What Exactly IS Privilege?

A cursory Internet search turns up a number of definitions of privilege:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“A right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor”

The Free Dictionary:
1.a. A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.

  1. Such an advantage, immunity, or right held as a prerogative of status or rank, and exercised to the exclusion or detriment of others.
    2. The principle of granting and maintaining a special right or immunity: a society based on privilege.

“A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.”

Upon being told they have privilege, some people will respond indignantly, “I’ve worked hard for everything I have. Nothing was given to me. So how dare anyone say I have privilege? Show me how I’m privileged!”

They are right – they have worked hard. And – no literal thing was given to them. The definitions of privilege are a bit misleading in this regard. Privilege isn’t about something being given to a particular person or group of people. Privilege is a process. Privilege is a tailwind. Those who have bicycled any distance can appreciate this analogy from personal experience. If you are biking with a headwind, you are aware of the increased difficulty of your journey. You never lose that awareness – until you turn around to go back home again and have a tailwind. You are not aware of the tailwind; you are going with the flow of the breeze and there is nothing to bring into awareness that you have an assist behind you, a power boost.

No literal thing was given to those with privilege without any effort on their part – and they had a cultural tailwind at their back, allowing them to reap the fullest benefit of their hard work. Those without privilege have a cultural headwind, forcing them to work harder to reap the benefit of their hard work.

I had a conversation with my brother-in-law on this topic once. He was incensed at being told that being white and male and straight had made his rise to police chief of a major city possible. He did work hard. He came from a poor family, so had no financial aid from his parents. I saw him start as a beat cop, going to college part-time to get the degree that would make it possible for him to rise to sergeant, then lieutenant, then captain and finally police chief. And as I pointed out to him, could he honestly say that he would have risen as smoothly (or at all) through the ranks if he was African-American, or a woman, or openly gay?

At that point, my brother-in-law understood that I wasn’t saying he hadn’t worked for what he had, but that he had cultural advantages that meant his progress was unimpeded. His own innate intelligence, hard work and dedication to his job were all he needed to succeed — because he was white, and male, and straight. As he said to me, “I got my first cop job when I was 24, a beat cop. This was 1962 – there were no African-Americans beyond the rank of beat cop. And no women. And no one who I knew was gay.” Once he saw privilege as a tailwind, he understood what I was saying to him: even with a tailwind, he still had to pedal. And, his pedaling got him much further than he would have been able to go with a headwind.

The Pace of Evolution

Is it just me, at the ripe middle age of 61, or is the world evolving at an increasingly rapid pace? And who is the arbiter deciding what gets adopted and what doesn’t as our world shape-shifts around us? Is anyone in charge? Maybe no one ever was, but we lived our lives at the pace of the written word and newspapers of one sort or another. Now we live at the pace of computers and the only limitation is the speed of our internet connection.

A few years ago, I published my second book, Journeys of Transformation. A week or two later, I learned of a new acronym to describe the LGBTQQIAA community — MOGII. Marginalized Orientation, Gender Identity, Intersexed. I cursed that this new information wasn’t in my book! Outdated already!

A few days ago, I ordered my first copies of the second edition of Journeys of Transformation. I think there is some kind of Gay Murphy’s Law at work here; a day after I finalized the second edition, I heard of yet another acronym — QUILTBAG. I love this word and thought it was new; I did an Internet search and discovered 2011 references to this term. Here’s what it means; you tell me why it never caught on: QueerUndecidedIntersexLesbianTransBisexualAsexual/AllyGay. A friend had a wonderful take on this QUILTBAG: quilts are a mosaic of colors and designs, forming a delightful whole that can keep a person warm at the coldest times.

So which arbiter decided this acronym wasn’t worthy of common usage? I’d have thought an acronym that was a real-live pronounceable word would be of huge benefit to MY generation in particular, often overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the current LGBTQQIAA. I wrote Journeys of Transformation to help each letter of that unwieldy acronym understand each other. Though QUILTBAG doesn’t really further understanding, it sure is easier to remember all the letters. And you can pronounce it.

The Humor in Transition

There is a lot of humor to be found in transition, and seeing the humorous aspects of this often-overwhelming process can help trans people navigate their transformation with a sense of proportion. For instance:

– In the mid-1990s, I was part of the support team for Sheila, a transwoman friend who had traveled to Portland for gender-confirming surgery. I waited with her partner Joanne during the surgery, and accompanied her when the staff told us Sheila was emerging from the operating room. Joanne and I were standing in the hallway as Sheila was wheeled out of surgery, just waking up. She half-opened her eyes and said groggily, “Another f—ing growth experience.”

