The Capacity to Leverage

Disclaimer: Some folks might think that what I’m writing about here is “intersectionality,” but it’s not. Intersectionality is by and for women of color to examine the relationship between race and gender. It is not a term for us white folks to apply to ourselves, our academia, or our activism. We can’t be intersectional because we’re not women of color, nor should we think/attempt to direct where intersectionality as a concept needs to go. The term intersectionality has been appropriated by us white social justice people to prove our so-not-racistness and swear some sort of faux-allegiance to women of color. What I’m talking about here is similar to intersectionality, but it isn’t intersectional.

As another note, I will be arguing as why I think ‘capacity to leverage’ might be a more apt way to describe what most folks define as ‘privilege.’ ‘Capacity to leverage’ and ‘privilege’ are not mutually exclusive. For me, ‘capacity to leverage’ is a more rhetorically useful way of talking about how one interacts with systems of power and oppression, and it is similar to what ‘privilege’ attempts to describe, though I don’t believe ‘privilege’ does a well enough job. For the first half or so of this piece, I will still be using the word ‘privilege’ in order to point out what I see as flaws with it before moving on to ‘capacity to leverage.’

Oppression Olympics

Way too many discourses regarding privilege end up being complicit in Oppression Olympics. For those who don’t know, Oppression Olympics is the idea that specific facets of identity (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) are more oppressed than others. This is how you get people like Gloria Steinem making claims that “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” This is where phrases like “privilege over” come from, and such phrases set up a hierarchy of oppression, making them complicit in Oppression Olympics. There are differences in all oppression struggles, and even more differences as we dive further into the nuances within these facets of identity. We should name the differences in these struggles and being mindful of this as we do our work, absolutely. For example, a trans woman’s experience will be different from a non-binary person’s, because the hyper-visibility of trans femininity churns out different forms of violence than the lack of visibility for non-binary persons. (And really, non-binary people have been visible for years.)

The thing is, too, in that example I already committed the sin of oversimplifying the conversation, because a DMAB non-binary person will move through the world much differently than a DFAB non-binary person, and there’s an even longer conversation to have about the benefits that come from trans masculinity both presently and historically under a white patriarchy. And even in that, we can talk about whose gender expressions are legitimized by the white patriarchy based on race. The conversation can get really complicated really fast (as it needs to). What ends up happening a bit too often though, at least in my experience, is these conversations turning into a pissing contest of who has it the absolute, 100% worst.

I know I had a habit of doing this, and it’s something I’m working out of my perceptions and activism. This idea of Oppression Olympics centers around the idea of a “keyhole theory,” meaning that if you tackle one or two specific oppressions, suddenly all the other oppressions will be eliminated and we’ll all be liberated. I don’t buy into this idea. I understand the desperateness that comes with wanting to find “The Answer” when it comes to oppression, because people want to end exploitation, brutalization, and dehumanization of people. The results, however, of trying to figure out which oppression is really “the root of all oppression ever” is that this pursuit erases the fact that all oppressions have had more than enough time to tie together, converge, and collaborate with one another, so they can’t be dissolved so easily. If there ever was a time when we could have ended all oppression by attacking one or two specifically, I believe that time is long gone, and we can never get it back.

When these conversations become a pissing contest, then they also operate as a tool to silence others when they are speaking on different oppressions they experience, or speaking on how their oppressed facets inform their privilege. This happens when folks assert a certain conception of privilege that is purely dichotomous (think: those awful “how privileged are you?” checklists). I mostly attribute it to a misunderstanding of privilege, but at the same time, it reminds me of how people accuse others of playing Oppression Olympics when talking about who primary targets are of certain forms of violence (or when people are talking about their specific oppressions), effectively derailing an otherwise productive, necessary, and thoughtful discussion to make it about themselves. Trans guys and DFAB non-binary people love doing this in women’s spaces, and they especially love correcting trans women’s usage of transmisogyny by saying “Don’t you mean transphobia?” I began to ask myself the question, “Is this conception of privilege really a misunderstanding, or a different way of reinforcing one’s stake in oppression?”

