Socialization Arguments Are Transmisogyny

Trigger warnings: anti-gay slurs, transmisogyny, self-harm.

I am exhausted. I am so tired of hearing the same old tired arguments from TERFs and from DFAB trans people who throw trans women under the bus in exchange for less violence on themselves (will henceforth be categorized in the acronym TERF). TERFs invoke the ‘socialization’ argument in order to call trans women “men” and to give DFAB trans people a nudge and a wink, that they’re really only female. DFAB trans people invoke it to gain access to women’s spaces, resources, shelters, and more at the direct expense of trans women. On both accounts, the goal is to other trans women.

TERFs willfully misuse the word ‘socialization’ to misgender trans women and treat us as malicious “men,” saying trans women are and have been perpetrators of male violence, because us trans women pre-coming out and pre-transition must experience malehood and therefore male privilege. They generally base this off how we are read when we are younger, meaning read as male and treated as such. While I understand why folks argue this, it relies on omitting a few things: a key aspect of socialization called response, what privilege actually is, and, naturally, the lived experiences of trans women. Not just this, but the socialization argument also relies on a caricature of trans women as men in dresses. but it also perpetuates the myth of shared girlhood, which has already been disassembled by women of color particularly along with fellow trans women. As Reed puts it, “There is no singular, universal woman’s narrative. There are as many stories and experiences as there are women.”

And she’s right. What experience of womanhood is experienced by all women? You probably don’t have to think very hard to see that this really is impossible, and for shared girlhood to be a thing, it needs to ignore that us women are multifaceted. As I pointed out earlier, TERFs believe trans women have male privilege. What they don’t understand is that one can receive benefits from privilege without actually having said privilege. In regards to transness, this is often referred to as cis-read privilege (which is conditional), sometimes called “passing” privilege. When it comes to privilege, I use Toni D’orsay’s five-step test to privilege:

  • Membership: I am a member of a social group that is dominant through no action of my own, nor through being mistaken for a member of that social group.
  • Stigma: I do not have stigma attached to me along that axis of oppression
  • Innocence: I am not looked to as the cause of problems in a social group.
  • Worthiness: I am presumed worthy of a social group’s trust and wealth.
  • Competence: I am expected to be skillful, successful, and autonomous.

To have privilege, one must be a member of a certain group, and trans women are not a part of the dominant gender groups in both cisness and maleness. We might be mistaken as members for these groups, but we are not in truth either. Benefiting from privilege is not the same thing as possessing that privilege, as D’orsay puts it. However, TERFs insist that trans women, because they were likely read and treated as males growing up, never internalized the messages of womanhood. They must have internalized the messages of boyhood. Trans women, therefore, cannot truly be women. While trans women might receive some practical benefits from being read as male, that does not mean we’ve all internalized boyhood. Once again, we see TERFs relying on the myth of shared girlhood, that women across all social positionings receive these messages in the same way. It assumes whiteness, it assumes a certain class status, it assumes one is able-bodied, it assumes one is neurotypical, it assumes a particular geographic location, it assumes every privileged category outside of ‘woman.’ It also assumes a major lack of agency in regards to all women, not just trans women.

And when trans women point this out, the moving goalposts fallacy comes up in attempts to show that us trans women don’t really understand womanhood and can, in fact, never understand it. Moving goalposts is a logical fallacy that is also known as “raising the bar.” It dismisses evidence made for a specific claim, and then demands some other (often greater) evidence. There was an initial goal, but then the goalposts are moved to exclude the attempt made. You know when Charlie Brown attempts to kick the football while Lucy holds it, and says she promises to hold it in place, but every time he tries, she moves the football away? And Charlie hurts himself, Lucy mocks him, and then he has to get another running start, maybe further back this time around? Moving goalposts is exactly that.

