Conditional Privilege

Yesterday was a rarity for me, a bus day. I loved not having to drive a series of errands downtown. My last commitment of the day was a meeting that adjourned at 8:30. I waited for the bus on a bustling street, alone in checking my phone but hardly alone. I didn’t give my solitary status a second (or even a first) thought.

My trip home took two buses, and it was full dark by the time I boarded the second bus. Fifteen minutes later, my stop. I started to reach for the cord to signal the driver to stop, but someone else beat me to it. And it was as I got off that I was rocketed back decades to a pre-transition time in my life as I realized: I never saw the person who also got off the bus, the person who rang the cord before I could reach it. Perhaps they were slow to reach the rear door I had used. Perhaps they were trying to go out the front door and were slow to gather parcels. Perhaps as the bus slowed they realized it wasn’t their stop and they never even moved. I don’t know.

I didn’t know where this person was. My street is fully residential. Quiet. Dark. I was SO aware I was alone. My knee was hurting from all the walking I’d been doing. I made an effort to walk without a limp. I stood up as straight as I could, to my full 6 foot height. I walked with a confidence I wasn’t feeling.

I never said to myself, “This is silly.” I lived 42 years female; it wasn’t silly at all. Was it necessary? Hmmm. I don’t know. I’m an out transman, 20+ years into physical transition and invisibly seen as a man. How safe AM I? In that situation, probably no danger at all. Note I still say ‘probably’ though I arrived home without incident.

When I teach about trans issues, I am often asked questions about male privilege, along the lines of, “What’s it like to experience male privilege now?” After last night, I have a story to tell that illustrates the concept of conditional privilege: I am safe as a white man as long as that’s how I’m perceived, with an assumption of cisgender identity. If I am known to be a white transman — am I still safe? No longer guaranteed.

I tell students: “I just came out to an entire class of people I don’t know. Am I safe when I leave here and walk back to my car?” Some of the students laugh a bit uncomfortably, as it never occurred to them I might not be safe. Those students who aren’t white don’t laugh; they share my question about personal safety. Those students who live female also don’t laugh; they share my question about personal safety.

I taught my first continuing education class for therapists in 2001. At that time, I didn’t yet have a website. I had just graduated with my counseling degree and had yet to establish my therapy practice. I wasn’t yet known as a trans therapist. It wouldn’t have been easy for the people taking this class to find out I was trans. I put some thought into how I would come out to them. I wanted them to assume I was cisgender and then come out, as an object lesson.

At that time, I was only a couple of years into transition; my lesbian community experience and socialization was still my framework for understanding social boundaries. With this in mind, I thought, “I know… I’ll wait until someone asks me, ‘What are you basing this on?'” I knew full well that if I was still a lesbian, teaching a class to other lesbians about some new way of looking at lesbian identity,  I would hear variations of: “Have you read so-and-so’s work? Have you considered this aspect? How do you know all this?” I assumed, as a therapist right out of grad school, teaching a class to licensed therapists who were much further along in their career, about a radical new way to view transition and gender identity, SOMEONE would ask, “How do you know all this?” I was so certain of this, I didn’t have a contingency plan for coming out. Which meant — when no  one questioned my professional authority, I didn’t come out to that class. I was thoroughly taken aback, and mightily puzzled. What just happened here???

I talked it over with a friend of mine who is a women’s studies professor, the head of the department at her college. She laughed at me and said, “It’s because they saw you as a man. I always get questioned when I teach. Some students don’t believe what I’m saying, because I’m a woman.” I was affronted on her behalf, and said, “You’re the head of the department! You have a master’s degree in women’s studies!” She kept laughing. And she was right: I was so surprised because I was being treated differently than I had been prior to transition. And the only difference was, now people saw me as a man, not as a woman. That’s male privilege playing out in my professional life. Twenty nine students took that first class: 22 women, 7 men. At a guess, I’d say over half the women were lesbians. Not one questioned my authority.

If I taught that same class today, I wouldn’t be able to use the tactic of letting people assume I’m cisgender and then course-correct them. Nowadays, many students know I’m a transman before showing up for class. Unlike the students who aren’t white, or the students who are female, my experience of privilege shifts depending on circumstance. Conditional privilege is my lived experience more often than not, out as I am as a transman. Forty-two years living female, 20+ years living openly trans — my privilege will always feel conditional, no matter the circumstance.

As I was about to hit “publish” to post this blog, a new thought occurred to me. I’m not inserting it where it would rightfully go (several paragraphs ago) to illustrate that it took overnight for this thought to occur to me: perhaps the person who rang the bell to get off the bus was a woman who saw ME get up to exit the bus and thought to herself, “Nope. I’ll get off at the next stop instead.” My privilege may be conditional, but hers doesn’t exist.

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