Thoughts on Masculine Privilege

I’m writing this post because of a recent question from the Oregon Girl about my thoughts on masculine privilege in female identified masculine-of-center people and how I had seen it manifest.

I am going to answer based on my experience, however, I know from conversations with other masculine-of-center people that I am not the only one to have receive advantages based on my masculinity.  I also know from my conversations with more feminine presenting people that they have witnessed that privilege first hand.

Let’s start with a definition.  When I talk about male or masculine privilege, I am talking about advantages given to those who are perceived male or masculine that are not conferred on the basis of skill, ability or any other objective measure, but rather because of that masculinity.  You can find lists of male privilege on the internet, I’ll leave that research to you but most revolve around a perception of greater intelligence, authority and competency – if there are two people and one of them is masculine appearing, people will tend to defer to the masculine one when it comes to decision making.  There is an assumption that if you are masculine, you not only know how to do stereotypically male things but you also enjoy those activities.   The list goes on.  And on.  And on.  Lots and lots of assumptions.

One example drawn from my own life is an occasion when my lover was taking me out to dinner.  Throughout the evening, it was clear that our waiter – a cute and energetic, probably gay man – believed that I was in the driver’s seat.  He asked me if we’d like a drink to start with.  He stood behind her and looked at me, asking if we were ready to order.  He took the same position when it came time to ask me if we were going to have dessert and placed the check securely on my side of the table when it came time to close out.  I kept trying to direct him to her as the decision maker, and he stubbornly kept coming back to me.

I ended up being amused, she ended up being frustrated.  Then we ended up having a conversation about masculine privilege.  I hadn’t fully realized what was going on so she gave me a point-by-point run-down of how the waiter had deferred to me and had assumed that as the masculine member of the couple I must be in control of the money and decision making.  From that point forward, I started paying more attention to how my masculinity was effecting the way people treated me, especially when I was with someone who presented in a more feminine way.

This is what I observed:  the more masculine I presented, the more men and other masculine-of-center people treated me as an equal, respected my opinions and trusted what I had to say, i.e., believed I had expertise when I said I did.  I observed that the deference shown to me was in direct contrast to the way they treated my more feminine companions.  Whereas it was assumed that I knew what I was talking about, and space was given to me to express my opinions, my companions are more often talked over, argued with and discounted.

In a recent conversation on this topic, someone asked, well, is all that really privilege?  What advantage does it give?  Well, first let’s start by considering – or remembering – how it feels when you are the one who is not listened to, considered an equal or trusted to have credible information.  On the job, that easily translates into less influence in the workplace, less power and therefore, less opportunity.  In contrast, if I’m receiving masculine privilege at work, I’ll have more influence on decision making, probably leading to my having more opportunities.  And because there are still more male managers than female ones, if I’m seen as one of the guys, I’ll gain favor just on that basis.

Can you get this kind of privilege even if you are a female identified masculine-of-center person?  Sure.  As someone who’s gender identity is rarely recognized at a glance, I can tell you that people don’t know how you identify.  You may be a proud female identified individual of masculine presentation but you’ll still get more privilege than someone who is more feminine presenting.  It’s not about how you see yourself, it’s how the world sees you.

Let’s talk about why some masculine-of-center people might not believe they are the recipients of privilege.  From my experience, that’s because we are all to aware of some of the not so great things about being recognized as a gender transgressor.  As someone who is perceived as a butch lesbian or a trans guy or a ‘what the fuck are you’ in public, I know very well how dangerous it can be to be so obviously queer.  And again, it doesn’t matter how I identify, it only matters how I am perceived.  The presence of oppression (higher percentage of chances of being seen as queer and assaulted for it) does not eliminate the existence of privilege (age, class, ability, skin color, perceived gender).  The femmes and feminine presenting people I know have a flip side to this, they are more likely to be seen as straight, therefore not as likely to be targets of homophobic violence but will be the recipients of gender based oppression plus, often not recognized as queer by their community and therefore not receiving the support of that community.

Lots of us will experience a mix of oppression and privilege throughout our lives.  The presence of privilege doesn’t negate our oppression and oppression doesn’t cancel out privilege.  My goal is to be aware of both and to understand how they each inform my attitude about the world and the world’s attitude about me.  Where I have privilege and power, I might have an opportunity.  Can I start a conversation with the people who are presenting me with masculine privilege?  Can I make space for my more feminine presenting companion to step up and take her space in the conversation?  Can my awareness be a tool in my activist toolbox and can I leverage my privilege in order to lift others up?  Or even better, to step down/aside and make space for them to make the move they desire to make?

As someone who does experience oppression, I have empathy with others who experience oppression, even if it is of a different sort.  I know what it’s like to be seen as inferior, as less capable and having my power taken from me by those who feel they are more worthy of that power.  Now, I could see this increasing masculine privilege I’m experiencing as a prize, something I deserve after all the years of gender and sexuality based oppression.  Or I could see it as the arbitrary boon it is.

And that’s the choice I am making, and reaffirming, every chance I get.  I won’t say I’m perfect at checking my privilege, I’m certainly not, I’m learning more all the time about the internal and external consequences of privilege.  I’m learning all the time how to be a better ally to other people and groups.

It’s probably the topic of another post to talk about how to be an ally but the first step is to ask the group you are trying to support how to be a better ally.  It continues with the art of listening and acknowledging that the oppressed group is the authority and even if we believe we have great ideas, if we are coming from privilege, we need to check ourselves and avoid pushing our agendas.  Our agendas are not important, our agendas need to be about us and our concerns, not a move to hijack someone else’s movement.  When we bring our privilege into a space that does not belong to us, our task is to be in support of that group, not in leadership.  That’s probably enough on that for now, like I said, that’s a topic that deserves its own post and if I write that post, I’d want to get other input for it.

For thoughts on this topic from a feminine presenting person’s perspective, please see this blog post by the Oregon Girl, aka FathomlessFemme.

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