The bar is always raised for trans women, and it gets raised to an impossible standard just to say trans women are men. “You don’t have breasts so you can’t be a woman.” Some cis women don’t have breasts, and some trans women do have breasts. “But trans women’s breasts are fake.” What does that even mean, a “natural” boob? One that develops from hormones? Some cis women have to take hormones or have cosmetic surgery for their breasts. “You do a lot of boy things.” There aren’t women who do things marked as masculine? Tomboys don’t exist? “Your assertiveness shows your maleness.” Again, are there no assertive women? Is the category ‘woman’ marked by passiveness? Sounds pretty patriarchal to me. “You’re too muscular.” Some cis women have defined muscles. “You can’t give birth.” There are cis women who can’t give birth. “You have a penis, and so you can never experience womanhood.” Some trans women have vaginas. It appears that when you tell trans women who they are, you’re also telling other women who they are. Women must fit a certain standard in order to be “real,” and what’s that require? It requires policing, and nothing about that is radical or progressive. In fact, it is downright misogynistic.

I said earlier that TERFs omit a key aspect of socialization called response along with the lived experiences of trans women. By omitting these things, TERFS gain a monopoly on the “female narrative,” because they never have to have trans women in the conversation at all. I will counter this by discussing socialization.

Socialization: What It Actually Is

Socialization is the process which prepares human beings to function in social life. It is how new folks are prepared to become members of an existing group and to think, feel, and act in ways this group considers appropriate. What this looks like will vary from culture to culture, family to family, etc. (Think back to the myth of shared girlhood again) It is also important to know that all of us are still being socialized. As a society shifts and changes, so do the social environments we move through. And so to get a better look at socialization, we need to talk about it in three parts.

The three major aspects of socialization are as follows: context, content and processes, and response. Context simply refers to specific locations/time periods in which we are socialized, ie at work, childhood, school, with friends, informal environments, traveling, and more.

“The content and process of socialization is like the play, the lines, and the actors. It includes the structure of the socializing activity—how intense and prolonged it is, who does it, how it is done, whether it is a total experience or only a partial process, how aware the individual is of alternatives, and how attractive those alternatives are. Content refers specifically to what is passed from member to novice. Processes are those interactions that convey to new members how they are to speak, behave, think, and even feel.” (source)

Response is just that: how somebody responds to these messages they’re being bombarded with, which means what? That this person has a self-concept, is self-aware. They have an idea of themselves (regardless of how well others think they know it) and whether or not they agree with the messages being sent to them, and then how they deal with that connection/disconnection. This one is key.

The response one needs to be elaborated on a bit more. Nobody internalizes all messages sent to them the same way (which is, again, why there are so many different expressions of womanhood). In fact, some are outright rejected, and that’s because folks know a message is not about them. TERFs often act like folks have no agency within these structures, that people, particularly women in this case, are more stone tablets to have their identities engraved upon them. That sounds pretty darn misogynistic, doesn’t it? Seems to be a pattern in TERF rhetoric. Acting like women don’t have agency over their own experiences sounds exactly like what patriarchy says about women. Which brings me to the next bit, another sociological concept TERFs seem to omit on the regular: Structure and Agency.

Structure refers to the recurrent, patterned arrangements (think back to the content and processes + context aspects of socialization) which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. This means how systems of oppression and privilege operate in our lives and influence our experiences. Agency means the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Structure and Agency together is the interaction between individuals and the structures they’re working within. That means that all facets of identity are at play here, because we as individuals are multifaceted. Based on how you comprehend yourself, and your relationship to these messages broadcasted to you in an innumerable amount of ways by social environments, that is how you are socialized.

In other words, I wasn’t raised as a male. I was a trans girl who had cis norms imposed on her. I was responding to these “you are male” messages as a trans girl. And because of that disconnect, I committed varying forms of violence against myself. I self-harmed, I abused drugs and alcohol, I starved myself, and more. Others recognized that disconnect and bullied me for “being a faggot.” I will not lie about how that disconnect also resulted in violence against others in the form of lashing out verbally and getting into fist fights with men who bullied me. I know how TERFs will frame this. They will say my lashing out is a result of my maleness, not a reaction to abuse and violence I faced as a young trans girl. That, in itself, is a form of transmisogynistic violence, because you are calling a trans woman a man.

And I know they will still call me a man based on the fact that I have a penis, and they will do the same to trans women who have had bottom surgery by saying they once had a penis. Defining genders based on sex characteristics is exactly what patriarchy does, but suddenly it’s alright for these so-called feminists to do so because the very existence of trans women is just too scary to think about. So instead of acknowledging trans women as we are: women, these folks buy into a white supremacist notion of gender, ignoring sex for what it is.

