I’m a Butch Woman. Do I Have Cis Privilege?

Pondering privilege.

Photo by Stefano Tinti/Shutterstock

Last week, I was mistakenly misgendered in front of an auditorium of people. I’d gone to see a speaker at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and during the Q&A period I was called upon by the nice lady doing the facilitating as “that young man, there, who has been waiting.” An excruciating 30 seconds followed, in which it became obvious to everyone that I was a young woman, and the facilitator was visibly unsettled by that revelation. My voice tends to eliminate all doubt as to my gender—it’s a woman’s voice, and it gets higher when I’m nervous.

This is the sort of story that is often used as an example of the daily hardships associated with being transgender. As a gender-nonconforming woman, I share the frequent, uncomfortable reminders of my difference with the trans community. So, when I’m called cis by a trans advocate in a way that feels dismissive, or if anyone dares to suggest that I benefit from cis privilege, I can get a little hot under the collar. I start thinking things like, “Hey, this person has no idea what I’ve been through! How dare they say that I have any sort of privilege?” Occasionally, to my shame, I’ve even argued on the Internet about whether it makes any sense to say a butch like me has cis privilege.

The word privilege just seems to set people off, myself included. I’ve often thought that the connotation of luxury and ease, of waltzing obliviously through life while others struggle, makes it a word more likely to divide people than improve their empathy for one another. As an enlightened, self-aware liberal from a comfortably middle-class background, I’d never dream of arguing that I hadn’t benefited from white privilege or class privilege—but just hearing someone mention cis privilege, even if it’s not directed at me, can set my teeth on edge. I make assumptions about the speaker, and I tense up in anticipation of an argument about who has it harder. There’s no sugar coating it: I get defensive and protective of my butch identity, even when I try not to. In this coalition of ours, where the long-term goals include the annexation of every letter of the alphabet, the relationships between the L’s and G’s, B’s, T’s, and Q’s aren’t always as friendly and supportive as they ought to be. I’ve struggled with my share of transphobia, and while I try to be an ally, sometimes I do a better job than at others.

Back in that auditorium in Knoxville, I was far from the best ally I could have been. After the talk, as we made our way out of the auditorium, one of my wife’s friends expressed sympathy about that awkward moment.  Sympathy makes me feel weird, so I deflected it by saying, as I often have, “That’s all right, if I’m going to shave my head and wear men’s clothes, I’ve got to expect that sort of thing.” My go-to response to sympathy is a convenient one. It says, If you feel a little uncomfortable around me, that’s my fault. It also says, I’m not transgender, I’m just a nice butch lesbian, wearing the costume of my people for reasons you don’t need to worry about.

It’s a response that is, at its heart, an appeal to have cis privilege extended to encompass me. It grossly oversimplifies my gender presentation, which I consider essential to living authentically, as nothing more than a fashion choice. It makes tough moments easier for me at the expense of educating people about their prejudices. Heck, I’m a butch lesbian living in Tennessee, for goodness’ sake—I’m not going to apologize for taking steps to make things slightly easier on myself and those around me. But cis privilege? Yeah, I’ve got some of that.