I’m starting to doubt whether the “trans women have experienced/haven’t experienced male privilege” question (which is only ever used to bully trans women, whether by non-trans-women or by their collaborators) can be engaged with on any useful grounds, quite honestly.
This isn’t giving up. This is saying that we need to challenge that the question is being asked in the first place. Because it feels to me that this question is predicated on a fundamentally liberal, individualist logic (this struck me when I was contemplating the irony of someone defending her accusation by accusing everyone claiming otherwise of being liberal individualists and not seeing how her own side was founded on the same liberal individualist assumptions she saw her targets)
I’m thinking about this particularly in the context of the confession dynamic described by Andrea Smith in The Problem with “Privilege”. This confession dynamic is inherently upholding of the structures of power even while granting a form of social capital to the oppressed, which she examines in depth for whiteness and specifically settlement in the post. If you haven’t read it already, go read it. If you’ve only read the quote that people were passing around describing the confession dynamic, or the other one criticizing the concept of safe space, go read it.
Interpreted in terms of this confession dynamic, what the statement that trans women have experienced male privilege (or the more extreme version that trans women have “residual” male privilege) amounts to is a demand for trans women to participate in this confession dynamic as men.
This is a very different dynamic than people who are actually members of oppressor classes confessing (or even of white trans women confessing white privilege. I know b8l has written about how transmisogyny intensifies the harm that dynamic does to TWoC).
Making confession a requirement for trans women obviously benefits non-trans-women; it allows cis women and trans men and sometimes even cis men to situate themselves as judges, as the hearer of the confession. It prevents acknowledgement of transmisogyny, upholding the benefits that accrue from that and maintaining the comfort that comes with not acknowledging it. It allows trans men to deflect any mention of the benefits they receive from patriarchy. It gives anyone whatever thrill they get out of bullying trans women (a thrill too many people love, and violence everyone else turns a blind eye to).
Conversely, this focus on trans women’s (sometimes imagined) past hurts trans women, for a lot of the same reasons. When it doesn’t silence any talk about trans women’s (or any individual trans woman’s) present situation, and about parts of trans women’s pasts that don’t fit the narrative it’s trying to push, it requires that a trans woman speak about that from a position where she’s/they’re being judged by whomever she is speaking to and where her/their issues are less urgent than they actually are. More banally, it demands necessary, often limited, energy be given to this confession as a continual drain.
Even the way it allows collaborator trans women to situate themselves as hearers of the confession the way cis women and trans men often are, and as the “good trans woman” who checks her “male privilege” is harmful to trans women as a whole for these reasons.
Cis men aren’t targeted in the same way as trans women, aren’t bullied into confession processes, because they are actual oppressors, for three reasons. First, as Smith makes clear, oppressed people do not actually benefit from hearing these confessions. Second, because it is phenomenally hard to bully someone who holds actual oppressive power over you, and feminist social-justice-oriented spaces often go out of their way to try to hold on to male “allies”; trans women are targeted precisely because we are vulnerable, precisely because we need feminism. Third, because confession offers men the benefit of being seen as redeemed, as good men, as feminist men, as men who have grown (without, necessarily, having to undergo any actual growth or change of habits, as Smith describes), which is not offered to trans women.
Outside of the framework of “privilege”, things can be said more clearly. Anyone trying to tell trans women that their quality of life while closeted was improved because they lived in a patriarchy (a patriarchy which actively tried to destroy them and remake them in its image), for instance, is making a sick and violent joke.
In the end, the accusation of having male privilege made against trans women only functions in the context of a liberal, individualist, white-supremacy-reproducing, heteropatriarchy-reproducing, capitalism-reproducing confession dynamic, and within that dynamic serves as a form of bullying. Arguing that trans women don’t hold male privilege, engaging with that statement on its own level, also functions in that dynamic and implicitly agrees to most of the terms the bully sets.