Sex Is Social Construction

For this section, I believe it’d be best to define what a social construction is exactly:

“Social constructs are the by-products of people interacting with each other. They are the products of communal creation and understanding of reality around them, and they are based in the notion that things are not universal and based in an understanding of them as having an essential quality that transcends time and space. […] Social constructions are the ways in which people collectively participate in the construction of their perceived social reality; the manner by which social phenomena are created, institutionalized, known, and made into tradition by humans. […] The social construction of reality is an ongoing, dynamic process that is reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it. Social constructs must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist, and often the tools by which this happens, themselves are part of the way in which that happens. […] Social Constructs are how Structure is created, in other words.  They are the concepts, ideas, and thoughts that are shared, communicated, and accepted in a way that becomes part of what everyone accepts.” (source)

And part of what everyone has accepted (the dominant narrative in other words) is this: When it comes to one’s sex, there are five criteria that are looked at by biologists when analyzing sex characteristics: chromosomes, gonads, genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and hormones. (Note: This is how it operates generally in Western culture, and it may vary more or less outside of this context.) These criteria are often viewed as immutable and static, and this immutability has been used historically by white settlers to impose their conception of gender on Indigenous people. This isn’t to say that sex as an immutable part of gender has ceased being discussed as such. It still is, as I’ve pointed out in the first section. That’s not news to anybody. What might be news is how this is currently practiced on people whose bodies don’t match up with these conventional ideas of “sex.”

“But one of the most important moments in the sex assignment process happens in the first hours after birth. The case of those considered “intersex” can be illustrative here. Suppose a child is born in a western country who has ovaries on the inside, but a penis on the outside. Alternatively, suppose a child is born with labia and a vagina, but also with testes (once again, these cases are not so uncommon; intersex individuals account for around 2% of all births, and in some regions of the world this rate is considerably higher). The first thing that typically happens is that this situation is declared to be a medical emergency. Think about this for a second. Intersex “conditions” present few if any health risks. There is of course a social stigma associated with any appearance of not fitting rigidly into one of the two sex classes. Yet there is also a social stigma associated with being gay, and we don’t consider homosexuality a “condition” or a “disorder” that needs to be medically treated. Moreover, the treatments used to “correct” intersex characteristics sometimes carry substantial risks, and the long-term effects they have are still relatively ill-researched. The motivation behind “correcting” intersex characteristics is thus not one related to the health of the child, it is entirely one of enforcing the sex binary. Any variance from the rigidly defined “male” and “female” classes is an emergency that must be snuffed out as soon as possible.” (source)

So really, what actually constitutes a “male” or “female” body? Does somebody need to have a certain number of sex characteristics in order to fit into this binary? Is it chromosomes? Is it hormones? Is it something about gonads, maybe genitalia? Or, are the strict categorizations of “male” and “female” bodies not as useful as some might think? As this same piece argues, gender is not based on sex assignment. Rather, the reverse is true: sex assignment is based on gender. The construction of sex is but one other way to impose gender roles upon people while denying the variance in bodies. Sex has been constructed so that it serves the ends of a white patriarchy. TERFs are then reinforcing this same exact structure when they police the borders of womanhood by invoking gender essentialism (by way of biology and socialization) to exclude trans women. Their approach is nothing short of white supremacist, colonial feminism, and transmisogyny naturally follows from that approach. TERFs actually challenge nothing about patriarchy, but they reinforce the same oppressive tenets they claim to combat: misogyny, white supremacy, and more. The feminism of TERFs might as well be called patriarchal feminism.

My perceived sex characteristics say nothing about my gender, nor is it already set in stone by an omniscient structure as to how I will receive certain messages that are hurled in my direction by folks who read me incorrectly. These structures are not so deterministic, and if they were, social movements would be mostly non-existent, because social movements are an acknowledgement that these structures aren’t working. Trans women are not men seeking to invade women’s spaces. We have always been around. We did not suddenly appear into existence. And so for you to not repeat this long and brutal history, you need to keep your patriarchy covered hands off my body.

My designation at birth is not my destination.

I’m Not Sorry

Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure what I want the goal of this piece to be, but I want to write it regardless. No, it’s not perfect, but I still believe I have the right to tell my own story on my own terms. For many students on campus who are marginalized, I’m sure they too have feelings of anxiety and dread. I am not here to discount their experiences, but I only wish to speak for my own.

