On the Science of Changing Sex

A Passing Privilege…

Posted in Editorial, Transsexual Field Studies by Kay Brown on January 1, 2016

Kay BrownOn Privilege and Entitlement in the Transgendered Communities

It’s the first day of a new year, time for another editorial on the transsexual and transgendered communities.  This past year, I’ve noted an increase in discussion on “privilege”, who has it, and who doesn’t.  This is not a new topic in the transgendered forums, or in the so-called, ‘gender critical’ forums.  But, as usual, I find that most of the discussion misses the mark by a very wide margin, largely because of a combination of failing to define what and how privilege is and operates and conflating privilege with advantage and entitlement.

First, among the wider transgendered communities, especially among “older transitioners” and part-time cross-dressers, there is a common lament, a complaint even, of how they are disadvantaged because they don’t “pass”.  They then posit that those who are “lucky” to pass as non-transgendered have a special “privilege”.  I’ve even seen essays that go as far as to criticize those MTF transwomen who do “pass” as expressing a belief that they are somehow “better” than those who don’t.  On one hand, evidence of this is provided by noting that in the (autogynephilic) transgender community, those who pass better are given greater social status.  On the other is that those who don’t pass are exposed to greater transphobic discrimination in the non-transcommunities, even within the LGB communities!

Second, among non-transgendered commenters, especially those with a feminist background and interest in ‘gender crit’, there is much discussion about how transsexuals or part-time transgendered folk do or do not have “male privilege”.

Why, you may ask, is this of interest from the scientific perspective?  Because privilege, accrued advantage, and entitlement lie at the heart of the different social and economic experiences of the different types of transfolk.  It is also key to understanding the response to the growing scientific knowledge and understanding of the etiology and clinical presentations of the two types, by the more socially advantaged, ‘privileged’, of the two MTF types.

So let’s dissagregate (deconstruct, if you prefer post-modernist cant), the terms.

The term “privilege” comes from “private law”, the acknowledgement that some people have legal rights and some don’t.  A king had a special status, a private law, that didn’t apply to his subjects, “rank hath its privileges”.  Until very recently, men had legal rights that women did not in nearly every nation (and still do in far too many).  This is ‘male privilege’ in its most naked and raw form.  But there is another form, that which is given by custom and bias.  It should come as no surprise that, even today, most people, both men and women, still hold irrational biases that grant men more privileges than to women.  That bias is so strong that study after study have shown that women have to be demonstrably more competent and accomplished than men to even hold their own in many domains. (Look up the “Matilda Effect“.)

Privilege of this sort does not lie within the individual.  It lies in those who surround the individual.  It is granted automatically, by law, custom, or bias.  One cannot consciously disown such privilege since it is not within their control to bestow it upon themselves in the first place.

From privilege can, and usually does, come advantage.  It is what allows some people to move forward in their lives in an easier manner.  It also accumulates.  This property of accumulating advantage that comes from privilege is what ‘gender critical’ commenters are usually talking about when they state that MTF transwomen have “privilege”.  When those very same MTF transwomen read the word “privilege” and deny ownership of such, they are only thinking of their current loss of “privilege” due to transphobic bias, or, if they truly pass, of loss of “male privilege” wherein they are now subject to misogynistic bias.  But it is accumulated advantage that is paramount, because, if enough advantage has been accumulated, it can overcome transphobic or misogynistic bias, because advantage leads to further advantages.  (Look up the “Matthew Effect“.)

When someone is accustomed to having privilege and to accumulating advantage, it often engenders ‘entitlement’, the personal belief that such privileges that come from law, custom, or bias are ‘owed’ to them, or that they ‘earned’ them, that they are due to them because of a perceived sense of superiority.  It should come as no surprise that most men, accustomed as they are to socially granted privilege, fail to see their privilege over their female peers until it is painfully lost, as is the case with “late transitioning” MTF transsexuals losing “straight male privilege” as they become subject to homophobic/transphobic bias.  But even then, a substantial number of them fail to adjust to this loss, holding onto their entitlement, especially if they had previously accumulated enough advantage such that the loss of straight male privilege is overcome by compounding socio-economic advantage.

