Transgender Opinion: Two-Way "Passing Privilege"

It hadn't occurred to me before but, thinking about it, it did seem that contained within the notion of being a "trans ally" is the implicit assumption that one is not oneself trans. Did that assumption bother me? I wasn't sure.

I found out, last week, that I'd been shortlisted for Trans* Ally of the Year at the newly-minted National Transgender Awards. I was, naturally, delighted, and texted the news to all and sundry. One of the responses I got back was:

'Trans Ally' might be presuming a bit, since none of them will have seen your genitals.

It hadn't occurred to me before but, thinking about it, it did seem that contained within the notion of being a "trans ally" is the implicit assumption that one is not oneself trans. Did that assumption bother me? I wasn't sure.

I recalled other occasions when assumptions had been made about my gender identity. The first of these took place at an evening LGBT event, maybe a decade ago, one of the first I attended as a fledgling gender specialist. The climate of the time was distrustful of, even hostile towards, psychs practising in the field and much of this was (not without reason) focused on Charing Cross, the gender clinic where I worked.

Nervously, I emphasised to the event organiser that I was there not representing my clinic but as a private individual.

"Yes," he said, drily, "if they knew you were from Charing Cross, they'd rip your balls off."

Reassuring this was not (although an arresting image). It struck me, even then, as something of an assumption.

"How do you know I've got balls?" I said, with an edge of snark.

He didn't answer, just shot me a Look.

On another, less convivial occasion, the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity - latterly, something of a closed shop - was searching for justification to reverse the decision, originally mooted by Christine Burns, to include a Charing Cross gender clinic representative (me) in its number. Eventually, they ruled to exclude me partly on the grounds that I was not myself a trans clinician. Again, something of an assumption. The Forum tended to meet in a governmental chamber, arranging itself in a rather grand and intimidating semicircle: I remember imagining a ceremonial chair of the kind rumoured to exist in the Vatican, designed specifically to facilitate the genital examination of new Popes (the stories hold that this measure was introduced following the Papacy of the semi-mythical Pope Joan).

(Disclaimer: Although my own have - alarmingly - featured rather heavily in this article so far, it should go without saying that, in fact, genitalia are neither here nor there where gender identity is concerned. Now read on.)

More often, the opposite has happened: I'm assumed to be trans. This happens in the clinical context, usually when I'm outlining the various effects of testosterone to transmasculine people. Most commonly, I'm asked something along the lines of "How many injections did it take to grow that beard?"

When I trained in psychiatry - with its murkier roots in classical psychoanalysis - one was encouraged to be a blank screen in the interview setting, inscrutable, unknowable. My own interviewing style is, however, informal, even conversational. I'm probably hyperscrutable. What with that plus the lopsided power balance of a typical gender assessment (the clinician demands the most intimate of information from their patient; the patient knows little or nothing about the clinician), I can completely understand why the question might be asked. It flummoxes me, though, because I've yet to come up with a good answer.

(Re: the beard, possibly "I wasn't counting"?)

When I read, in 2012, George Clooney's response to similar questioning (gay rather than trans) it struck a chord with me:

"I think it's funny, but the last thing you'll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, 'These are lies!'" he said. "That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I'm not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing. My private life is private, and I'm very happy in it. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I'm gay? I'll be long dead and there will still be people who say I was gay. I don't give a shit."

Clooney is Clooney, though, and gets away with this kind of sublime answer-avoidance. I tried paraphrasing him once, in response to a "how many injections" question and, sadly, I lacked the lubricating charm. My patient and his partner regarded me for a moment, then one clarified to the other, "he's saying he's not trans".

Ultimately, the last word on the subject, for me, comes from the ever-incisive Paris Lees, whose writing on "passing privilege" lends useful perspective. She defines it as:

The privilege to walk down the goddamn street without people being assholes, or at least not be assholes about that particular point. Passing privilege is similar to the privilege that cisgender people - that is, people who are not trans - enjoy, apart from one important distinction: It is conditional. It depends on conforming to a societal standard of gender presentation. It can be taken away. Essentially, passing privilege is a case of, "If you look a certain way, you don't have to deal with all the bullshit that we hand out to other transgender people." It stinks.

I am, when I reflect on it, lucky enough to have near-unconditional "passing privilege" in more than one direction. In 99pointwhatever percent of my life, I'm recognised, straightforwardly, as cis - I never face the assholery, bullshit and very real risk of harm, even death, that is doled out to a great many trans people, every day of their lives - with the little added titbit that, in the very specific (and, crucially, safe) context of discussing testosterone in a gender clinic, I could, were I minded to do so, "pass" as other-than-cis.

Much as they might occasionally tickle my snarkbuttons, assumptions about my own gender identity are both rare and slight, amounting to not even inconvenience so much as tiny moments of mild awkwardness. Arguably, those moments are to be recognised and valued as part and parcel of the immense privilege I more or less take for granted.

In other words, I need to a) remember to check my privilege, and b) suck it up.