Problems with Privilege

Folks I’ve encountered, both in the flesh zone and the internet,  often conceive of privilege as an ‘either or.’ In terms of gender, it’s to say that men have all aspects of male privilege afforded to them. Nope, that idea is inherently racist, ableist, cissexist, and queerphobic. If you think all men are sexualized in a way that wholly benefits them, you need to stop whatever you’re doing and ask yourself “Well, wait, which men exactly?” You will soon find out that this really only applies to white, able-bodied, cis, straight men. I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say people benefit equally from where they do have privilege. BUT! All men have male privilege. All men benefit from all forms of misogyny, which includes transmisogyny, and sexism. Their experience of it, however, will be different depending on the other facets of their identity.

Privilege really can’t be described as an ‘either or.’ It really is not as dichotomous as “you are privileged or you are oppressed.” My being a trans woman is not separate from my being battered, disabled, bisexual, polyamorous, and someone who has experienced sexual violence. It is also not separate from my being white, educated, young, able-bodied, thin, and middle class. I experience all of this simultaneously. Some of these things may be more targeted/privileged depending on the context, but at no point do any of my other facets disappear. None of the facets of my identity exist in isolation from one another. They are constantly intermingling and influencing each other, even when some facets are made more apparent in certain situations.

My conjecture is that folks conceive and describe privilege as an ‘either or’ because they have stake in framing it this way. When it is framed as an ‘either or,’ it makes the checklist approach to privilege much easier to justify, and through the checklist approach, Oppression Olympics. When Oppression Olympics can be invoked, then others within your own community can be silenced if they don’t meet certain qualifications. But at the same time, I’m not about to talk about this stuff as if it’s all relative. It’s not. There are some very concrete manifestations of power, and they must be looked into.

Examining Intra-Community Power Differentials and Infighting

In writing this, I anticipated that folks might twist my arguments to say that because playing Oppression Olympics is an unproductive, harmful distraction, and because people experience oppression differently from others, then there are “no true power differentials” within oppressed communities, because we’re all experiencing the same thing from different angles. This is false. And just to be clear, right now I am not talking about how other oppressions influence these specific communities, I am talking about intra-community politics. This is not to say that racism, ableism, classism, etc. aren’t dynamics, I’m just not talking about them right now. For the trans community, that means transmisogyny and, potentially, binarism (though binarism, if it’s real, doesn’t apply to white trans people) are the power dynamics.

People who benefit from power differentials within communities are the quickest to accuse others of playing Oppression Olympics when they are examining these power differentials. DFAB non-binary folks pull this against trans women all the time when we mention that anyone who is not a trans woman has the capacity to leverage transmisogyny. This is unacceptable, and it’s a form of red herring. Nobody is playing Oppression Olympics nor being divisive when they are examining and pointing out power differentials. There are differences in power, because people within communities have the capacity to leverage varying forms of violence against others in their community.

DFAB trans people can leverage transmisogyny for their benefit. Whenever I bring this up in my community, I am met by a whole bunch of voices who, as I’ve said before, accuse me of playing Oppression Olympics. There is nothing I can systemically leverage over a DFAB trans person in regards to gender unless they’re a person of color, which then means I can leverage binarism against them, but that is conditional on whether or not binarism is an actual thing. When it comes to white DFAB trans people, there are zero things I can leverage against them in regards to gender.

Therein lies the power differential. Transmisogyny can be leveraged by anyone who is not a trans woman, and trans women can leverage… binarism if it is a power dynamic within the community. Examining power differentials on an intra-community level is hugely important, because we, as a community, need to be aware of who we are potentially harming by our words and actions in order to foster a community grounded in solidarity and love.

Not Privilege, Capacity

I’ve been slowly working the word “privilege” out of my vocabulary, mostly because I think it oversimplifies, is easily co-opted by Oppression Olympics athletes, and ignores the multifaceted identities of oppressed people. In place of it, I’ve started saying “the capacity to leverage <insert oppression here>.” I wanted to have something that acknowledges that a certain oppression can be something one passively benefits from, something one can actively participate in, and something that can be employed on an intra-community level. The dominant conception of privilege, as I see it, doesn’t necessarily get at the last two pieces.

  • The capacity to leverage means one has the ability to passively benefit from an oppression. I do not have the capacity to passively benefit from any form of cissexism and misogyny, because I am a trans woman.
  • The capacity to leverage means one may actively participate in a particular oppression and benefit from doing so. I do not have the capacity to actively participate in cissexism or misogyny and benefit from doing so, because I harm myself, my fellow trans siblings, and my fellow women by doing so.
  • The capacity to leverage means that I can partake in intra-community violence (infighting) and benefit from doing so. I do have the capacity to do this only under the condition that binarism is real. If it is, then yes, I have the capacity to leverage binarism as a white trans woman.

