The Reality of Passing Privilege

I want to state right here at the start of this that passing privilege is a real thing and it is something that one has or one doesn’t.  It is not fair nor is it something to be discarded.  It can be a tool to help transitioned individuals ease into a normal existence or a weapon used to alienate people with real pain and suffering.

Recently, there has been a hue and cry about the differences between those who claim the transgender identity and those who choose to restrict themselves to the transsexual identity.  There are political, social and personal merits to each sides leaning’s, and I’m not addressing the plus’ and minus’ of each argument.  I am going to attempt to address what I believe is the reality of passing privilege.

During some very heated online debate around the transgender/transsexual issues, there was a claim made that the transsexual contingent want separation from the transgender contingent because of a perceived passing privilege.  I search around different online resources and I found many varied descriptions, but none that I would call definite.  The main understanding I have of these descriptions was when a person who was “assigned a gender at birth” is successfully operating in social interactions as their target gender.  Whether that target gender is the same assigned at birth or after a transition to the opposite assigned at birth.  So, even a cis-gendered person would be considered to have passing privilege.

The claim of passing privilege hurled at transitioned transsexuals seems to imply that they are behaving with an air of superiority or elitism toward individuals who do not believe they have passing abilities.   While some transitioned transsexuals may indeed have an air of superiority towards those that may not pass so well, it is not due to a perceived passing privilege.  I believe that no one who has transitioned from an “assigned at birth” gender to a target gender has accepted a passing privilege.

The process of transitioning itself ingrains a deep sense of “otherness” which never dissipates or resolves.  To internalize a privilege and act socially as the benefit of that privilege, one must believe that the attribute of that privilege is real and permanent.  A transitioned transsexual, at least none that I’ve talked to, will never truly internalize the privilege of passing.  We are always at the alert for the possibility of being “clocked.”

Let’s look at the concept of privilege and compare a couple of privileges.  The ever popular online Merriam-Webster defines privilege as a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.   Although, I’m sure that many other definitions can be found, let us stick with this one.  I like this definition because is states that privilege is granted.  It must be given, and therefore it must be accepted.   In the context of this article, privilege is seen to be cast as a haves and have not dynamic.  Either one has privilege and exercises it or one does not.

A couple examples of privilege that we can look at is male and white privilege.  I believe that this would be a right or immunity granted to males or white people as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor of their sex or race.  This particular form of privilege is seen as birth right, and the “assigned at birth” male baby or a white child was granted this by simply being born.  Whether this privilege is acknowledged or taken advantage of by the male or the white child is up to that child, but one thing is certain, a cis-gender male or Caucasian rarely questions their maleness or whiteness.

These individuals that I’ve described can happily move in and out of social interactions and conduct day-to-day activities and never stop to think about the dynamics of those interpersonal relationships.  Their privilege is ingrained and expected to help them set the expectation and roles for the interaction.  This is neither good or bad, but all parties must agree to participate.

I have a couple real world examples.  Imagine a person who is early in her transition from male to female.  This young woman has difficulty passing and is repeatedly questioned on her gender and sex.  She walks into a local coffee-house to purchase a hot beverage.  As she walks up to the counter the person behind the counter actually retreats.  The salesperson looks the customer up and down and with a sneer asks what she wants.  The rest of the interaction is stilted and awkward.  This person does not have passing privilege.  This person will continue to suffer the prejudicial and discrimination attitudes based on appearance and assumptions.

Now imagine this same person many decades after transition was completed.  It has now been many years since she has been questioned on her gender and sex.  She again decides to walk into a different local coffee-house still looking for that perfect hot beverage.  This time as she walks up to the counter she is greeted with a broad smile and a hearty willingness to serve.  This time she is granted passing privilege and the transaction is completed with ease and to a satisfying conclusion.

This now older woman certainly remembers the last time she entered a coffee-house many years ago.  She is still on her guard, and is expecting the same reaction she received.  She will always carry the pain of the previous encounter.  It is more than this transaction, she carries this reality on a daily basis.

This is the main point I’d like to get to (finally).  Even if we truly have a passing privilege, we can never expect or take advantage of that privilege.  If the person who has male or white privilege is ever put into a situation that his maleness or whiteness is questioned on a daily or hourly reality, they will never again be able to believe in that privilege.

This is the same with transitioned individuals, we may in fact have a passing privilege, but we can never truly believe that we completely pass.  So, in my opinion, it is wrong to hurl a claim of passing privilege at person who restrict their identity to transsexual.  We do not believe for a moment that we can pass completely, and we have all been at some time or another un-passable.

We all are in the same place.