Friday, March 8, 2013

On Escaping Sexism

As a trans* guy, I've been asked one of the classic questions a number of times: "Did you perhaps transition because you wanted to gain status as a man rather than fight sexism as a woman?"

The answer, of course, is no: I transitioned to male status because I am a man.  That's my gender identity.  Yes, I'm genderflexible about it; no, this flexibility doesn't mean I should have just stayed legally female.  I moved toward a position that would allow me to live my life authentically as myself, and I'm much, much happier now.  It's great to come home, as it were.

So, I didn't transition in order to gain male privilege.  But I do have it, now.  It's true that my male privilege is discreditable, so that I can lose it in situations in which my trans* status is held to negate my manhood, but most of the time, I am accepted as male, and this comes with benefits.

They're nice benefits.

I didn't ask for male privilege, but that doesn't mean I can disclaim it.  White antiracist activists still enjoy white privilege; male advocates of gender egalitarianism still enjoy male privilege.  As a man, I'm taken more seriously in a variety of ways than I was when I was framed by others as being female.  As a professor, for example, I'm less likely to have lecture points challenged by students now.

What got me thinking about this topic today was that I found myself looking at students' ratings of me on  The majority of my ratings on the site were written after my transition, but there are 7 or 8 from before it.  The ratings are consistently positive and say that my classes are interesting both before and after my transition, but one thing has changed, and that is that my students who have known me to be male don't say anything about my appearance, but that's not true for pretransition raters.  In fact, one of my students who perceived me to be a woman gushed that I was "adorable."


OK, why do I find it distressing to have a student write something they clearly intended to be complimentary?  Well, first off, because this is one of the ways sexism works: by associating women with the body, and imposing on them a duty to be attractive.  I stand in front of a class to convey ideas to them, but before transition, students were examining and judging my body on some attractiveness scale, rather than just engaging intellectually.  Now, I have always taken care to present myself professionally, and part of that means being well-groomed, and I take that care as a man--my shoes are shined, I wear a tie.  But I know from reading endless reams of student evaluations that my good grooming used to be much more important to my students than it is now.  Before my transition, I regularly got comments on student evaluations that complimented my clothing.  Now, I get none of that--my evaluations all focus on my teaching.  As they should.

But there's something else about the term "adorable."  Though the student that described me as adorable clearly meant it positively, the term is subtly belittling.  Supposedly it just means someone or something that is admirable, worthy of being adored, but people who admire President Obama don't go around calling him "adorable."  It's an adjective we use to describe kittens, cute children, charming little cottages. . . and women.  It presents the person or thing described as small and weak, not powerful.  So when a student calls a professor adorable, it presents the professor as lacking authority.  It belittles the person while framing them as appropriately feminine.

I am so glad to have left behind a life where I had to deal with this constantly, just because I was understood to be a woman.  

I try to imagine what it would be like to be a trans* woman instead of a trans* man.  How would I feel if, for the first time, a student wrote that I was "adorable?"  I imagine the difficult ambivalence: "Oh, I've been validated as a woman!  But *sigh* I'm being evaluated superficially on my body."  It's so much harder to have as a destination a place where you lose status than a place where you gain it.  I have a great deal of respect for my trans* sisters, who must take on both transphobia and sexism, when I only have to deal with the former.

So: I didn't transition to gain male privilege.  But I have to own that I do enjoy it.

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