Monday, October 11, 2010

Another Lesson in Privilege for Me


Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.
 
It's happened again. Someone does something stupid, and my immediate thought is, “Oh, great. Now they're going to think we're all like that!”

In this case, “they” is the group in power with the power to judge - non-trans people.

And “we” is trans people - the group to be judged as fit or unfit, okay or not okay, acceptable or not acceptable - by “them.”

The most recent incident that brought on this thought was a news item about a woman who returned to her room at a Hyatt Hotel in Illinois and found a male Hyatt employee inside, dressed in her underwear, skirt, and high heels.  She filed suit, of course, and she absolutely should receive some compensation for this extreme invasion of her privacy.

My problem is not with the woman or the lawsuit - my problem is with my own thoughts. But that's okay - it's just another lesson in privilege for me.

I have no idea who this individual is who entered this woman's room and put on her clothes. I don't know anything about him or why he did what he did. But yet my first thought was that his actions were going to reflect poorly on my community.

My reaction isn't baseless. Many non-trans people know nothing about us, and when they read something like this, it's too easy for some of them to make a sweeping generalization about anyone they've ever heard of who has put on a piece of clothing designated for the “opposite” sex.
They expand that generalization to include all transgender people, transsexual people, crossdressers, genderqueer people, and anyone else they can think of who might fall into some “non-standard” gender or sex category.

For these people, the next time they meet me or anyone else who falls under the generalized net that they've created, they're going to think, “Ah. Just like that guy at the Hyatt.”

That's their problem. It's not mine. But it becomes my problem because “they” are the ones with the power to pass judgment and then to make decisions about my life, my rights, and my value.

I come from a position of privilege in my country, and that position is that I'm white. Part of privilege is never having to worry that what one member of your group does will reflect poorly on you. If I had to worry that everything Sarah Palin did would reflect poorly on me because we're both white, I'd never sleep.

Of course, there are many, many things that white people (including Sarah Palin) have done that reflect poorly on me - but the privilege of being white allows me not to have to think in those terms if I choose not to, because I am also part of the “they” whose judgment matters when it comes to legal rights, recognition, and acceptance.

But as a member of a marginalized community - trans people - that thinking changes. Suddenly, I am hypersensitive about what this nameless, faceless “they” is going to think.

I know very well that this individual who broke the law and invaded someone's privacy does not represent me or my community. But I also know that “they” don't know that.

For someone who has quite a bit of privilege in another arena, it's actually a very good lesson. While I don't recall ever generalizing one person's behavior or actions to an entire group, it certainly doesn't hurt me to be reminded that this happens all the time to a great many people and that I now live in this reality as well.

I wish that those thoughts didn't jump into my head when I see some ridiculous headline or read some absurd story like that. On a personal level, I don't really care what “they” think at all.

But on a much larger scale, when I see some of the injustices that are happening to members of my community, and how those injustices are rooted in misunderstandings and inaccurate information, it's hard not to have those fleeting thoughts and worries.

It's also hard not to have some compassion for a person who feels forced to secretly enter a woman's hotel room and try on her clothes because there are no other acceptable options available. That doesn't make it right - it just makes it, on some level, understandable.

So it's happened again - another lesson in privilege for me. But anything that reminds me of where I have it and where I don't can only ultimately be a good thing that continues to help me grow as a human being.