While discussions of privilege and oppression with regards to binary trans people (that is, trans men and trans women) are abundant, these discussions with relation to non-binary trans people – particularly those with androgynous and/or changeable gender presentations – tend to be few and far between. The probable causes of this are two-fold: the fact that non-binary transgender identities are less well-known than binary ones, and that it’s an incredibly unwieldy topic to try and tackle. Nonetheless it’s a topic that needs discussion, and I hope to start it here.
A few months ago, Aoife Hart (or aoifeschatology) published a piece entitled On Having and Having Not: CAMAB and Male Privilege- discussing the unpopular but politically necessary idea that, before their transition and changes in how they’re perceived and gendered, trans women have male privilege conferred to them.*
In mainstream trans and feminist politics, the idea of “privilege” is often strained with meaning outside of what is politically useful or reflective of reality. Aoife discusses the idea that trans women have never had male privilege due to the severe harms and disconnection from maleness and masculinity that can come as a result of gender dysphoria – and (correctly, in my view) argues against that, and in favour of privilege as a “consistent allocation of preferential advantage conferred and allocated in a systemic [sic] [manner].”
As an aside: a more thorough examination of the concept of privilege might result in further categorising types of privilege and how various factors may influence whether a person has them conferred upon them/has access to them. Lisa Millbank, in The Gender Ternary: Understanding Transmisogyny, “[unpacks] ‘male privilege’ into internalised, social and power-over privileges.” Millbank talks about the different types of privilege and how they may be “lost” at different points – including a discussion of “internalised” privilege and how it might impact behaviour. In Millbank’s model, Aoife is exclusively talking about “social” and “power-over” privileges. While how one’s internalised gender and gender role impacts behaviour and privilege is an interesting idea (and one, I think, Aoife is a little too quick to dismiss in the face of the other extreme position), it’s not one that will be explored in much detail here.
Aoife’s discussion of the concept of privilege is longer and more in-depth than this (neglecting the “internalised” side as Millbank described), but the crux of this working definition is that “…when we speak of privilege, we must do so in the passive voice of imputation. Privilege is acculturation beyond our own limited agency” – privilege is not so much “had” as “conferred.” The concept of privilege being based on the way one is perceived – that one is read as male or female (or cis/trans, white/as a PoC, straight/queer, etc) – is an idea that has been discussed by many feminist theorists, both trans and cis.
In the vast majority of cases, when one is read as a man or a woman, it is to identify you as a person to receive (or not) the relevant privileges. When a (transitioned or transitioning) trans woman is labelled “male”, however, it is not to identify them and treat them as such. Trans women’s experiences are very much typical of the female experience, even when society insists that they are male – hypersexualisation and objectification, policing and verbal/physical based on sexuality and appearance, high rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence and so on – further exacerbated by their transgender status.
Discussing the non-binary trans experience adds extra dimensions to this analysis. First of all, mainstream culture does not acknowledge the existence of non-binary genders – and as such, the non-binary person will – however they present – never be read as the gender they are (but may still be gendered as a third – “freak” – gender, as discussed later.) Secondly, non-binary people’s gender presentation can vary greatly, both from individual to individual and from day to day. This is not to say that trans women and trans men all present the same, of course – butch trans women and femme trans men certainly exist – but this is a trait more associated with the non-binary transgender or genderqueer person.
While the experiences of CAMAB non-binary trans people and trans women are likely to be similar pre-transition – I.E. they may still have male privilege conferred upon them pre-transition – their experiences may diverge upon transitioning, whatever that may mean for a person. Trans women are, as I previously argued, gendered and treated as women by society – but the situation for non-binary trans people is much more complicated.
Under patriarchy, women, femaleness and femininity are devalued, whilst men, maleness and masculinity are applauded and praised. The genders and gendered behaviour of CAMAB people (even of cis men) are policed heavily – this phenomena is often misattributed to a form of discrimination against men, when, in actuality, it’s about the need to maintain masculinity and maleness (the superior states of being) as “unpolluted” from the feminine (the inferior).
Whilst a (cis) man acting superficially feminine in minor behaviours is often derided, his actions don’t result in anywhere near a total loss of male privilege – a man’s response to said derision can often be an opportunity for them to reassert their masculinity (and distance themselves from the femininity they displayed) via an exaggerated masculine-coded display. Said man is still very much considered to be part of the male class despite their minor transgressions, and as such is conferred the associated privileges.
