Skip to content

VISIONS OF MANLINESS PRESENTS: On the Fringes of Male Privilege

[Friends: You may have noticed some strange things afoot, at popular lady blog for ladies with lots of lady contributors Tiger "Ladybusiness" Beatdown. For example, you may have noticed that this week, we are all about the dudes! Did you know there are actually experiences of, like, oppression and junk thatoccur in the lives of people WHO ARE NOT LADIES AT ALL??? Man people! With man lives! They have this shit going on as well! And you know what it's fun to do: Publish some men, on this very subject. For that reason, this week we present a very special PBS-style series entitled VISIONS OF MANLINESS, starring: Some dudes, talking 'bout their dudebusiness. You will be both enlightened and entertained! As, for example, by this post, by dudeblogger Melusin. Read on! To learn how that gets complicated, in Melusin's life!]

There have been big and small changes in my transition. With friends, things haven’t changed much; I wince at or correct pronouns more, but otherwise can’t constantly point out that I am a dude (or, that I am a trans dude). In social situations where I don’t know people that well, I can and do point out that I AM A DUDE, a lot. In the street, I hope people see the chest and crotch and figure it out.

Some things, though, I do notice. For instance, the difference between going out in the exact same outfit (jeans, shirt, cord jacket) depending on whether or not I’ve bound my chest. When people read me as male, street harassment is much less of an issue. It tends to be limited to a) bolshy teens and pre-teens attempting to establish my gender, and b) comments on my more obvious hair and body modification choices. When I don’t bind, and am read as female, comments are made by strange men about almost everything, ranging from my gait (if I’m walking oddly owing to ill fitting shoes, I apparently resemble a pogo stick) to the cries of disgust if I’m eating in public (I’m fat) to the familiar assumption that being in public and in possession of breasts means that I must be waiting to have my attractiveness judged by a man.

For the first month of my transition, I was elated at the prospect of going to buy milk, or return a library book, without being heckled. Seriously, buying milk without being insulted/chatted up: It is a fine experience. I would recommend it to you if it doesn’t involve erasing your gender identity. But I am aware that it’s a privilege, and one that most women don’t have. I’ve become afraid that it will go to my head, and cause me to explain away women’s experience. A trans man I saw at a speaking engagement said that transition had made him even more feminist. I think it’s doing the same for me, and hope that I don’t follow the Pied Piper of Not Being Yelled At In The Street into the Mountain Cave of Mansplanation. (Seriously, guys, it’s not likely to happen.) 

And now I’ve hit the “you’re just doing it for the privilege” roadblock that is encountered by a lot of trans men.

I’m not; the elation that comes from not being hassled in the street is tiny compared to the feeling of being recognized as the gender I actually am, even in situations where it means I lose privilege. My partner’s a man. Before transition, we were one of those annoyingly tactile couples in public. We’re not so much now. If you want someone to compare the experience of holding hands in public as a read-as heterosexual couple, as a read-as lesbian couple and as a read-as gay male couple, and the hassle it brings you, I am your man. In my experience, it’s far more uncomfortable and harassment-inducing as either queer couple. But the harassment feels much less safe when you’re read as two gay men.

Before I go further, let me introduce my Ladder of Passing, specific to Melusin (I’m aware that this is probably very different for other people, especially trans women) analogy. There is a Ladder. Here are the first three rungs.

The first rung, the bottom rung, is passing at a distance, in the street, without interaction. Being read as male long enough for a drunk teenage boy not to shout at you. I pass at his level, most of the time.

The second rung is passing in a brief interaction, such as during a transaction in a shop, or when asking directions. I pass at this level some of the time, say 30-50%.

Then we have passing in a longer interaction, say a half-hour conversation. I think I’ve passed at this level once.

One privilege I’ve acquired, some of the time, when passing on the second rung, is not being addressed by diminutives. There is, as I’m sure you know, a world of difference between being called “sir” in a shop and being called “love” or “darling.” With the first you’re treated as an equal, as an adult. You have the privilege of being able to expect an answer to your questions, not a mansplanation. It’s very obvious as a privilege when you only have it part of the time;  I’ve had interactions while flyering when read as female where every other word of the conversation seemed to be meant to make me feel less worthwhile, and within the same week I’ve had the same interactions as a man, where I’m just treated as an annoying dude who wants you to see his play.

