49. Trans Women and Male Privilege

And Whether Cis People Really Get It

I think about privilege a lot. I've written a few posts about it here, including this post on a variety of forms of privilege that I have. You might notice, if you read it, that I don't list "male privilege" as one of them. That's because, well, I don't have any. Now, I know that many of you (many of whom self-identify as feminists) are probably thinking: "Well, [Philosochick], you grew up "as a boy" for 29 years, so you still retain some benefits from those 29 years of male privilege. You weren't oppressed your entire life like (for example) [cis] women are."

What got me thinking of this lately was this post. I think it's a good post, but there's a lot more to say. First, some philosophy, then some of my experiences with gendered privilege.

There are a few problems with the objection that I opened with. One of the things that such people who offer the objection are thinking about are personality traits that one may be more likely to develop due to male privilege and being exposed to (or blocked from exposure to) certain social pressures associated with perceived gender. There are two that most often get raised as personality traits that I have that people want to attribute to my being brought up and treated like a boy: my assertiveness, and my being a competitive athlete.

In some of my philosophical work, I work on stereotypes that trans* women face and some of the philosophical implications for stereotype threat. Trans* women who display so-called "masculine" traits such as assertiveness have that assertiveness chalked up to their "really" being men, rather than women. It's a form of gender essentialism: well of course you have this masculine property, you're really a man. That's a more blatant gender essentialism. However, in the objection I'm discussing here, I think there's a more subtle, but no less problematic, gender essentialism at play.

Those offering this objection are implicitly (if not explicitly) attributing a personality trait to my birth-assigned gender, and the gender that was attributed to me for 29 years. But that's treating "assertiveness" as something inherent to being gender-assigned male. And that's gender essentialism! And it's false for at least two reasons: not all (cis) men are assertive, and some (cis) women are assertive. Assertiveness is gendered male (or masculine), but one doesn't become assertive merely by being gender-assigned male at birth, or by being raised as a boy. It's more complicated than that. And while some might become assertive due to social pressures, it's hardly inconceivable that some boys (and some girls) would be assertive in the absence of that pressure. And all this is not to deny that girls and women face pressures against being assertive. The trait is positive or neutral in men, but very often negative in women: an assertive man is a leader, but an assertive woman is a bitch.

I'm not assertive because, per se, I was gender-assigned male at birth, or that I was raised as a boy. I have noticed since beginning my transition, that pre-transition I was far more assertive than I am now. I think that that had to do with my "overcompensating," as some put it, or with my simply acting being male, which is how I put it. I thought that what it meant to be male was to be assertive and aggressive, and I played a role, however convincingly. But post-transition, I've noticed that I don't need to act at all anymore, about anything. And I noticed that the assertiveness and aggression both went down considerably. I'm far from meek, though: I'm still willing and able to get into a heated argument, but they're fewer and farther between. But my point here is that I'm likely just an assertive person, and it's entirely possible that I would have turned out this way had I been born gender-assigned female and raised as a girl. The existence of assertive women (some far more than me!) shows that this is possible, so the suggestion that it's because I was born or raised a particular way. That's gender essentialist. Not good, especially from feminists (who, I think, should know better since most now rebuke gender essentialism).

So that's my assertiveness. The second thing often attributed to my birth-assigned sex and gendered upbringing is my being a competitive athlete. My main sports growing up were golf and tennis, then badminton, but I competed in a wide variety of sports (baseball, rugby, sport climbing, track and field, bowling), and I played or participated in many more (mountaineering/hiking, lacrosse, soccer, roller/street hockey, road cycling, weightlifting/bodybuilding, squash, pool, swimming, sailing, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch). So I grew up surrounded by sports. In fact, the career plan at one point was professional golf, but a car accident in Grade 11 ended that. I still play, I just can't put in the time it would take to be really competitive (if you must know, I'm a scratch golfer). I also still compete at badminton (I won my first post-transition tournament, both women's singles and doubles, but I sprained my ankle in mixed).

I started playing golf when I was about 3. My dad golfed. In fact, I broke one of the front windows of our house when I was very young. I was encouraged to play sports, but they were never really forced on me. My parents never really suggested that I try a sport, except maybe tennis (but I frankly don't remember). Just being around sports (my dad played hockey and golf, and both my parents played baseball–in her youth, my mom did gymnastics until she badly injured her back) was enough to get me to want to try things. And I'm very much a natural athlete. I pick up new sports relatively quickly, and I can be competitive in a wide range of diverse sports. In fact, I got to where I did, winning lots of local and regional tournaments, all without a single instructional lesson. I picked it up all on my own (I was routinely beating my dad by about 13). Apparently my dad took me to a teaching pro when I was young, who watched me hit some balls, and who said not to let anyone touch my swing. And no one did. I had my first lesson at something like 25 (when I was already a scratch golfer) because my friend couldn't make it, and he offered to let me take it.

