Side Effects Include: Enhanced White Privilege

a cartoon transman declares he is oppressed

(I was asked by Gabe Javier, the fantastic editor of the Coming Out Magazine published by The Spectrum Center, to contribute to this year’s issue. The topic was Talk About It.” I contributed the above cartoon and the following story.)

When I changed my gender thirteen years ago, I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was moving from female to male.  I thought I understood how living as a man conferred upon me a bunch of male privilege, even though I did not want that privilege. But that was the deal: to live as a man meant I was treated better than women, and it also meant that women were sometimes quite afraid of me, simply because I was now a man.  I still remember dashing the hallway to the elevator and forcing the door back open as it was closing. As I stepped in, I saw a petite woman step away from me, pressing her back into the elevator wall, her eyes wide with fear. No,” I wanted to say to her. You don’t understand. I used to be a woman.” Instead, I muttered something about forgetting to check my mail and let the elevator go. This privilege thing, I thought then, was all because I had become a man.

In gender I am subject and object. When I changed my gender thirteen years ago, I thought I controlled my subjectivity. Master of my fate kind of thing. Then a close friend asked me to describe my transition in terms of my race. Despite all my women’s studies classes and anti-racist work, I had no story to tell about being transgender and white. My whiteness was hidden from me. But in finding the words for that story, the story of a white trans man, my gender story became more complex.

The typical FtM story of leaving femaleness for maleness, leaving behind my oppression filled days for a life of complete privilege, only rarely includes the troubled and troubling dynamics of whiteness. Typical transgender stories don’t mesh with whiteness. Typical transgender stories tell transgender origin stories almost exclusively in terms of gender. Yes, we add class or size or ability. But really gender is the cake and all those other identities are icing. At least that was true for this thin, upper-middle class, temporarily able-bodied trans/man.

Now, after living for a man for thirteen years, my gender is more complicated. My gender privilege is more complicated, too. You see, now I believe my white race enhances my privilege as much as my gender. I see my masculinity has enhanced my white privilege. Because, you see, I am a white man, and I get just about everything I want because my masculinity is white. My whiteness is also masculine. Who I am as a white transman is different from black butch friends who have transitioned.

We all have become men. But they are black men living in a society that simultaneously elects Barack Obama to the White House but arrests Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home. While many terrible things could happen to be as transsexual man (failure to receive proper medical care, for example) I know as sure as I will die that I will never, ever be arrested in my home by a police officer unless I brandish a weapon in her direction. I know that I will never pulled over for driving while white.

After living as a man for thirteen years, I see that gender and race are two troubling stories in my life, with different trajectories and end games. They conflict with each other.  They enhance each other. Who I am is no longer a typical transgender story. Who I am is contradictory and paradoxical. My privilege exists as a function of both my masculinity and my whiteness. This is the man I am today.