Both of these privileges, not being shouted at in the street and not being treated as less, as childlike, seem relatively small. But they’re the privilege, the experience, of not constantly having your sex or gender used as weapon against you, of not constantly having to assert your worth just to buy milk. They are elating, and they are privileges. And they shouldn’t be.

[Melusin is a blogger and playwright in Coventry, England. He blogs at And What Was Ze.]


30 Comments

  1. b michael wrote:

    This is an excellent post, and it illustrates I think one of the unique ways that thinking on sexuality beats itself up: Even when you win, you tend to lose since now you’re privileged or you’re enjoying benefits you haven’t earned or shouldn’t have had to earn.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Angela wrote:

    May I question why you use the term “passing”?

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Sarah TX wrote:

    Even when you “win”, you lose. Well put, B Michael!

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Gnatalby wrote:

    And now I’ve hit the “you’re just doing it for the privilege” roadblock that is encountered by a lot of trans men.

    I don’t understand why this is a roadblock at all. First, it assumes that blending is easy and without cost, and second it assumes that there’s something wrong with wanting to be treated like a human being, I think most people want that.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  5. Sady wrote:

    @Angela: It’s my understanding that “passing” — for example, being a dude, who is accepted as a dude, without being seen as a “trans dude” specifically — is a pretty common usage. It’s not “passing” as a dude, which implies duplicitousness, but “passing” as someone without trans history, which is probably a relief considering the vicious and often violent treatment trans people receive.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  6. C.L. Minou wrote:

    On “Passing”–

    So, here’s the deal, and what I am guessing (for I don’t wish to put words in her mouth) was getting at:

    While “passing” remains a common term in both trans and cis communities, a lot of trans folk (such as myself) also find it a problematic term. Because “passing” implies that you’re not what you say you are; there’s an element of deceit, of falseness, of pretense. So instead you sometimes hear terms like “blending” or “accepted” or “acknowledged” (well, okay, I don’t think I’ve actually heard that last one, but it fits, nicht wahr?)

    The problem is that those terms–and the reasoning behind them–simply hasn’t permeated the public consciousness yet. (Hell, it hasn’t even permeated the trans consciousness yet.) So in a general article like this, I don’t think the term is necessarily unwarranted, just like in general writing on trans issues I tend not to assume that people know what “cis” means without at least defining it once. (Not here, though, because TB readers are super-well-informed, natch.)

    C.L. Minou teaches Trans Terminology 202 at the Tiger Beatdown Institute of Nachos and Gender Studies.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  7. C.L. Minou wrote:

    Obviously I meant I wasn’t meaning to put word’s in Angela’s mouth. Stupid lack of preview function…

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  8. C.L. Minou wrote:

    Melusin, that was really fascinating and interesting in a sort of mirror image of my own transition, where the simple things in life suddenly become problematic.

    An interesting point about your feminism becoming stronger during your transition: it did for me, as well (hint: I started a blog about it!) but what’s kind of interesting is the different reactions I think people will have to our respective intensification of dedication to The Cause: in your case, people may be surprised that having transitioned to male you still think feminism is important (and trust me, you’ll find plenty of guys lining up to give you flack over being a feminist) but you’ll likely get cred from other feminists for it; in my case, my own dedication to feminism is sometimes dismissed as simple self-interest even by feminists, as if the only reason I care about feminist issues is to preserve my lost “male” privilege.

    Which ignores the number of trans women who hold anti-feminist views, and the number of trans men who do likewise. (Not all trans men, to quote the old saw, keep what was good about having been raised female and not all trans women keep what was bad about having been raised male.) I don’t think there are that many of either, but I’ve met both variations.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  9. Melusin wrote:

    @Angela and CL- I tried to write an explanation of why I use the term, and found a lot of problems with the reasons. It’s partially short hand/easily understood term, partially insecurity about the amount of performance being read as my gender currently requires and the fact that I’m early in transition (really not okay).