To the best of my knowledge, I am one of two trans people on my campus of 10,000 students (both undergrad and grad). My school is a Catholic University, which has a conservative bend within its policies. Not only this, but I am hyper visible on my campus because I am a trans woman who is pre-everything and femme presenting. I really, really stand out. I can’t walk across any part of campus without folks nudging their friends, pointing at me, having students yell “tranny” and “faggot” from their dorm windows, hearing people whisper “What is that?” Using my school’s gym wearing something as insignificant and as small as nail polish has incited people to ask me “What’s on your nails? Is that for a sociology class?” Or when I’ve had to hear “Ash? But your ID says…” in a pretty public setting. I can’t even order a damn cup of coffee without the people at the counter addressing me as “sir” with the most asinine amount of sternness, trying to remind me of my stubble or my apple. In classrooms, students ask me invasive questions about my gender that they would never ask a person they read as cis. He, he, him, his, him, sir, man, dude, he, him, man, and these same misgenderers have the nerve to ask “What? Why are you mad? Be patient with me,” as if this is not the 1000th time that day.

Casual cissexism, and transmisogyny more specifically, are never addressed in spaces unless by me. The bystanderism exuded by my peers is omnipresent. Their absence is everywhere. In the activist communities on my campus, people treat me as though I need to represent all trans voices, and if I’m not working to their (cis) ends, then I need to be silent. As a co-facilitator of my school’s first ever trans 101 workshop, a cis white woman spoke over/for me and seemed to take the lead of the workshop, only really relaying to me to make sure she got some information right. I was essentially token diversity for cis people to pat themselves on the back for “being inclusive.”

These are just some of the experiences I’ve had as a trans woman on a college campus. I feel a constant sense of dread, so much so that I don’t even want to set foot on campus. I try taking the long ways to certain buildings to avoid large crowds of people, but then that means I’m isolated and potentially easier to spot. I’ll make sure to find the places with the least amount of traffic just to avoid being seen. Being visible isn’t always a good thing, because you have to ask who is seeing you.

So, on a campus filled with people I read as white, cis, affluent, and able-bodied, that puts me in a pretty unsafe position. This is not to mention that trans women, especially trans women of color, experience a disproportionate amount of violence compared to the rest of the trans community. Of course I don’t believe I’m going to be murdered on campus, but I am constantly thinking about the heightened degree of violence that I can potentially experience, even as a white trans woman (Quick aside: any white trans person who pretends that whiteness doesn’t act as a buffer is full of it). When I hear students shout something transmisogynistic at me or leer at me, I start thinking about the quickest way back to my car, where the nearest alarm is that I can ring, how to talk my way out of physical violence by way of derailment, where the closest dorm building is, checking around for pub safe (unsure if they would actually help), and I start to wonder if my two years of boxing will have to come into use as a last resort.

This happens every time I come onto my campus, and if I don’t come onto campus, then I can’t go to class. If I don’t go to class, I’ll fail. If I fail, then I can’t get my degree in Justice & Peace Studies. That could potentially mean more loans, which means debt. But if I don’t get my degree, what place is going to hire a degree-less, bisexual, battered trans woman who suffers from night terrors, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, some of which are heightened by my transness? This is also to mention that yes, my disabilities absolutely can and do get in the way of my work. If I don’t get my degree, will I be able to make enough money to support myself? Will I be able to pay for hormones even, or the gender therapy required in the state I live in to be able to access hormones to begin with? If I don’t express my gender in a way that feels authentic and real to me, then how quickly will I fall back into the suicidal ideation and self-harm that’s plagued me since 5th grade? Will I be able to afford therapy for my depression and anxiety? Will survival sex work become something I have to seriously consider? Will I have to do cam work?

I don’t have a choice. I have to go to school in order to attain some level of security, even though the school is an unsafe, hostile environment. I am forced to attend a school in which I am clearly unwelcome. My energy is constantly sapped by not only the potential danger and essential self-care during the day, but also by well-meaning student activist groups and ad hoc faculty groups.