{Great comic strip exploring how socio-economic advantage accumulates and leads to entitlement.}

As an example of how accumulated straight male privilege, internalized bias, entitlement, and the failure to understand its presence, can be found in late transitioning MTF transsexuals, one only has to look at Caitlyn Jenner or Martine Rothblatt who openly touts that she is “the highest paid female CEO”.  Perhaps she can be a role model to the millions of girls who would look to emulate her success?  That is to say, that they should all become straight married men, father children, and climb the corporate ladder, accumulating advantage conferred by straight male privilege?  Or perhaps exclusively androphilic, gender atypical, MTF transkids can do so?   NOT!!!

Well known and respected gender therapist, Dr. Anne Vitale, noted this internalized bias and tightly held sense of entitlement in one of her essays on the phenomena,

“One of the most interesting aspects I have found in my work with genetic males struggling with deep-seated gender dysphoria is ingrained sexism. Although it would seem to be completely out-of-place in this population, the fact that it is present and present almost exclusively in genetic males tells us a great deal about how some men feel about femininity and about aspects of the nature of gender dysphoria. As a general rule, the men I am speaking about present for therapy appearing decidedly male, often to the point of wearing full beards. In addition, they are more often than [Group One transsexuals] to present [as] married, to have children, and to have never considered having a homosexual experience. … There are those that think that what women do — those social behaviors that differentiate them from men — are frivolous and unimportant. Indeed, there are those who take this belief to the point where they feel that women are less than men and are embarrassed over wanting to be like them. Interestingly, these people have no trouble at all with wearing very feminine apparel — as long as they can do it in complete privacy or with the above mentioned male bravado. … Perhaps the most insidious form of sexism resides in the gender dysphoric male who has attained a highly respected position in a male dominated profession. These people routinely tell me that although women are now allowed a certain professional tolerance, the real players are still men.”

Vitale also noted that these late transitioning (universally gynephilic) transsexuals clearly understood that they would be losing their socially conferred straight male privilege should they transition,

“As the number of people who transition on the job grows, they get to see firsthand how public respect between men can quickly turn into private ridicule. Some individuals have even confessed to having participated in sexist jokes as a way to divert even the remotest suspicion from themselves. These people face the very real prospect of becoming outsiders, left to wither on the corporate vine. Given these seemingly unacceptable obstacles, many gender dysphoric males unconsciously accept certain male driven notions about women in an effort to purge the need to be female out of their mind.”

This potential loss of privilege is weighed against the personal benefits of transition, taking into account their already accumulated advantages.  This leads to the phenomena of very advantaged, higher socio-economic status (SES) gender dysphoric autogynephilic MTF transgendered individuals being more likely to transition than those with only moderate SES.  However, heterosexual and male privilege is not the only source of privilege or advantage, others include ethnicity (race/color, etc.), class, and education.  That is to say, that we don’t all start out with the same advantages.  Of course, those with absolutely nothing to lose… those who do not, nor ever did, enjoy straight white male privilege,  or accumulated advantage, poor and homeless “homosexual” transsexuals, both MTF and FtM, of color, whose early gender atypicality is well noted by parents, teachers, and peers alike, do not weigh loss of a privilege that was never theirs.  This is why in the Western countries, we find that most autogynephilic transwomen are white, middle-class, better educated while we find that exclusively androphilic MTF transsexuals (transkids) are more likely black, asian, or hispanic from poor families.

Dr. Vitale, in another essay, contrasted MTF transkids, whom she dubbed “Group One (G1)” type transsexuals, as not exhibiting this presumption of male (straight or otherwise) privilege and entitlement,

“As a psychotherapist I have found female identified males (G1) to be clinically similar to male-identified females (G2). That is, individuals in both groups have little or no compunction against openly presenting themselves as the other sex. Further, they make little or no effort to engage in what they feel for them would be wrong gendered social practices (i.e., the gender role assigned at birth as the basis of authority).”

