Gender Heaven: How to grapple with male privilege as a trans person and partner

By Sam Sheffer & Emily Jordan

Sam and I are in Vietnam for the month and working for a local travel website. This is our first work experience together with Sam presenting male. The below was written in a fit of rage after our first day: Gender isn’t a drag, it’s a joke. What to do when you’re treated vastly differently from your wonderful partner who has done nothing wrong, and who you know has a vagina just like you do, but looks like a man and is given complete confidence, control and responsibility and you are reprimanded and made to feel incompetent.

The sheer amount of gender related weirdness — just in the first day or two days — was astounding.

In 2017, I think most women in America are aware of gender bias. If they haven’t sought out information or forms of resistance, it’s more or less become a commonly held cultural belief. We’ve become familiar one way or the other with a list of realities; women don’t get payed as well, women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, outspoken women professionals are bossy bitches (not to be confused with boss bitches) who have no work-life balance.

These things are shitty and unsettling to me, but they’ve always felt manageable. As a white, upper middle class woman I have enough peripheral privilege that my status as a woman isn’t life threatening like it is for many other American women, and women around the world. Things stopped feeling manageable, though, when I experienced first hand how much better a person presenting as “man” is treated in a work environment.

During our first and second days at the office, Sam was given attention when he was talking only abstractly about ideas. So much so, that when I spoke I felt I had to overcompensate by having a detailed and complete description of my own ideas, and even then I was met with a nod or respectful silence but not agreement or enthusiasm. I really really don’t want this article to sound like a complaint. I’m fine, Sam is fine, but it is shocking to experience these things so viscerally and they bear acknowledgement because they represent a much scarier, realer inequality in the treatment of men and women. Especially in the workplace which can function as a gateway to economic stability, respect and equality for women.

It was assumed Sam was the one with coding experience. Our male boss asked Sam to start coding things when, during the application process, I had explained I had taken a course in Python and Sam had no formal coding experience. Sam was asked to move furniture. Sam was asked to assess emails and reports about SEO, despite my having experience with SEO and having asked directly if our bosses were doing anything to optimize it. Sam seemed like the default choice for any task regardless of previous knowledge or qualification. No matter the task, he could figure it out and rise to the challenge. The irony is, this is absolutely true. Sam, and any other intelligent, creative, driven person, can problem solve even with no experience. But this needs to be assumed for the person presenting female and the person presenting male.

By the end of the day I was really angry. I felt drained and incompetent, like I had nothing to offer and had gotten nothing done. Like Sam was the class favorite after just one day, and I found myself wondering what I had done wrong, what I needed to improve on. Sam felt all of this too and WOW what a difference it made for him. Suddenly he was given all this trust and respect. He found himself trying things he never thought he’d be good at because he felt a new potential for competency at things he’d never had experience in — and he found himself succeeding.

Sam: should I feel bad for feeling good? For the first time I am treated like I am capable. I have always believed on average I will achieve as much as I am asked to achieve. Therefore when I am asked to do more I will then be capable of doing more. So when my new boss asks me to fix a problem I have never fixed on a program I do not have; I download, search, learn, and succeed. Then the craziest thing happens, I feel like I can take on anything. Moreover, my boss believes I can take on anything. In my short adult life I have had seven bosses and I have always had to prove my capabilities, in fact I have had to beg to be given a chance to demonstrate my skills. In the first week of my first job appearing as a cis male I have been treated with the most respect and given the most opportunity. Should I feel bad for feeling good about this?

Yes. Unfortunately for my rapidly growing ego I have a genus female identified partner would is sitting alongside me in life and work. Fully aware of my lack of coding experience and of Emily’s vast knowledge, I take on the tasks I am asked without hesitation. I like feeling capable, why do I need to give that up?

There is a mirror behind Emily and I can’t bring myself to drag my gaze from my reflection and look her in the eyes. I cannot continue in this strange game anymore because I do not deserve the treatment I have received and neither does Emily. No matter how selfishly I lavished the original gestures my boss performed, I am now scared I will forget these interactions are baseless. More than ever before I am challenged to see what is honest and what is a lie. Maybe more accurately, what is given to me as a person versus what is given to me as a male.

At the end of the day there is an easy path and a hard path (yes I know this is corny). Although many are born with privilege or grow into privilege slowly, and unconsciously, I received privilege overnight. I am scared of Emily seeing me as an unconscious male, expecting me to become wrapped up in my overnight-ed privilege. As people, we clothe ourselves in gender and give society a set of clues for how to treat us. But somehow I need to hold onto my consciousness as a person, separate from gender. For now I think I need to stay away from the comfort of binaries. Selfishness is not something to hold on to. I need to stay agitated. I need to stay grounded. I don’t want to float away.

After talking about this together, we were both scared by the separation we felt. I surprised myself with the aggressive “us vs. them” mentality I felt toward Sam as a “man” getting all this privilege. How ridiculous is that?! Sam has lived as a man for less than a year. I feel scared of my tendency to close myself off to Sam when he can understand better than anyone else what I’m feeling. Sam felt a fear of closing off too. He described my fear as being “unconscious of his consciousness”, and I think this is completely true. We have to acknowledge the other person; see them as an entity that is grappling with things just as we are, and communicate.

How can we blur, and eliminate, the boundaries? How can we test our tendency to separate and categorize each other, even the people closest to us? How do we keep each other from floating away?