Oblivious to Privilege: Part One

A guest post from Haley…

I’ve lived with society perceiving me in different ways over my lifetime.

At one time I was perceived to be a straight white cisgender male (now obviously I was really a closeted transgender woman but the world didn’t know that.) In the year before I gender transitioned, I pushed gender boundaries, my style was fairly genderqueer and many people perceived me to be a gay male. Then during the first six months of living as a woman as the hormones started and a learning curve happened, I was regularly visibly identified to be a transgender woman. And for the last six months as my transition has progressed  I “pass” and the world perceives me to be a white woman, (even though can bug me in the sense that I feel no compulsion to be a stereotype of cisgender, but I don’t control how I am perceived so it is what it is.) And as for my sexual orientation many times I am taken to be straight since that is the default and I get my share of males asking me on dates and field questions about whether I have a husband or boyfriend. And when I’m out and about with my wife and kids usually I get pinged as lesbian. This experience of varying perceptions of my identity has made me aware of some of the many intersections between stereotypes, inclusion, and exclusion.

When I was perceived to be a straight white male, I was perceived to be capable of positions of power and leadership. I lived in a world where I could travel anywhere with hardly anything to limit my movement. I could be out at night and while something bad could happen, as a “straight white male” I held the position of privilege. I noticed how if I was out with non-white friends after dark the cops would single out my Hispanic friends for inquiry, but if I as the white male in the group vouched for them the cops would often move along. I noticed how experiences at bowling alleys and restaurants differed when I was with a black friend. The (usually) white owner was patronizing toward my black friend and would make him pay for an extra game upfront while he’d be totally cool having me pay at the end. I could catch snippets of the stereotype around race, but as a white male I was largely oblivious to the many ways stereotyped perceptions were driving the world I lived in. As a white person who was perceived to be male and straight, I had a position of neutrality. There was nothing about my demographic that inspired poor treatment or exclusion in the USA.

When I starting being gender non-conforming, I noticed sutble changes. Where before I was seen as a fairly neutral male around the park or play place, suddenly some people were a little weird about me being around their kids in public places, as if somehow if I were a gay male I could be a pedophile or something. I also found people would give me this this funny smile as if to say “Oh, Right, you’re gay.” People would randomly talk about how they loved their gay hairdresser. I’d get asked about if I had a partner or significant other. People would ask if I had a roommate or a cool bachelor pad. Some guys would lean extra far from me in the bathroom like they didn’t want a gay person seeing anything. In fact, at the time I left the ministry, whispers were flying around that I was gay. I was accused of going to bath houses (didn’t know what they were until I was told that BTW). I was told by a conservative that I might have a demon. All this, for no reason than my gender presentation had shifted from straight male, to more genderqueer.

When my transition started, I went through a phase where bathrooms were kinda awkward. I didn’t pass at that point. Some of the other women would look at me funny in the bathroom. People really didn’t know what to do with me. Transgender is a small demographic and people don’t often know how to categorize us. If I was around affirming women and they’d be extra sweet to me in a way that almost smelled of sympathy. Like, “welcome to the club, but we are still very concious of the fact you used to be a boy.” Some people would be strangely hostile and tell me stuff about my not being a “real” woman. Some said I was sick in the head, “what is this world coming to.” During the coming out process I was told, I was “a liar.” I was “degenerate.” I was “perverted.” I “wasn’t welcome at their house.” They “did not want further contact with me.” And the like. I heard this stuff from relatives and former friends. Supposedly I am never supposed to talk to my grandparents again and I’m not welcome at many weddings and funerals

Now as transition has progressed and my presentation no longer outs my gender history on sight, I’m noticing those moments women have been lamenting for years. Those moments when a man acts like as a woman you couldn’t possibly know anything about cars, sports, computers, or >insert “guy” domain here<. I’ve started having those moments where I’ll get whistled at or told, “Hey baby!” When I’m with my kids alone, no one acts like I’m some super hero who should be adored like they did when I presented as male. Take your kids to the park as a guy, get ready for the approving nods and high fives. Take your kids to the park as a woman, the most you’ll get is, “yup, sure is good having them getting their energy out here instead of trashing your house sweetie.” There is no smiling and back-slapping as you walk through a store with kids as a woman, this is what women do, they shop with kids. Suddenly instead of assuming leadership and power, people associate being a woman with domesticity. When another mom needs to help a child with something they’ll be quick to ask me if I don’t mind watching their other kid for a minute. Bathrooms are totally uneventful once more as they were when I was perceived to be a straight male, no one cares or notices my presence.