I feel as though I am perceived as a battery. My energy must always be charging any and every project whether or not I am compensated. I’m rarely ever compensated financially for the work I’m able to do on a professional level for these folks, such as workshop development and facilitation, trainings, and my spoken word poetry (though, admittedly, I do not have a large platform for my poetry). Along with this, I am also rarely given credit when I lead these things. By these groups, I am consistently tokenized, used for their ends, and when I suggest initiatives, they are quietly dismissed in favor of… well, typical white, cis liberal shenanigans, as in “Building awareness” and “Intellectual discourse.” These are the cornerstones of status quo-reinforcing structures.

I am not here to waste time in intellectual spaces. Note: Intellectual spaces are not the same as safe spaces for marginalized people. I have come to regard these intellectual spaces as hardly useful at best and dangerous at worst. These spaces romanticize oppression, using other people’s struggles as intellectual cannon fodder for their own benefit. It is not activism, it is selfish. It is oppressive. It is academics touting themselves as liberators for “being aware” and “possessing knowledge.” I’m not here for that. I used to work in such spaces, but I know better now. I no longer facilitate, encourage, or energize spaces that are purely intellectual. They are a waste of resources, because conversations on oppression and one’s complicity in them should be happening regardless of whether or not a space is centered on it.

And yet, these well-meaning students and faculty members still seek me out. My perspective only seems sought after when it energizes the career and activist goals of cis, white people, particularly women. They are not asking me how to make things better for trans people on campus, they are asking me to give myself over to their causes. My energy is only valuable when it helps build their resumés, and my causes are apparently not important enough to work on. When this observation fully formed in my mind and I could identify it, it led me to disengage from student activist groups on my campus, and it has brought me to a number of arts/activist groups off-campus. From my perspective, student activist groups on my campus are less concerned about challenging the status quo and are more preoccupied with patting themselves on the back for any vaguely progressive thing they do.

Yet somehow, this always ends up with me being blamed for “not doing enough,” or “not being in attendance.” Too often do spaces place the responsibility on those who are marginalized. “We can’t fix our space without you!” Yes you can. Do your homework. There are thousands of websites and books and articles that cover these exact subjects written by marginalized people. If you’re reading this, that means you can start googling. In fact, I’ll give you a start here, here, and here. You have to critically self-reflect. You have to question your motivations, and you have to face the hard truth that you, all of us, are complicit in perpetuating oppression. If you bring trans people into your group and haven’t made a serious effort to address your own cissexism and the cissexism in your space, you put us in danger. Our safety is threatened, and it was all for the sake of “diversifying” your space. That’s pretty disgusting that you would prioritize your diversity quota above the safety of marginalized people, another common feature of intellectual spaces.

I understand what I’m saying about these groups is going to upset some people reading this, and I’m not the tiniest bit sorry. I’m not sorry for being a trans woman who demands to be paid for the work she does, especially when she’s consistently tokenized, used as a resumé builder, and put at risk just for being on her campus. I’m not sorry for disengaging from groups and people who only seem to value me as a battery for cisness. I am not obligated to change those groups for you. I am not obligated to challenge those behaviors for you. My existence is not centered around bettering your spaces for you on your terms. My existence is not for you, and I am tired of doing the heavy lifting for you when you could have done the most basic google search.

Stop treating marginalized identities, of which you don’t have, as space-inspectors, as batteries, and as token diversity. I will never forget when you turned your back to transmisogyny. I will never forget that time you didn’t correct others on my pronouns in a public space, but then came up to me afterwards and went “Golly, wasn’t that fucked up?” I will never forget how you spoke on transmisogyny with authority as I was in the room instead of addressing your cisness and your complicity. I will never forget how you told me “Well, wouldn’t it be a better idea to focus on the majority of students instead of a smaller subsection?” I’m never going to forget any of that, nor would it be wise for me to do so. I have to preserve myself in a place bent on my physical and symbolic annihilation, and I will never apologize for speaking my truth.

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.

Deconstructing Passing Politics, A Different Framework: Identity vs Positioning

Trigger warning: I use the T-slur to talk about how others socially position me when my gender expression is feminine. I also make wording choices to reflect toxic attitudes as they pertain to trans people. As always, if you are triggered by anything I haven’t mentioned, please message me and I will change this piece ASAP!

