Germaine, Jenner and Gender
Germaine, Jenner and Gender ....or 'Check Your Privilege'
So… Germaine Greer has again been in the newsfeed (the contemporary equivalent of ‘the news’, although she’s also been in that) lately, regarding her controversial and long-standing views on trans people, particularly trans women. Her views are problematic, personally I find them offensive, and many people believe they border on hate speech, BUT (and bear with me a moment here) I think she’s pointing to a legitimate debate that we’re not really having, and maybe we should be. Unfortunately she’s not very succinct about it in recent interviews, but a while ago she wrote this:
"Governments that consist of very few women have hurried to recognise as women men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it, because they see women not as another sex but as a non-sex. No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight. The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.” (The Whole Woman, 1999)
Leaving aside her less-than-complete understanding of the variety of personal understandings which constitute being transgender(*1), and her complete disregard for the issue of transgender men and intersex people, I think what she’s pointing to is the deep inherited biological conditions of existence which make the biological female’s experience of the world different to that of the biological male. People born female experience periods, pregnancy, and childbirth (though of course not all women experience all of them), things which people born male can (barring some pretty substantial future advances in medical science) never experience. For many thousands of years these experiences have been part of the founding myths of patriarchal and sexist culture. In the old days it was the humours a woman purportedly experienced during pregnancy and childbirth, and today we are still overwhelmed with signs that society believes a woman is weaker, defective, less rational, or just more suited to the home-life because she has eggs, carried the child and went through the agony of childbirth. There is an extent to which this fuzzy logic is the root cause of much if not all misogyny, and this, I believe, is what Greer is trying to get at: A ‘woman’ in her terms, has a life-long, embodied understanding of what it means to be ‘a woman who’s very biological status as such has led her to be oppressed by men’, men who’s biological state is different. In her conception you cannot be a woman unless you have this life-long embodied understanding. Further, given the society which we have lived in for thousands of years and continue to live in, I think she’s suggesting that being on the receiving end of misogyny, however subtly or implicitly, is in and of itself an intrinsic part of being a woman. I have a big question mark over this because surely the logical conclusion of feminism is a world without misogyny and sexism, and if this were ever to occur, by Germaine’s standards ‘the woman’ would be completely re-defined, but.. the fact that, in today’s world, being on the receiving end of misogyny is an intrinsic part of being a woman..this is a point I totally get. Let me explicate…
Most trans women spent a portion (often a large portion) of their life being perceived by and treated by the world as cis men. They received implicit male privilege despite not perceiving themselves as men. And the level of privilege you have is partly determined by how your sense of self aligns with how the world perceives you, but also partly determined simply by how the world perceives you. This is the cause of the terms ‘to pass’ and ‘passing’ in a variety of minority cultures: “I am ‘passing’ as straight/white/cis/normatively-abled and thus am lucky/privileged/able-to-do-things-I-would-not-be-able-to-do-if-I-didn’t-pass”. Caitlin Jenner (who has some problematic opinions of her own) is a perfect example here. Caitlin may or may not have been tortured since birth or adolescence by the disconnect between how she felt and how the world saw her, but the world none the less saw her as a straight, white male and treated her accordingly. When I watch her speak and conduct herself in the media I see a beautiful elegant woman, but I also see the results of years of ingrained male privilege. She speaks like a person who assumes her voice will be heard and that she doesn't need to temper her views or expressions for them to be received without undue harshness by a male dominated world.
