woven into our basic everyday communications that cisgender people do not have to be conscious of its presence in conversations most of the time.

Marginalized communities are not immune to differences of privilege, nor should the individuals in those communities overlook these differences. Several performers are boycotting the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival this year, for example, as a result of their “womyn-born womyn” only policy, excluding trans women from the event. Jory, my afore-mentioned date, had this to say about his own experience as a trans-identified person within the larger LGBTQ community: “I feel perceived in many different ways from the many spaces of the LGBTQ community, and with that comes a level of pressure I place on myself to either embody my queer gender in a really overt way so it is undeniable, or to be more fluid in my identity so that when entering into gay and lesbian communities, I feel a level of belonging and solidarity with them.” Even within queer relationships, gender pressures can be nearly impossible to escape, as Jory explained: ” In the past, I have felt a pressure to perform a kind of butch masculinity that differs from the masculinity I feel. I don’t feel like gender is static for many people, but to be in a relationship where there are gendered expectations was always a difficult thing for me, and vice versa, to be with someone who has no expectations is incredibly liberating and allows me to explore myself and all of its nuances.”

Having gender-variant people in my life is not a new thing for me, but really examining the privileges and rights I have as a part of this specific majority group in a society that so often excludes, alienates, or disregards their identities is new for me. And necessary. If we are ever going to get to a place as a society where gender is not seen as the primary initial defining characteristic of a person, it’s going to take a lot more than 100 transgender activists to make that happen. It takes difficult conversations and examinations of our own positions of privilege in society. It takes using the wrong pronoun and learning from it. It takes patience and persistence, and inclusion and community.

And probably some sequins, just for good measure.

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About Stacy

Born and raised in rural Nebraska, Stacy migrated to Chicago in 2008 to begin her career in education. After four years of teaching high school English in the Englewood and Aburn Gresham neighborhoods of Chicago's Southside, she has since shifted her focus to more creative pursuits, returning to her first loves: interior design and poetry. Though she spends more time at poetry readings now than in classrooms, she can't seem to tear herself away completely, facilitating training and professional development for schools on LGBTQ issues in the classroom and providing interior design services for improving educational environments. She loves traveling, everything nature, crafting, casseroles, reading, and you. She definitely loves you.


2 Responses to “Gender Identity Privilege”

  1. Amazing as always, Stacy :). It’s vitally important to examine privilege in all senses. I’m glad you’ve brought up gender privilege. The “T” in LGBTQ is supposed be encompassing, yet is isn’t the gentle utopia we (or at least I) like to immagine it to be. Wish I knew about the event! I’m sure it was amazing!

    Posted by Tina C. | April 11, 2013, 2:50 pm
  2. Well said. Even though I deal with some of the things you talked about, I am not always conscious of the fact that others around me might not self identify the way I would identify them. Thanks for reminding me!

    Posted by Sandra P. | April 11, 2013, 10:08 pm

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