OK. This isn't a brag post.

There's a common locution used to shame boys who aren't good at sports: You [x] like a girl. A common one is "You throw like a girl." Well, here's a cute comic about that. Matt Bors flips it a bit by changing it to: "Son, you throw like a girl raised in a patriarchal society that discourages women from participating in sports." It's true, girls are less often encouraged to participate in sports than boys, they're generally directed towards more "feminine" sports than boys, and they're even sometimes actively discouraged from participating in sports. I was clearly encouraged, and I wasn't shunted away from any sports. (I often got teased for playing badminton and golf which, the boys thought, were "wussy" sports.)

However, let's remember that not all boys are encouraged to play sports and some girls are heavily encouraged to play sports. Both of my serious high school girlfriends were athletes from a young age (one primarily in gymnastics and volleyball, and the other in soccer). And I know some guys who are utterly useless when it comes to anything even remotely athletic.

Iris Marion Young has a great paper, "Throwing Like A Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality." (I don't know why there aren't commas in the title.) In it, she basically argues that boys are encouraged or permitted to use their bodies differently, more freely, than girls. One consequence of this, along with social gender norms, is that boys are taught to throw a ball, and are taught to throw it differently than girls. Boys tend to take up more space both day-to-day and also in sports.

And it was how I moved that someone noticed about a picture of me in my most recent badminton tournament, in our first round (women's) doubles match. We were ranked #1, which I thought was a little high: I think we were more realistically #2. We were ranked #1 mostly on the back of me, since I was one of the top players, male or female, in the club. Here's the thing about me and my partner: I'm just shy of 6'0" and she's barely 5'0" (maybe shorter). Normally, you'd think that I'd tend to play in the back (taller and harder smash) with her in the front; however, our most dominant position was with her in the back and me in the front. While I smash harder and with a steeper angle, if she smashes to the middle, the other team will likely hit back through the middle of the court, where I can pounce on it and end the rally quickly. This is exactly what we did, especially against the first round team (whom I honestly think we scared or surprised by doing this).

Since my partner is so much shorter than me, if I'm in front, I have to crouch fairly low so that I get out of her way and out of her line of sight. Immediately after she hits, I pop back up. Now, in order for me to be most effective, I have to adopt a rather wide stance with one foot diagonally in front of the other, so I can move quickly forward and diagonally to the sides. But this is a wide "masculine" body comportment. It's exactly what Young is talking about, and I think it's what's behind people's claiming that I can adopt that sort of stance (and be a better player because of it) precisely because I was raised and trained in the sport as a boy.

I have two things to say about this. First, it's pretty clear that I'm naturally athletic. And just as with my assertiveness point above, had I been born assigned female at birth and raised as a girl, it's possible that I would have had the same athletic abilities and body comportment, motility, and spatiality. I actually know some girls who have more "masculine" comportment/motility/spatiality traits than I do. So, again, to say that it's so obviously because I was born a certain way, and raised and trained a certain way, that I move a certain way in sports is gender essentialist.

However, the second thing I have to say is that I recognize that I was trained differently. I can most clearly articulate how in badminton. One of the biomechanically most difficult movements in sport is the deep backhand clear in badminton. Very few club-level players can do it, although most every pro can do it (essentially all the men can, and lots of women can). It might surprise you to learn that it's not a matter of strength. It's all about the timing and the movement. Most women can easily gain enough strength to hit the shot if taught out. The problem, of course, is that very few girls are taught how to hit that shot when they're learning. And the reason is pretty sexist: boys are assumed to be stronger and more competent at complex movements, and so they're taught how to hit it, and the girls just aren't. The ones you are taught it, though, learn how to hit it (and they're often the ones who are very successful: it's quite an advantage if you can hit that shot but your opponent can't).

So I did benefit from "male" privilege in that I was more likely, counterfactually, than a girl to be taught the skill and thus to develop it. However, (and it's a big "however") it would be gender essentialist and false to think that I have this skill only because I had this "male" privilege. It's entirely possible (maybe even probable, given how naturally athletic I am) that I would have developed the skill even if I were born assigned female at birth and brought up as a girl.

So this whole post is how the objection, Well, [Philosochick], you grew up "as a boy" for 29 years, so you still retain some benefits from those 29 years of male privilege. You weren't oppressed your entire life like (for example) [cis] women are" is problematically gender essentialist. It's a bad objection, and I think I've given some good reasons to think that anyone who rejects gender essentialism shouldn't keep bringing it up…because it's probably the most common objection I hear, particularly from my feminist friends.

Yours truly,