When Melissa and I are together sometimes people don’t connect us as a couple. We’ve regularly been asked in the line at the store if we are together or separate; when we presented as a straight couple that never happened. When we did business as a straight couple, all the questions were usually directed towards me. Now they sit back and wait to see which of us seems to be the most assertive. Sometimes they put the questions toward Melissa since her gender presentation can be more “butch” than my own. Other times we’ve done business such as taxes or banking where our marriage status and my trans history is disclosed. Much to our amusement, this usually this results in me as the “former male” getting put on the top of the joint account. Questions suddenly start getting directed to me even if up to that point they’d been focused on Melissa.

We have moments were people put us together and give us a dirty look. But we also have moments where people seem to specifically single us out to tell us we have a beautiful family. It is a very interesting experience crossing through several different stereotypes and seeing such wide variations of behavior all based on what demographic I’m perceived to be.

To Be Continued…

 

  • http://ladyheathersdomain.blogspot.com/ Lady Heather

    What a wonderfully insightful post, Haley! As a woman who used to work in a male dominated field and has been in multiple relationships in multiple configurations, I have seen so much of this.

    I really found it interesting to see things from your perspective. It is so hard when are perceived only one way to see how people’s actions and reactions change based on the different ways they perceive you.

    Thank you so much for writing the post.

  • http://followingontoknow.blogspot.com Just Me

    This was a fascinating read. Thankyou for speaking up about the differences from such a well-rounded viewpoint. I have several friends I want to direct here, especially from the Career Development course I took last fall. We talked a lot about discrimination, and I haven’t felt it like most of them have simply because I’m just now starting to be out in the world. Also, I still look young enough that condescension can be interpreted as “they still think I’m a teenager, what jerks.” So I’m glad to have read this. And you’re so right about the interactions with the kids. On the other hand, if you had a temper, you’d get a lot more dirty looks as a man because people perceive you as dangerous simply for being male. But they won’t make snide or cutting comments; they’ll just call the cops after you leave.
    I really appreciate the time you took to write.

  • http://summat2thinkon.blogspot.co.uk Considerer

    Wow, if nothing else you’ve provided a view on the world I’ve not seen much of or really given thought to. Great post – I look forward to reading the next bit. (and thanks for the new word – cisgender – I had to look it up. Now to figure out how to pronounce it!)

  • Anon

    I love this blog, although I have never commented (until now), and I really like hearing your perspective, Haley.

    “We’ve regularly been asked in the line at the store if we are together or separate; when we presented as a straight couple that never happened.”

    This is interesting. I wonder if it is regionally dependent, or if the presence of children played a role earlier. My boyfriend and I (a white, cis-gendered, straight couple, around your age) get asked this quite regularly. We live in the US Northwest.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    You have had a fairly unique experience about how stereotypes and gender roles mark our society. I remember one trans* guy talking about one of the few things he lamented about transitioning was iirc that there are very few kiwi women in the comics industry and he liked to fight the stereotypes about it. I’m sending this link to my boyfriend who has frequently asked me about this (we talk gender roles and stereotypes a lot).

  • http://womenforallseasons.blogspot.com/ November

    Wow, what an interesting perspective. Since I have always been perceived as a white, straight, female it is pretty revealing of our biases to hear some of the other stereotypes you have been boxed into.

  • http://www.gailatlarge.com Gail at Large

    I wish there was some way to apologize or make up for all the people who’ve treated you badly, since nobody deserves that. I’m a visible-minority female Canadian and I understand what it’s like to be perceived as “lesser” in a society where the power balance tips to the fairer-skinned masculine male. But to be transgender is to be much more vulnerable to society’s insecurities, and the lack of acceptance and prejudice from strangers and family is truly awful. I’m glad that have your own family to support you when the community and your extended family does not.

    There is clearly a strong bias in certain environments like the traditional workplace, and I feel it is very pronounced in the USA (I’ve lived there), where politics are more conservative. Canada has had gay marriage for years and the population concentration here is more urban, which in itself leans towards more progressive politics. But change happens more slowly than we’d like, even here, and behaviour, the outlet for attitudes, is a tough nut to crack. The attitudes have to change before the behaviour starts to change.

    Your observations put these perceptions and behaviours in a new light, because you’ve experienced them all as one person. I will share your post so more people can read this. And I hope your lives become easier, that over time you find more support than discrimination in your community as you raise your children.

  • ecolt

    I love reading your guest posts, Haley.