In the trans community, the notion of “passing” embedded itself into how trans people view the validity of their identity. “Passing” is an inherently toxic notion for all trans identities, because it places the validity of one’s gender on how well they perform and express that gender. This places non-binary identities in a very awkward spot. Since non-binary identities are neither man nor woman (though some may alternate in between these genders, i.e. bigender, multigender), the question becomes “Pass… as what?” Our only genders under the white patriarchy are ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ In regards to non-binary identities, there is something about them that evokes a very condescending response from society. Non-binary folks are almost universally treated as these angsty teens who are still trying to upset their parents, because their “over-the-top” gender and possible expressions must be the behavior of somebody who just “can’t grow up.” Within the queer and trans communities, these identities are both viewed as “truly subversive,” another harmful practice that Julia Serano has covered incredibly well, and false.

For trans folk who are on the binary, we are not truly our genders unless any and all traces of our designated sex have been done away with surgically or hidden well enough. It is my contention that binary trans identities are held under a microscope, and then are held to a hyper feminine or hyper masculine standard, whereas non-binary identities are dismissed immediately and viewed as childish rebellion. If trans women and men do not fit into these near-impossible standards, then they aren’t women or men. Even if we “pass”, the moment our trans status is discovered, not only do our identities come into question, but so does our humanity.

“Passing,” as it is constructed, implies that trans people are not actually their genders, but merely trying to imitate them in denial of what society would perceive as their “real” gender. Let me be very loud and clear: My womanhood is not an imitation–it is authentic, real, sincere, and honest. Non-binary identities are not attempting to upset one’s parents or “trying to be edgy.” This is who we are as the transgender community. These are our genders and you will respect them.

Passing Politics have changed, though, and now they mostly only come up when referring to “passing privilege.” Passing privilege, as it is understood in the trans community, means folks who are seen as the gender they are expressing, meaning they experience cis privilege. This is always weaponized against binary trans people, and that is a product of subversivism in queer and trans spaces. “Passing privilege” has been modified to only apply to binary trans people, because we are “trying to pass” as women or men. There is no such thing as a cis genderqueer, but there are cis women and cis men, so only binary trans identities can experience cis privilege. This conception makes it so non-binary identities never have to own up when they experience cis privilege. Passing Politics also reinforces the idea that binary trans people’s genders are cheap imitations and knock-offs–never quite the real thing, and so Passing Politics are complicit in transphobia, harming the community as a whole.

Passing Politics are so deeply flawed, harmful, and divisive that they must be changed completely, and here is a framework that I believe should replace it: Identity vs. Positioning. Identity is the way one conceives of themself, and positioning is how they are placed in social systems by others, usually those in dominant identity categories. My definition of privilege within this framework will be the ease by which one moves through social systems. To help explain this, I will use myself as an example.

I am a trans woman, but I have not started HRT (and I wish to), nor have I had any sort of surgery to help me feel more in line with my correct gender (and I wish to). I have ‘masculine’ traits: muscley, broad-shouldered, hairy, strong jawline, large hands, and relatively tall. I have a very femme gender expression: lipstick, nail polish, dresses, eyeliner, skirts, etc. Let’s say one day I decide that I just want to wear sweatpants, a baggy shirt, and not bother with any makeup for whatever reason. I am still a woman, but in place of saying “I don’t pass as a woman today,” I say “I would be read as a cis man today” or “Others socially perceive me as a cis man today.” My identity is still woman, but I can experience practical benefits if others position me as a cis man, even if that contradicts my identity. However, that is not to say that I also experience cis privilege when I express my gender femininely. I am not positioned as a man when I do this. I am positioned as a “man in a dress” (you know that comedic trope), a freak, a tranny. I experience varying forms of violence for that.

This framework completely does away with the toxic notion of “passing.” It replaces it with a more encompassing, accurate way of viewing privilege as it can operate in the trans community. This framework, unlike Passing Politics which have been weaponized against binary trans people, does not absolve non-binary people of experiencing cis privilege, because they can still be read as cis. Trans people are misgendered when they are read as cis, but they can still experience practical benefits for it, though it is situational and context sensitive. It also does not predicate the validity of trans identities based on how well we “pass” as our correct genders, therefore affirming all trans identities and not needlessly pitting them against one another.