– Diana, a transwoman some ten years into transition, went shopping with Jason, a transman friend who had transitioned to male at about the same time Diana began her process. As Diana went into a changing room to try on a bra, a woman browsing nearby said to Jason, “You’re lucky you have no idea how uncomfortable bras can be!” Since Jason had lived the first 27 years of his life female, and had had to wear a very uncomfortable binder for a few years before he underwent chest surgery, this wasn’t exactly true…

– Louise and Alison had remained married after Mark transitioned to become Louise. Two years into Louise’s transition, they were in a pediatrician’s waiting room with their biological daughter, born two years prior to transition. A lesbian couple sitting nearby struck up a conversation, eventually asking if Louise and Alison had known their sperm donor.

– Rose went to a local building supply store to pick up some hardware for a home improvement project. She patiently listened to a lengthy explanation from a very helpful (male) store employee, who assumed she had no idea how to tell a screw from a bolt. (Not possible, for this former carpenter) She had become resigned to such treatment, saying, “Once I got treated like an idiot in the hardware store, then I knew for sure I was being seen as a woman.”

– I have often been invited to do presentations about trans issues for college classes. Some five years into my physical transition, I was speaking to a large sociology class at a local college. As usual, I had done a brief personal introduction, speaking of my own transition and then shifting into a more general discussion about the transition process, the nature of gender roles, etc. A young woman came into the classroom late, and slid into a seat in the front row. Throughout the remaining class time, I could see her looking increasingly puzzled, and I thought, “Just ask whatever it is!” Finally, toward the end of the two-hour period, she raised her hand and said, “I thought when someone transitioned they were supposed to dress like the other sex, but you have a beard and dress like a man…” It took me a moment to realize that because she’d missed my introduction, she didn’t know what direction I had transitioned– she had assumed I was a transwoman!

– Terry, a non-binary person who was assigned female at birth, went to the office of a local non-profit organization to do some volunteer work. At some point, they went to the bathroom, choosing to use the one labeled “Men.” They were amused to see a sign that read, “Your mother doesn’t work here. Please leave this bathroom as you would wish to find it.” So, they left the toilet seat down.

– Ed went in for a routine physical exam. He transitioned over 15 years ago, and had a metoidioplasty procedure ten years ago; he now has a penis in the small-to-normal size range for a cisgender male. During the exam, his doctor pronounced, “Good news, your prostate is fine.” Given that he doesn’t have a prostate, Ed was understandably concerned about this finding. He told the doctor he was a transman, and her response was, “It says that in the chart, but I thought that must be a mistake.” Ed is now shopping for a new doctor…

This one isn’t really funny, but does encapsulate why many trans people look for a new job after transition:

– Jane is a cisgender female partnered with a transwoman. Jane recently started a new job, and was pleasantly surprised to find her building had a gender-neutral bathroom (not every building at her new company had such a feature). She mentioned this to a co-worker, testing the waters to see what gender attitudes might be like. The co-worker said, “Yeah, we put that in about five years ago when we had an employee who transitioned from female to male. We went to all that trouble to do that, and then she left anyway. I don’t know why.”

– A friend of mine is a professor who transitioned to male nearly thirty years ago. He has been private about his transition, not considering it relevant to anyone but close friends and family members. His area of academia is generally unrelated to trans issues. Last term, he taught a class in which the topic of transgender issues came up periodically, in the context of cross-cultural work. At one point, a self-identified ciswoman student went on the warpath against my friend, accusing him of benefiting from cisgender privilege and being unwilling to admit it. She did not connect the dots when he said to her, “You shouldn’t make blanket assumptions about people. Anyone in here could be trans and you might not know it.” Her response? “I’m talking about YOU, not any of the students.” Well, so was he!

– When he was 21, Lee obtained a state ID card in his home state so he could go to the  bars with his friends — this was long before his transition, so his ID said he was female. He never acquired a driver’s license, and forgot all about this ID card as time went by and he didn’t use it any longer. Twenty years later he transitioned to male in another state. By this time, he had acquired a driver’s license in his new state, so changed it to male along with all his other documentation. He never changed his name, content to keep the gender-neutral Lee. Ten years or so into transition, long after he’d considered himself “done,” he moved back to his home state to care for his aging parents. Of course he went to the DMV to get a driver’s license. The clerk behind the desk had a good laugh, saying, “Wow, someone made a mistake in your record 30 years ago, maybe they were high or something! Your former ID card says you were female! Guess I’d better change that for you!!” Very taken aback, Lee just said, “Huh, thanks for fixing that for me!”

– Michelle scrimped and saved for years, finally reaching her goal of gender-confirming surgery in Thailand. As she woke from surgery, her first exultant thought was, “Yay, those boy parts are now food for the carp in the canals! This is the ultimate in carpe diem!”