As the perceived transgression against masculinity increases in severity, so does the associated exclusion from the class of male. Millbank (The Gender Ternary) argues that “mainstream society actually uses a threefold ‘ternary-gender’ model of gender, dividing people into ‘women’, ‘men’ and ‘freaks’.” As someone transgresses their coercively assigned gender to an increasing degree, they move closer towards the “freak” categorisation and the associated dehumanisation.
Millbank also suggests that it is while being forced into this “freak” third-state that trans people experience transphobia – something that is reflected in the patterns of violence and other discrimination against trans women and transfeminine people. It is the homeless trans woman with no means to meet standards of femininity/“pass” who is denied access to shelters; the trans woman who is “found out” (thus shattering the “deception” of being a woman, and firmly being placed into this third “freak” gender) who is assaulted by her partner; the visibly non-binary CAMAB person whose skirt (symbolic of their femininity) is set fire to on the bus,and other, numerous, instances.
It’s worth noting that, even if a CAMAB non-binary trans person is perceived as a cis man (and receives the appropriate benefits) for a particular slice of time, there are other factors that distinguish their experiences – a lot of them related to the erasure and perceived illegitimacy of their gender: mental health issues related to isolation and dysphoria, access to transition related medical care, disconnection from their peers, and other problems. The privilege bestowed upon them for their perceived maleness is, though, a major counterbalance – even if it’s not a thing they personally want or are comfortable with.
As previously mentioned, the presentation (and therefore perception and social status) of a CAMAB non-binary person will vary between individuals, and, for that individual, potentially over time. For someone like me, who varies presentation from day to day, moving between being read as in the “male” and “freak” groups, there is a noticeable uptick in verbal abuse, loss of perceived (and, looking at patterns and statistics of violence, actual, ) safety, a tendency for staring and muttering (as suggests the “freak” state) and (amusingly) mansplaining.
I am acutely aware, however, that when perceived in this more “male” state, my experience of social power for that slice of time is mostly comparable to a cis man’s. In fact, it’s a thing I actively set to counteract: deliberately toning down parts of my behaviour which may allow me to leverage (consciously or unconsciously) some of the “power-over” and “internalised” privileges as defined by Millbank:
“As I’ve moved from ‘male’ to ‘freak’, some of my internalised male privileges have stayed with me and others haven’t. I’ve said before (not on this blog) that, if you had to design a system of social conditioning to strip away self-assurance, the transition process expected by the NHS of a transssexual woman would be a good candidate. Some of us have better experiences than others – mine’s been pretty good, all told, so quite a bit of my internalised privilege has stayed with me. I usually feel that I have a right to an opinion, that my thoughts and choices are valid.”
For a non-binary person who is either not out or doesn’t choose to make any presentational changes, their experiences in society at large won’t be a whole lot different from that of a cis person of their gender assigned at birth – short of, possibly, a small amount of internalised privilege which is lost. On the other hand, the non-binary person who performs a transition similar to that of a trans woman’s will have similar experiences to them. The answer to “do CAMAB non-binary people have male privilege?” is “it depends on the time and person.” Apologies for my existence making your models complicated, folks.
Which leads us to a difficult question: to what extent is including CAMAB non-binary people in feminist space and discourse reasonable? The sexism experienced by cis women and the transphobic/transmisogynistic experiences of trans people (of all genders) are inextricably linked by the system which produces them – the patriarchy. It’s the degradation of womanness, femaleness and femininity, coercive and rigid gender assignments and the gender binary, the policing of gendered behaviour, and so on. Trans activism without feminism and feminist theory is both impossible and likely to result in trans men overrunning everything – as evidenced by, for instance, the 2014 Philadelphia Trans Health Conference – which was overwhelming run by and about them. Feminism and (any remotely decent) trans politics are inextricably linked, particularly any which (correctly) centers trans women and transfemininity.
Given the struggle to get mainstream feminism to successfully include binary trans people in its analysis or movement in any sort of meaningful or satisfying way, it seems unlikely that non-binary inclusion is anywhere close. Any (trans)feminism aimed at being anti-oppression rather than exclusively being about small quality of life concerns will also be addressing the concerns of CAMAB non-binary folks – as people who are the targets of patriarchal violence, and as people who shatter ideas of strict binary oppressions and add to the discourse surrounding them.
*I stand in the position of citing this apologetically, given her particular proclivities these days. I intend on producing a more detailed version of this piece that doesn’t draw from this at a later date, but for now this disclaimer will have to do.