Gender atypicality, especially notable femininity (disparagingly labeled “effeminacy”) in males, makes most people very uncomfortable, leading to less cooperation and social opportunities.  That is to say, that such individuals are granted less privilege, due to conscious or unconscious bias.  Whether that bias is greater or lesser than the privilege that may or may not be automatically conferred because that individual is male is likely to vary by individual and by the relationship between the individual and their social circle.  But, in many circumstances, this bias against them as feminine persons and gender atypicality/homosexuality far outweighs any potential male privilege, as attested by how many such individuals are disowned by even their own families to become homeless as teenagers.

Thus, for such gender atypical individuals who are contemplating alternatives, the privilegepossibility of passing as a member of the opposite anatomic sex can be very appealing.  But here, the ability to actually pass, really and truly pass, for years on end, with one’s neighbors, co-workers, peers, etc. is carefully evaluated; because, for non-autogynephilically motivated individuals, failing to pass will not grant them part of what they desire, surcease from bias.  Thus, passibility is a necessity for most “homosexual” transsexuals.  While passing as non-transsexual and non-gender-atypical women reduces bias, it does not grant “privilege” in the same sense that being perceived as a gender typical, straight male does.  Thus, attributing “passing privilege” to exclusively androphilic “young transitioners” in the manner that autogynephilic “late transitioners” and part-time cross-dressing transgender males often do, is dubious at best, and an example of autogynephilic projection of a false privilege at worst.  Worse, those who have become accustomed to equating possessing privilege with entitlement, falsely project onto such passable (especially if attractive as well) young transitioning MTF transsexuals the belief that they see themselves as “better than” gynephilic late transitioners, for whom the ability to pass has far less weight on their decisions regarding transition.  As the authors of the transkids.us website put it,

“This kind of perception is very common amongst transsexuals who are motivated by autogynephilia and the desire to acquire femininity and is typical of how hsts issues are re-interpreted within a transsexual context which has meaning to autogynephilic transsexuals and not to homosexual transsexuals.  In the often somewhat oddly “reversed” context of autogynephilic narrative, femininity is redefined in terms of status and hierarchy, as a personal goal and not as a connected social history. Casting transkids as “privileged” because they are defined socially as feminine is a reversal of how things work in the non-transsexual world where femininity grants less social privilege, not more. In a paraphilic value system where femininization is the objective then it can be seen how those who are spontaneously feminine would be considered fortunate but the relationship of homosexual transsexuals to concepts of “passing”, attractiveness and femininity are simply very different from those of autogynephilic transsexuals. Being a member of a very devalued social class from a very young age is not a privilege, it is a huge social liability.”

While femininity in boys is near universally reviled, mild “tomboyishness” in girls is tolerated or even encouraged.  However, extreme masculinity in girls and especially maturing girls and women, is equally disquieting to many.  Here, the ability to pass as straight, gender typical men, may and does confer some privilege, and if one transitions young enough, they may be able to accumulate advantages from it.

Further Reading:

Passibility differences between transsexual types

Differences between androphilic vs. non-androphilic transwomen, passing, and transition decision-making.

Exploring transsexuals stereotypes and how they reveal differences in privilege, socio-economic status, and transition decision-making

Exploring data regarding ethnicity vs. MTF transsexual types in New York City.

Exploring Dr. Anne Vitale’s clinic descriptions and contrasts between transsexual types.


Anne Vitale, “The Gender Variant Phenomenon–A Developmental Review” http://www.avitale.com/developmentalreview.htm

Vitale, Anne, “Sexism in the Male to Female Transsexual”  1997

Charlotte Alter, What Transmen See That Women Don’t, Time Magazine



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