    Thinking about it the negative aspects (the idea of passing-does not equal failing, and the cis privileging idea of owing it to people if I want them to see me a s my gender) are very present when I use it. So thank you for calling me on that.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  10. Melusin wrote:

    @Gnatalby- I think it’s a roadblock because it’s tied up in the idea (which I have heard articulated) that I am transitioning not to be regarded as human, but to benefit from the Kyriarchy by not being female.

    It’s tied in to the idea which you get from some queer/lesbian identified writers that trans men exist because of the fact that they think femininity/being female is bad because of the ingrained sexism in our culture, and not because they are just there. (Ariel Levy uses this argument in Female Chauvinist Pigs, but goes to lengths to convey that it’s only some (“many” is the word used actually) male identified trans gender and genderqueer people, and there are some trans men are genuine, but the some/many are confused queer women.

    It’s also very much tied into self doubt, and (I think, and I know other trans men who have said similar) the fear of not really being your gender- being afraid that the X years being told you weren’t really you were right. Which, and this really isn’t meant to be snarky or patronising because I’m sure you get it, appears to sometimes be a side effect of being told you’re not really your gender/you.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Melusin wrote:

    @Gnatalby- and now I realise I haven’t actually touched on what I said in the post- it’s the knowledge that (many) women don’t get this privilege, and that I haven’t ever before, and it’s fundamentally unearned and I’m afraid of misusing it

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  12. Angela wrote:

    I didn’t mean to call you out on anything — I’m cis, by the way. Just curious on what the current opinions are w/r/t terminology, because until today I’d always though that though “passing” was used out of convenience, the new & preferred phrase was “to be read as,” because I understood passing to refer to coming across to others as the gender one identifies as, regardless of cis/trans-ness. So it would imply that trans men, for example, in trying to “pass,” are trying to be seen as something they’re actually not (since the term was originally used to refer to POC who “passed” as white, if I’m not mistaken). But a friend of mine and then Sady pointed out that passing can often refer to passing as cis. Etc.

    And re: Ariel Levy, ugh, seriously? That argument doesn’t make sense at all for many reasons, one being because around equal numbers of MTF and FTM trans people exist (according to Serano). Another reason to dislike that book.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  13. Melusin wrote:

    CL- you’re right. If this isn’t off topic I do find myself at the moment worrying about whether being an Outspoken Feminist stops people from seeing me as male (my social circle does not include that many strongly identified/outspoken feminists, and lots of people in it still see me as female) and I can’t work out whether that’s rational or okay or not.

    As to the people counting/rating feminism thing, it really really terrifies me. Because (to pretty much quote you on The Second Awakening) I don’t want there to be any unearned privilege, especially not to have it, especially not if that’s being credited with better understanding of /solidarity with what women are going through than actual women who are actually going through it.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  14. GarlandGrey wrote:

    @Melusin I think this post proves that there are enough entitled jerkwads in your life waiting to tell you what to think about yourself. Don’t let Ariel Levy in your head. Part of moving past privilege is an awareness and sensitivity to how it unfairly benefits you. You seem to be hyperaware of these things.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  15. RebeccaS wrote:

    @Melusin, I would argue that *no* privilege is “earned”. It’s not like I leveled up to whiteness, or got demoted to being a dwarf because I failed a boss fight. Privilege is conferred; it’s not the having of it that’s problematic on an individual level, IMHO, it’s awareness of and what you do with/about it.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  16. Sady wrote:

    @Garland: “Don’t let Ariel Levy in your head.”

    And thus, Garland and Sady became BFF4EVR.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  17. Sady wrote:

    @Melusin: I like a lot of what Ariel Levy does, but her chapter on trans men, genderqueer/masculine folks, and butch ladies was FUUUUCKED. UPPPPPPP. For example, I was reading around in some trans message boards around the time of the book’s release, and according to a poster there, one of the “sexist” quotes she uses to “prove” a trans dude’s “internalized” “misogyny?” Was a joke. Like, “I am going to pretend to be a sexist trans dude, because I think that is ridiculous, and also there’s the subtext to this whole anecdote that I maybe knew you were looking for me to be sexist, and was fucking with you on that front.” Which she then quoted as if it were serious, according to the poster. On the Internet, people can pipe up to contextualize your quotes, is the moral of this story!

