There are a lot of things on which the trans community disagrees. One such thing relates to the concept of “male privilege”. As trans women, we live part of our lives as if we were men- at least until we figure it out and do something about it. As such, some folks think that trans women benefit from “male privilege”- the inherent societal advantages that come with being perceived as male. In fact, many TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists)/ “gender critical scholars” use this claim as part of their position that trans women aren’t “real women”. Conversely, others point out that trans women are certainly not perceived as being “male” in the sense that cis men are, and are far from privileged in any way (especially in the case of trans women of color, who have shockingly high assault/murder rates).
I’m going to assert that the confusion and disagreement over privilege stems from the fact that privilege is not a singular thing, but rather can be divided into what I call “internal” and “external” privilege. This not only serves to unpack and elucidate issues of privilege as it can pertain to trans women, but carries important implications on how we can address issues of privilege in the way we raise our children.
There is no doubt that (unfortunately), most children being raised as male in our society are taught to have very different expectations than those being raised female. The extent may differ, and there are certainly those who struggle to minimize such things in their own children, but in general, boys grow up expecting to be listened to when they speak, for example. Many women will freely report that such expectations were not ingrained in them. Even if we work to minimize projecting “gender roles” as parents, we live in a society that imprints such things on our children despite our efforts. So, boys grow up thinking certain things about their relation to people around them that girls likely do not. It is these ideas about one’s place in society that informs the position that trans women carry their “male privilege” with them through social transition. If you are raised to believe that you have a place in conversation and generally control your own situation (to varying extents in relation to other marginalizing factors like class or ethnicity), you retain those ideas even as you present as the woman that you have always been. This, they say, makes trans women fundamentally different from cis women, and they therefore experience the intangible benefits of this privilege. This sense of using the term privilege, note, is purely internal. It is about the way people think, act, and see themselves, and so I here label it “internal privilege”.
“External privilege” is exactly what one would assume in light of this- the privilege realized from the way others see and act towards us. We have little to no control over external privilege- others treat us how they treat us. Classic examples of external male privilege include such events as women being ignored in group conversations or business meetings, or even the casual nature with which sexual harassment occurs. Men are far less likely to experience these events than woman are.
It should not take much convincing to demonstrate that trans women don’t experience external privilege. In fact, it could easily be argued that without total “passing” (yet another privilege), trans women are even lesser considered than cis women. This would be the crux of the objection to the idea that trans women continue to experience male privilege, and I think it significant enough to reject the claim. Trans women do not benefit from male privilege, because this external privilege is far more impactful on one’s life, options, and even safety, than the internal privilege that may have been acquired before social transition. We could go even further and point out that depending on just what sort of upbringing one had, how one identified throughout their pre-discovery life, and even how soon a trans woman recognizes that she’s trans, will all have an impact on her views and attitudes about herself in relation to society. It’s entirely possible for a trans woman to present male for a significant portion of her life and *not* acquire the self-identification that we are here associating with internal male privilege.
But this also points out something about privilege. Internal privilege is *learned*. We raise our boys in ways that enforce these ideas. So, we could just as easily raise our daughters with the same concepts of self. If part of the experience of being on either side of privilege is internal and related to how we see ourselves, we can teach ALL our children such things. We can raise our girls to expect a seat at the table, and we can raise our boys to expect girls to take their seats. I would even go so far as to argue that external privilege grows out of internal privilege- people project the values they have onto their interactions, and create the atmosphere in which they live. No matter where we fall in relation to this demarcation of privilege, we subconciously contribute to it unless we actively work against it.