Is There Such a Thing as Trans Privilege?

Fear vs. respect in the streets and shops of Portland

Matthew Francis. photo/courtesy the author

I am not a person who has ever taken my safety for granted. I have never felt I had it. But a recent experience showed me how fortunate I have been. 

It started innocently enough: I honked at someone who cut in front of me. We’ve all done this before, myself included. The driver turned out to be a person of color. He and his passenger (another person of color) immediately began frantically waving at me to indicate how sorry they were. We looked at each other then, and I saw the fear in the driver’s eyes. He was afraid I was one of them

I instantly regretted having hit the horn. I wanted to jump out of my car and explain how sorry I am for everything going on — the racism, the xenophobia, the demonization of refugees who arrived in our city this summer. I wanted to tell them they’re welcome here, that I’m glad they are here.  

Later, back at home, I read social-media posts by two leaders I greatly admire. They encouraged our communities to come together and pleaded for solidarity. I decided it was time to turn on the news, to finally face what I had been avoiding. 

After a few minutes watching the protests and rioting and other violence breaking out around the world, my head started to spin and I got sick. I pulled myself together and reflected on how I would give up almost anything to go back to my petty concerns — the simple disagreements, minor inconveniences and selfish career ambitions. It’s all I can do to manage my usual, day-to-day fears. Trangender lives have always been in peril.

But I’m also scared for the safety of my friends who are folks of color. I have some shame and guilt now that I am the bad guy. 

I vividly remember the first time I inspired real fear in another person. While hiking, I came across a woman alone in the woods. The terror in her eyes made me look over my shoulder — what’s she seeing behind me? Then I realized she was afraid of me. I felt terrible about that, and stepped toward her, desperate to reassure her that she was safe. She turned and left posthaste. 

I’d always wanted privilege. It was difficult knowing I was a boy trapped in my female body, not being allowed to do what boys were allowed to do without getting into trouble. I understand privilege differently now.

Not long before the honking incident, I had an argument with a friend. I told him my privilege was only superficial. I reminded him that I’d only just gotten it. Cashiers and waitstaff are the only ones who regularly treat me with respect for my gender identity, I said. It’s women who are giving me this privilege. 

Now I realize the myriad other ways my gender identity confers privileges, little things I’ve already gotten used to. For example, I’ve only had to say “excuse me” twice in four years for someone to move out of my way. And I don’t walk to my car in fear anymore, no matter what time it is. 

I’m sad to admit that I’ve also gotten used to the fear in women’s eyes at night when they see me on the streets and they’re alone. Since the hiking incident, I know it’s useless to try to assure them I’m harmless.  

In some ways, the new measure of privilege I feel has brought out the best in me — it’s boosted my self-confidence and courage. But sometimes I feel like I’ve became the enemy. That’s why I hate the words enemybullyevilvictim and villain. They do nothing to help. We are all a little bit of both the victim and the villain.

Can we all have privilege, or must one group’s possession of it mean another group lacks it? I worry we have forgotten how to treat each other, forgotten that we need each other, that we have responsibilities to one another. I wish we listened to each other more, even when it’s hard or boring. 

Make time to check in with a friend or neighbor. Stop putting off that e-mail or phone call. There are no laws or wars that will keep us safe. The laws and wars have failed. To preserve our common humanity, we must win over hearts, too.

Visit hmatthewfrancis.com for more about Matthew’s life and work.