Yes, I understand the huge irony in those last three bulletpoints, because in a way, I set up the capacity to leverage as a checklist, which is something I actively condemn throughout this essay. I do believe that, like privilege, like oppression, there are certain requirements that need to be met for one to have the capacity to leverage an oppression. By no means should everyone completely stop using the word ‘privilege’ to describe how people benefit from oppression, but I really do believe it oversimplifies the conversation and attempts to condense people to a single facet of their identity. For me, replacing ‘privilege’ with ‘capacity to leverage’ has helped me be more precise in regards to oppression, has helped me map power better, has helped me not energize Oppression Olympics, has helped me not immediately dismiss others in my community who can harm me, and has helped me better foster solidarity with others both within and outside of my community.

The capacity to leverage more effectively identifies how people interact with systems of power both passively and actively. Privilege seems to stop at how people benefit passively from these systems, which also helps to explain why so many activists, in my experience, can’t name how they actively participate in systems of oppression. To better foster solidarity between communities and within our own communities, we need to be actively aware of the forms of violence we can leverage and benefit from. The capacity to leverage, as a rhetorical device, is one such way to get us there.

Gender Is Not Performance

Trigger warning: I use the language oppressors use to degender trans people as a way to reflect how gender is constructed in the United States.

For a little while, I was immersed in queer theory as a lens for understanding myself and the world around me. Given where I was at, it made perfect sense: gender is a performance of cultural fictions. But now, I realize just how incomplete this framework is. I mostly attribute that to how new it is, and as with any other framework, it is always important to problematize where said framework is currently at. For those who don’t know, queer theory emerged in the early 1990’s out of the fields of queer studies and women’s studies. Queer theory is a part of post-structuralism. If you aren’t sure what post-structuralism is, somebody happened to explain it very well in a Yahoo Answers post. That post avoids a ton of jargon and is something I believe to be a great summary of post-structuralism, though I would still recommend further reading at Princeton. If you’re not wanting to read more, here’s a 10-minute, three-part video series that examines it. In other words, you have zero excuse not to have some understanding of post-structuralism before reading on.

That’s a bit of context for you, and in writing this piece, I don’t expect my readers to have a complete (if you read the stuff/watched the video series, the word ‘complete’ should be dripping with irony) understanding of post-structuralism or queer theory. Nothing’s wrong with that, and so I’ll provide the context I feel is most relevant and necessary. I highly recommend being on the lookout for any biases I bring in, such as my whiteness, educational privilege, and class privilege. It is in itself a privilege to engage in theoretical gender discourse, so that needs to be named as well before proceeding.

Gender Cannot Be Performed, Only Expressed

What inspired this piece has been recent conversations I’ve had with friends, where we concluded that saying “gender is performance” is inherently racist and transmisogynistic. Queer theory, not so coincidentally, is a perpetrator of both of these, and because queer theory is such a powerful influencer in queer and trans spaces, I need to address it directly.

Judith Butler, one of the pioneers of queer theory, characterized gender as something that is practiced/performed. For some people, this practice produces the effect of a static or “normal” gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender act. This effect produces what is often considered to be someone’s “true gender”, a narrative that is sustained by “[…] the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them” (Gender Trouble, p. 179).

So what the hell is Butler talking about, right? In short, gender is a social position or status that is assigned to you by others based on obvious physical characteristics (what you’re wearing, apparent sex characteristics, etc.) and behaviors, i.e. “acting girly.” How people position you is based on their frame of reference, which is informed by dominant narratives. Butler would likely argue that people can only perform gender in the way it is presented to them. In the United States, that means the white patriarchy is what’s presenting gender. You can be boy or girl, but wait! If you’re “born a boy,” you can’t do girl stuff. If you’re “born a girl,” you can’t do boy stuff. The white patriarchy does not have any other options, and you can conform to these narratives, or you can experience violence based on non-conformity.

But do you see what the focus is on? The focus in Butler’s work, and too much of queer theory, is focused on how people “do gender.” I bet some, if not most, of you missed how I employed that exact language in talking about what options the white patriarchy offers, and in how I described gender as a social position or status. That’s the problem. It is not about being gender, it is about “doing gender.”

