A Unique Privilege

caitlyn

I have, on a few occasions now, admitted to pangs of conscience regarding my transition. In the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s “Vanity Fair” appearance, which even a trans ally has pointed out could be interpreted as a troubling reification of “cisnormative beauty standards” rather than a celebration of pure self-expression (from Translucidity blog), I find myself inevitably asking the same questions: is my desire to fully live and present as a woman (or pseudo-woman, if we will) a valid and progressive form of self-expression, or is it merely a shying away from a greater issue – namely that accepted ideas of gender are themselves oppressive, and that only by challenging them in our unaltered selves will we ever make any impact on them?

However, I am uniquely privileged in ways that enable me to afford such moral crises. For one thing, UK law protects me from employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity, whether I transition or not. For another, I have the means if I so wish to opt out of society (or at least out of modern, urban society), and thus negate the need to define a role for myself within that society that I am happy to be identified with. How many can boast of that, though?

Realistically, most of us must find some way to live within existing society that does not completely negate our own sense of self, and this is the very core of why trans people who are less fortunate than Caitlyn and myself are deserving of compassion. Take, for example, my trans friend in a certain Bible Belt state, who has no access to public healthcare to assist her transition, and no prospect of being able to afford it privately as no employer there wishes to hire her (or is, as yet, required by law not to discriminate against her). Whilst her unchosen existence as a non-transitioning gender non-conforming person could, in a sense, be said to be challenging social expectations in a bolder and maybe more progressive way than that of a transitioned or transitioning person’s, it is manifestly not doing her any good. Martyrdom is a brave choice, but there is nothing brave in demanding it of others. Conservative Christians would have my friend wait for the Rapture to find self-fulfilment, while the extreme wing of Radical Feminism would have her wait until society becomes a gender-free utopia. In the meantime, both are essentially sending her the same message: conform or suffer.

If my friend could embrace her male privilege and all the social advantages it would confer, I think I would advise her to do so, but I suspect there is no more chance of that than there ever was of Leelah Alcorn reconciling with her unwanted “birthright” as a white Christian cis male (though her parents, understandably if misguidedly, did their utmost to persuade her to accept that most advantageous position). As Rachel Ivey of Deep Green Resistance ironically but very correctly points out in her presentation “The End of Gender” (on the invalidity of trans identities)…

“Gender is not natural or voluntary, since a person is not naturally subordinate and no one chooses to be subordinated.”

Indeed, gender is not voluntary. Why would my friend have chosen to be poor, despised, and without hope, when she could have been privileged, respected, and well-off? All very well (relatively speaking) to talk about Caitlyn and myself “choosing” our gender. We risk opprobrium, but little worse. Others risk destitution and hatecrime. In not a few countries, they risk an early grave.

Still, the real clincher on the issue for me rests not within these tragic facts, nor in how I feel, but in the person of my nearest and dearest. For I can now announce unequivocally that I am the proud wife of a trans husband, with whom I am taking this journey together. When we began our married life, we both sincerely tried to present an acceptable cisnormative face to the world, partially to spare our loved ones any concern and partially out of fear, knowing that transitioning was a terrible challenge to face. Finally, though, the strain of only being true to outselves inwardly and in the narrowest of private circles has driven us to our limits, and now we have decided that what we were not individually strong enough to face, we can face together.

I have the right to question my own morality and wisdom on these issues, but not my husband’s. His sense of masculine identity is firm, fixed, and long-standing, and is for no-one to pass judgement on but himself. Also, he has acknowledged and supported my sense of feminine identity in times long before my transition or this blog had been conceived, and I respect his views more than the entirety of online theology and political debate. Even as a pseudo-cisnormative couple, we were almost ludicrously well-matched (Cal is a librarian, French, a “Doctor Who” fan, and a gaming geek: all things I deeply and totally revere). The fact that we are both transgender seems such a perfect piece de resistance that I could get quite superstitious dwelling on it…

Divine providence? Or just another example of my uncanny luck and privilege? When I think of my unemployed and near-hopeless trans friend living across the waters in the supposed Land of the Free, small wonder I should occasionally feel guilty…

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6 thoughts on “A Unique Privilege

  1. I appreciate the obvious soul searching that you’ve engaged in. I completely understand what you’re saying but your friend is victimized by a number of factors that neither you nor I have anything to do with. Her poverty, lack of employment prospects, the sad fact that state and local and national governments that have failed to offer her protection from discrimination, and finally the presence of a religious belief system that uses they’re “holy” book to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity just like 150 years ago it used the same book to justify slavery and the subordination of women. Surely if anyone should be feeling guilty it is the clergy, politicians and those who actively work to prevent any protection being made available for trans* people where ever they fall under the umbrella. Let’s not forget the many that passively acquiesce to the continuation of a culture steeped in misogyny, transmisogyny, sexism, heterosexism transphobia, effeminophobia and homophobia. Surely if guilt should be felt it is all those people who should be deeply bothered right now.

    Those of us with some measure of comfort in living our truth, owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us and made our corners of the world a better place. I am blessed to live in New Mexico where we have a law protecting me from discrimination on the basis of my gender identity – agender – and my sexual orientation – queer. I also happen to be disabled and am afforded protection from discrimination on those grounds as well. Recognizing my privilege I choose to use it to advocate for those who are not as fortunate. I use my blog and social media to pass on the plights faced by people in other LGBTQIA Communities. I do what activism I can, advocating for improving the situation elsewhere in the world. I also look back on the activism I was involved in in the past that, along with the activism of many others, has led to some improvements in my corner of the globe. I am reminded of the quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That is what gives me hope.

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    • Thank you for such an in-depth, thoughtful, and very encouraging post. You are right, of course. I just wanted to probe my sense of guilt a little more closely, and also the sense of why I feel I must engage with these political debates even though they barely affect me. I find a common answer in the suffering of people like my friend, who should be enjoying all of the benefits and protections of a civilised, liberal society. Using our comparative good fortune as a basis for activism and reform on behalf of those less fortunate certainly seems like a more productive course of action than just giving up and dropping off the grid. Some (particularly the oft-quoted Deep Green Resistance) would disagree, and state that society is irredeemable, but since you mention him, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr certainly did not believe that.

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  2. Beautifully written. You don’t have to feel guilty for wanting to do gender in a certain way; you can strive for binary cisnormative gender expression with the awareness that you’re doing so for the eyes of others. But the gender we are isn’t just about what’s internal; it’s also about being seen by the world in a certain way, so of course we end up inextricably tied up in the gendered expectations of society. Nobody is immune to all societal pressure. It’s good to ask ourselves where these expectations come from though, what our role is in this system, and how the system can be changed from the inside out.

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    • Wise words. I am receptive to the idea that gender dysphoria and its variants have their cause in society more than in human pathology, but while we are working out how to reform society (a monumental task) people have to live with them one way or another. Just on a results basis, I feel so much better since coming out, and each step I take to physically and legally further that process feels liberating. If I feel guilt for anything now, it is from having had the good fortune to get as far as I have done while others – due to circumstances beyond their control – can’t even dream of beginning the journey.

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      • Absolutely. And I really admire Laverne Cox for speaking out at every opportunity for those who DON’T have those privileges; she’s a lesson in gratefulness+activism in herself.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: A Belated Elegy | A Belated Existence

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