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  18. Travis wrote:

    Really interesting post. I hadn’t thought about that angle before. I never had/have those experiences when being read as female, so while having someone call me sir instead of ma’am, for example, makes me happy because it means they see me as a guy, being read as male doesn’t really make any difference in the way people on the street treat me.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  19. EM wrote:

    Privilege is invisible, Travis. The point of the OP was that passing makes it visible. Just b/c you don’t notice it happening to you doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

    Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  20. Gnatalby wrote:

    To expand on my first comment and respond a little bit (I appreciate your thoughtful explanations, btw):

    I completely agree with you that the system of privilege is completely fucked up and I desperately wish we lived in a world where people were not rewarded and disadvantaged based on their innate, and there are some privileges, including some that I have as an overwhelmingly privileged person that I don’t want, like being preferentially given jobs based on the color of my skin. But there are other privileges I do, desperately want. As a woman I would absolutely love to have the privilege of being allowed to exist in public without being objectified, and if there were something simple I could do to get that privilege, you bet I would do it in a heartbeat.

    But as a cis woman, I of course don’t bind my breasts and go out and enjoy the pleasures of an unharrassed walk, and that’s because first, I’m not trans, so it doesn’t resolve a mismatch between who I am and how I appear to others, second, blending isn’t easy, and third, any male privilege a trans man picks up is accompanied by a hearty helping of transphobia. If it weren’t for the many benefits of matching your person to your presentation, I don’t think the male privilege gains would be greater than the transphobic losses.

    Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  21. Farore wrote:

    Ugh, I get what everyone is saying here, but I can’t help but wince in agony every time I read ‘the privilege of being treated like a person’ or ‘the privilege of not being objectified’… shouldn’t that be a RIGHT? White, wealthy cismen get a lot of privileges, but being able to go out in public without being harassed is less a privilege, to me, and more a right that is actively and punitively denied to ladythings and transthings :C

    Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  22. Gnatalby wrote:

    I agree that it should be a right, but at present it demonstrably isn’t.

    Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  23. Lauren wrote:

    That would be *drumroll please* a SUPER VAGINA!

    Friday, April 9, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink
  24. Lauren wrote:

    WAIT: disregard that last comment! I was talking about the Scott Pilgrim post that my boyfriend commented on and got to the wrong post! SORRY!

    Friday, April 9, 2010 at 12:47 am | Permalink
  25. Travis wrote:

    @EM Did you even read my comment or did you just read what you wanted to read?

    In case it wasn’t clear, I am a trans guy, too. And I think I know very well whether or not I have been hassled, catcalled, etc. during the many years I presented as female.

    Because (as I said in my comment that you didn’t bother to read) I did *not* have the experience of harrassment that so many women do, I do not experience the same relief/difference that the OP does when being read as a guy.

    Friday, April 9, 2010 at 2:51 am | Permalink
  26. EM wrote:

    Travis, I happen to be trans as well. Even not having been hassled myself, or not experiencing harassment as such?–there is a distinct difference in treatment when I pass as compared to when I don’t. That’s privilege.

    In your original comment you said, being read as male doesn’t really make any difference in the way people on the street treat me. You said nothing about relief. You said nothing about you yourself feeling different. What you did was directly characterize other people as not treating you differently. That’s not how privilege works. Being seen as a man = getting privilege, regardless of whether it’s apparent (or affirming) to you. Your recognizing it or not doesn’t make any difference as to whether or not you get it. That is what I was pointing out.

    In your second comment you say something entirely different. You say, I do not experience the same relief/difference…when being read as a guy. As I pointed out, your earlier comment was about the actions of other people. This comment is about how you feel about other peoples’ actions. They are not the same thing. If you meant the second thing, then you should have said the second thing. It is not a failure in reading comprehension on my part that I responded to what you actually wrote. And also?

