I’ve said in the past that I’ve made all the mistakes and asked all the dumb questions as a feminist who is trans-allied, and I have. I’ve put a lot of it in print.
The reality is that many of us still talk about gender as if it isn’t intersectional. So we ask: do trans women have male privilege before they transition? But that is both too big and too small a question; too big because it implies that trans women are monolithic, and too small because it implies men are as well.
So instead perhaps questions like: is a woman who is suppressing her gender and suffering from gender dysphoria actually experiencing the world as a man? Also, if we know that a gay man doesn’t experience male privilege in the same way a straight man does, and we know black men don’t experience it the same way white men do, then isn’t it possible that trans women, before they transition, also don’t experience it the way cis men do?
While there are women like Laverne Cox and Jazz Jennings, who expressed their femininity from a young age, who never experienced male privilege at all, there are a lot of trans women who hid their femininity. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there or that they didn’t suffer with it. It means they were being raised like sheep in wolves’ clothing: visible only to themselves, and exposed to some of the very misogynistic, sexist attitudes men share when they think they are around other men only.
I remember my wife coming home after being on an elevator with a bunch of guys from the College of Insurance and being horrified by the way they spoke about women. I said: I know. And she said: no you don’t. And I believed her.
Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity is useful here. She outlines some kinds of masculinity, like subordinated masculinity (like gay men) and complicit masculinity (the guy who isn’t hegemonic but who still benefits from patriarchy). So male privilege might be thought of on a similar scale, that it’s not YES or NO but rather: what are the other intersections of identity that might modify the experience? If being black or gay disappears some of male privilege, at least in the world at large, then it’s easy enough to say that trans would as well. Add more intersections of marginalized identity, such as being feminine, gay, and trans, and male privilege has all but disappeared.
Sometimes when we talk about gender we want a hammer to solve all the arguments when what we need is a scalpel, a microscope.
None of this is simple.