    I had a similar conversation a while ago with a friend of mine who comes from kind of the opposite point of view. He transitioned from female to male a few years ago and has had to adjust to the sudden white male privilege. Most of his life he presented as a gay female, so while he had always been aware of the fact that society treats heterosexual men differently it still came as a shock to be treated that way himself. It took him a while to even start to get used to the way his customers seemed to trust him more (he works in a technology field), or that it was safer to go somewhere by himself late at night.

    The ability to see things from a different perspective is an incredible gift, and one that I wish more people had honestly. I’ve had a lot of discussions with my boyfriend over concepts like feminism and cultural stereotypes, but having lived his whole life as a straight white male it’s hard for him to understand. And for my part I can only imagine what it’s like to be seen the way people see men. It’s really amazing that you’ve had the chance to not only live a happier, more authentic life, but also to see things from a different point of view.

  • africaturtle

    hah! :) do you miss getting high-fived when you take your kids out? I think you just took my resentment of male “privilege” up a notch!

  • http://www.howtocover.blogspot.com Maya

    I tend to be pretty oblivious to both my privilege (white, midle class) and my lack thereof (female, visibly an ethnic/religious minority) . Thank you for showing me some of how those things feel through your eyes. I appreciate your insight and the ability you have to make these comparisons.

  • Catholic Mutt

    What a great perspective! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. It’s amazing how we classify people with all these different perceptions, but obviously you have been the same person the whole time.

  • https://twitter.com/toastedtofu ToastedTofu

    I love love love when trans* people talk about how they are treated so differently when they present as different genders. There are so many aspects of strict gender roles that are deeply harmful and ultimately arbitrary (although I expect you had a great deal of experience with that as a cis-presenting person in a strictly patriarchal religious upbringing) I think society as a whole can benefit from that unique perspective.

    Some things are just bizzare assumptions based on historical pre-text (why should your name go first on a joint account??) but sometimes it is not as arbitrary as you might think. Bringing your kids to the park as “male” will get you accolades BECAUSE not many men do it. Being a male primary care giver in a world of female primary care givers can be tough, and as much as EVERYONE should get a big high-five for parenting, what they are really getting a high five for is smashing the gender stereotype that men don’t/won’t/can’t be a hands on parent. Likewise, you will find a lot of extra investment money available for women running their own business (at least in the UK, I see ads for it all the time). No one should get extra/less credit based on their sex, but the fact is that we do live in a world with (still) fairly strict gender roles, and I think until things are a bit more evened out we should encourage people who are doing something so different from the norm. My mom owns her own business and my dad was the stay-at-home. No one gave her kudos for grocery shopping (even though she was doing it on top of running a business!) but she does get a lot of credit for being a business owner and an important person in her community.

    Humans are social creatures, and the value of inclusiveness and self-esteem amongst peers cannot be underestimated. I’ll be extra nice or encouraging to people that I meet who are visibly trans*, not because they aren’t a “real” wo/men (because what is a real man? a real woman?) but because I know a lot of people are angry towards and fear trans people, and I want to sort of off-set that negativity and exclusion. It’s not out of pity, it’s out of a place where I want to make sure everyone gets their share of love and human kindness in this world. I know there are trans* people who don’t like that, and I totally respect that perspective, but I’ll always take a gamble and hope that they are the type of person who likes a compliment or a kind word instead of assuming that they won’t.

    I hope that I don’t make anyone feel like I think they are not a real person.

  • Eric D Red

    This is really interesting to read. It always takes the exceptions to the norm (I mean no value judgement in this, so pardon if that isn’t the appropriate word) to really understand something. It’s difficult to see and understand from inside any one perspective. I’ve been able to see this with the much more prosaic aspect of language, but I sit in the comfortable cismale/white/local/educated/etc position so I can’t easily see what that gives me other than to see non-usual perspectives like this. Not that being gay/black/whatever would really help understand either, since that would be being inside another perspective. Few have the opportunity to see these issues from more than one side. That’s why I enjoy reading Haley’s posts, among others.

  • Haley

    ToastedTofu: Just so we’re clear, I thrived on affirming people making an effort to complement my hair and notice the efforts that I had made during the early phase of transition; heck I still thrive on that! What girl (I know stereotypeola) doesn’t like a complement! Thank you for being a trans ally!

  • ullrich

    Somehow this post reminds me one of my daughter’s favorite bedtime stories: Horton Hears a Who. I only hope that people of good will can band together to push back the sometime seemingly overwhelming tide of religious fundamentalist inspired wave of authoritarianism which appears to be making a come-back in recent decades — and continue the general trend of social progress whose central theme is equal respect for all humans regardless of differences in appearance, lifestyle, race, or gender.

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  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    You have an interesting perspective from transitioning. The park description is crazy, but its true, I’m sure.

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