    The existence of male privilege does not depend on the severity of prior misogyny endured by an individual, though having had more blatant dealings with misogyny may present a starker contrast to an individual that makes the conferment of privilege more obvious. If you can’t see your privilege when you pass, you need to try harder. B/c it is there, no matter whether you see it or feel it it or not.

    Friday, April 9, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  27. DanceDreaming wrote:

    Interesting.

    As a Ts/genderqueer/pseudo-lady, my transition(s) had some pretty interesting feminist phases. It went through phases. From being a theoretical feminist, to a real ‘oh well that’s what they’re talking about’ feminist, to horror at actually recognizing that I still carry around buttloads of male privilege for having the advantage of having been raised that way, to suddenly noticing that there were some actually pretty notable privileges to blending as female.

    Currently, I’m out genderqueer. I get a weird blend of privilege, non-privilege and tons of transphobia. And I annoy MRA guys by -really- understanding them and yet still advocating a mostly feminist stance. And I annoy feminists by talking about female privilege. Mostly around not having to ‘front’, and access to intimate non-sexual touch.

    Monday, April 12, 2010 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  28. DanceDreaming wrote:

    Um, realized that might have come across seriously abrupt and off-putting and belittling of people’s experiences and whatnot. Totally not meant that way. Ye ole’ male privilege is quite real and the denial of it(to myself or, like 51+% of peoples) really upsets. The privilege of not being objectified. Very well put. Plus a lot more.

    I just had been hoping that with all this mad crazy TPHMT talk kicking about the ladynets lately that the menz section of this awesome space would take on some of the damage that ye ole archaic warrior-cult society does average Joe dude, and basic aspects of being human denied them. Stuff hard for them to notice, much less talk about, because that would be ‘the gay’, cuz it would make them all, want to be like ladies n stuff.

    And done with a mind to not focus on it being all the fault of uppity ladies, as dudes seem want to do.

    Shrug. It’s entirely possible my apologia has turned more put-offing then my original, so I’ll just wander off now…

    Monday, April 12, 2010 at 7:23 am | Permalink
  29. JfC wrote:

    Dancedreaming, you didn’t offend me. I get what you’re saying completely.

    Monday, April 12, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink
  30. Zazou wrote:

    Really liked your guest blog, it’s been sticking in my mind these last few days, ever since I’ve moved back to Paris actually.

    I’ve never been hassled in GB, Coventry or elsewhere in the UK, and saw words like ‘love’ and ‘darling’ as endearing rather than diminutive. However, the contrast in experience really hit me this time around. Especially now that it’s summer and I might (god forbid!) wear knee-length (gasp!) skirts, I feel treated like a piece of meat who must feel grateful at the male attention received whether it’s the sleazy security guard at the library or the pack of men I had to walk through on the pavement. Neither were aggressive and were appreciative comments, but it was almost as if I weren’t there (who says yum yum to someone as they walk past and honestly expect an answer?!) These are isolated incidents but they made me feel disgusting for hours afterwards (even now, just thinking about it). I really wonder what prompts that kind of behaviour. I think the idea is that one is supposed to somehow glorify in these comments, or take them on board, but they make me come out in hives. There is something still quite incredibly archaic about the way men relate to women here and it makes me grateful to a) have a boyfriend who is nothing like them and b) have the UK or brittany to return to eventually.

    Sorry, this isn’t a ‘count yourself lucky’ answer, more of a ‘just as becoming a man made you more of a feminist, living abroad made me realize how much work there is still to be done and how important feminism is to me’ response.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. And what has Melusin been doing? « And What Was Ze… on Friday, April 9, 2010 at 11:27 am

    [...] what has Melusin been doing? By Melusin I have been writing a guest post, for Tiger Beatdown, in the Visions of Manliness series. It is on street harassment, and male privelege, and [...]

  2. Thursday Links : A Most Curious Blog on Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:19 am

    [...] On the fringes of male privilege – Melusin writes in a guest blog on Tiger Beatdown on perspective given by transition. [...]