This leaves a lot of room for people to say that “gender isn’t real, just a social construct.” That statement erases the realities that all trans people live. Gender is very real, and to say that gender only exists as a consequence of this particular social construct is reductive and just straight up wrong. Gender is socially constructed, yes, but that’s not all of it. There is a sort of social determinism required for this understanding to make sense, that people only “pick” a gender because it’s been placed in front of them. Gender does not only exist as a consequence.

Gender is a part of that sense of self, else there would be no need for words like transgender and cisgender. Both of these terms acknowledge the individual determination of one’s identity as they defer or match up with conventional ideas of gender. In fact, words for non-binary genders also emerged to reflect this part of one’s internal sense of self. Being trans means that your internal sense of gender disagrees with the gender assigned to you. Being cis means your internal sense of gender agrees with the gender assigned to you. As Toni D’orsay puts it, “Roughly translated, the whole thing means that a Trans person is aware that they are a woman, man, both, or neither, at the same core level as they are aware of themselves as a person, distinct from other people” (Source).

It is impossible merely to perform something that is intrinsically a part of one’s being. Because gender is a part of you, you must be expressing it. And what’s the difference between expression and performance? Performance means the act of doing something (successfully), using knowledge instead of just possessing it. Think acting; think Jared Leto. Expression, on the other hand, means to communicate who you are. Gender is not performance, because gender is not something you take on. It is in part something you take on, because we all live in a gendered world, but more accurately, gender is one aspect by which you understand yourself and move through the world. As my friend voz told me countless times, “You are a self-gendered person operating in a gendered world.”

Given all of that, I will now briefly describe why characterizing gender as performance is both racist and transmisogynistic.

Characterizing Gender as Performance Serves Whiteness

First, it is very important to point at who set up gender in what is now known as the United States: white settlers. Essentially, all things constructed about gender in the United States are eurocentric (read: white). It follows then that this construction of gender serves whiteness: eurocentric beauty standards, the abolition (by way of genocide and boarding schools) of gender systems in Indigenous communities, and a whole lot more all point to this construction of gender serving white people. To say gender is performative gives us white folks a whole lot of room to appropriate, exploit, and devalue “performances” that defer from white patriarchal standards. Why? Because us white people have the “truest” performance of gender, because everyone else in the United States has been forced into our gender system. Our experience of gender is the only legitimate one–now quick! Think of the history of feminism! Never having to acknowledge that gender is a part of someone’s being creates space for us to easily dismiss and/or co-opt other “performances,” especially when they don’t line up with the standards of the white patriarchy. Everything is then ours, because nothing is truly anybody’s in this framework, except for white people. It’s only true and authentic if white people do it. Conceiving of gender as performance energizes whiteness.

Why Characterizing Gender as Performance Is Transmisogynistic

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “gender performance?” Probably a drag queen, right? Something similar might come to mind if I had said “gender bending.” Why is femininity always seen as mockery? Artificial? Inherently fake? To demonstrate why, makeup is associated with femininity, something people (usually women) put on in order to change the way they look or to enhance features they already have. What is also associated with this? Deception by way of creating a new image. Words that people use to insult folks who wear makeup: fake, plastic. Who is deception associated with most often? Trans feminine people. What’s being energized when gender is conceived as a performance? Transmisogyny, because if femininity is constantly associated with deception, then how could it ever be a legitimate part of someone’s identity? Think about the way that ties into the last section. If nothing is ever a part of someone’s identity and only performance, then it is up for grabs at all times. Trans femininity, in the context of gender as performance, then belongs to everybody else and is presupposed to be weak and submissive. Making sense now? Good.

Conclusion

Do not trust white DFAB queer theory just yet. Gender is not a performance, it is an expression of one’s internal sense of self. To say that gender is performance energizes both whiteness and transmisogyny. The implications perpetuate oppression. Saying that gender is an expression of one’s internal sense of self affirms everybody. However, I do understand that calling something an expression rather than a performance will not suddenly stop oppressors from bending our identities to their whim,  but the moment we begin to build into academia and movements that gender is performative is the moment we accept defeat, and I’m not about to accept that. Not now, not ever, and I implore you don’t either. Do not embrace frameworks that remove your agency. Do not embrace frameworks that imply your identity is artificial. They are nothing more than the same old repackaged as brand new.