For an interior view I’m going to take myself as a case study, because I can talk most informedly to my own experience: I identify as a ‘white, genderqueer, androphilic (attracted to men)(*2), normatively-abled person’. Until I intervene to advise otherwise I am perceived as a ‘white, cis, possibly-gay-possibly-straight-possibly-european-possibly-arty-type, normatively-abled person’. Based on these four criteria only (and there are many others: education, ‘class’ or monetary & social hierarchical privilege, religion etc.) I score a 2 out of 4 on the ‘self identity privilege scale’, but a 3 or 3 &1/2 out of 4 on the ‘perception privilege scale’. I see this ‘perception privilege’ in operation all the time. I know for a fact that I have received (and will probably continue to receive) accolades, eye contact, jobs and blow jobs that I would not have received if I was more perceptibly ‘other’. Because I am, based on pure perception, pretty fucking privileged. Furthermore, I have been inculcated to act accordingly. I was recently called out because I quite unintentionally spoke to the other man and ignored the woman in a conversation, I regularly have to remind myself that being relatively extroverted and having something meaningful to say doesn't mean I have any excuse other than privilege to railroad a woman in a conversation about feminism or a person of colour in a conversation about race (or anyone in a conversation about anything for that matter), I basically assume that what I have to say will be heard and what I want to do will be just fine, all because I’m pretty much perceived as white, male, cis, rich, educated and maybe straight (*3). I hate to mis-paraphrase nationalistic sentiments, but perhaps we need to spend a little more time thinking “ask not what I am doing for my privilege, but what my privilege is doing for me”.
Mostly, straight, white, cis men don’t go about thinking ‘what are all the ways I can exploit my straight, white, cis, male privilege’, and similarly, gay, black, cis women don’t often think ‘what are all the ways I can exploit my cis privilege’. And very few of anyone goes around saying ‘what are the ways I need to check my privilege’. Trans women don't go around saying ‘what are the ways I need to check my inculcated male privilege’ white women don't go around thinking ‘what are they ways I need to check my race privilege’ and black men don't go around thinking ‘what are they ways I need to check my male privilege;’. But unless you’re a gay, black, trans, woman, with a disability, undereducated, from a poor background and a minority religion in your country… well, you are experiencing some privilege. That’s not your fault, you can’t help it. But you can check it. And you can put it to good use and recognise when others are doing the same. If a man is putting his voice to the feminist cause, checking his privilege as he goes, let him in. If a straight person or a cis person is putting their voice to the LGBTIQ cause, checking their privilege as they go, let them in!! And if a person has not sufficiently examined their privilege, don’t assume they’re the enemy. Honestly, from all my experience, it’s as likely as not that they just haven’t been made sufficiently aware of the position of privilege from which they speak. A humble suggestion: look that person in the eye and say “I respect your opinion, but I want to remind you that you speak from the position of an [insert list of privileges here] person, and that gives you a level of implicit privilege. Let me say what I have to say, check your privilege and then respond…” and then state your case. Some people won’t listen, but (and here’s my big gambit) I bet you all the spoils of my privilege that most people will do exactly what you recommend and start re-considering. They might not agree straight away, but they’ll think on it.
So. Germaine: You speak from the position of a rich, white, cis woman. Caitlin: You speak from the position of a rich white person who received male privilege for many years. You are experiencing some level of privilege. Check your privilege. And we’ll check ours. And then we’ll have a chat. Mmmkay?
I’m thankful that I have experienced dis-privilege (It wasn't a word but it is now) and that I have friends and colleagues who remind me of my privilege. (I’ve also been lucky enough to work in an industry where a kind of reverse-privilege sometimes operates, and being queer and not-cis gives me a kind of ‘guest pass’ into the thinking of other under-privileged groups, a kind of hardship-privilege, and sometimes even a soapbox to shout from.) I’m not thankful for these things because they set me up for success, my actual privilege did that, but because they remind me to sign off with the following: I say all of this as a very privileged person. Please feel free to remind me to check my privilege, and state your case, in the comments. I promise I’ll listen.
*1: For instance: I don’t claim to be transgender (I do identify as genderqueer) but of the element of the female anatomy I yearn for, breasts or a vagina come a distant second to ovaries and a uterus. I am aware of many other trans* and genderqueer individuals for whom this is also the case.
*2: I use this term because it’s a linguistic and conceptual dis-connect to identify as gay or homosexual if you dont identify as one binary gender.
*3: Incidentally, due to my physical appearance I am sometimes perceived as a wuite-cis-straight-female until I speak, and - tellingly - responses when that perception is corrected come in three forms: if the perceiver revises their perception to white-cis-straight-male their response is usually apologetic if they revise their perception to white-cis-gay-male their response varies if they revise their perception to white-trans-(whatever)-woman their response is near universally one of disgust and horror