A very personal anecdote
A friend on Facebook shared this story. It’s a powerful article about the intersection between differing kinds of privilege and disprivilege; in the case of the article about intersections between class, race, and queerness.
I don’t have a response or a rebuttal. It’s a good read, go read it. I have my own story here; I don’t touch on the trans or race issues in the same way.
As preamble to the main event, let me give you an idea what it’s like growing up autistic and (non-visibly) disabled.
Harassment and assault are par for the course, on a daily basis. From other children and adults. Of course it wouldn’t be as bad under the watchful eye of a responsible adult, but they would sneak it in. Outside of that watchful eye, the floodgates opened.
And trust me — this wasn’t accidental or inadvertant. These people didn’t target me indiscriminately. In their bones, they knew I was different, that I was a wrong thing. I could see in their faces and eyes as their brains ticked away — “Why does that kid walk like that? Why does he move like that? What’s wrong with his face and voice?”
Of course, I also grew up as a (mostly) white male in a very chauvinist patriarchal environment. Boys don’t cry. Don’t show weakness. Don’t tell tales. It was reinforced on me time and time again that I was to bear this burden and not complain.
In the time up until my early twenties, not much changed. I became a tall, overweight adult who lacked the social skills and cachet to defuse situations that could escalate into harassment and assault. I developed new physical disabilities that made me ever more vulnerable. I was still a victim and I was still told persistently that I wasn’t one.
(As an aside, this has much to do with my focus on bodybuilding and tattoos in recent years. There are fewer confrontations that might need defusing when people are already physically intimidated by you, which is hilarious considering how pacifistic I tend to be about these things.)
I entered the University of Oxford from a relatively untypical background. I had attended a non-selective state school, and received funding from the government to complete my last few years of school due to my parents’ low incomes. We weren’t poor — our standard of living very middle class — but without a stable source of income frugality was a norm I grew up with.
I somehow got into a feminist debate about catcalling and harassment in the streets. My view and experience of this had been entirely informed by years of harassment and assault and the blind eye that had been turned if I ever raised it as an issue. I tried to express that but… eh… not very eloquently.
I think it came out a bit like “I have to put up with the same shit, you should too, freedom of speech, innit.”
Yeah. That was dumb.
I received a vitriolic response from someone I had respected. She aggressively put me down, told me that as a man I didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Check your privilege.”
Check my privilege.
Coming from a white, able-bodied girl who had attended a £25,000 a year private school.
From someone who knew the queer experience in a similar way that I did but chose to downplay my experience of it compared to hers.
In one phrase, she managed to wrest ownership of the entire issue. She silenced my voice, views, and opinions as a disabled person, as being less important in consideration than hers as a woman.
There are very real, strange ways that she had privilege over me. Feminism is a powerful discourse and method; it’s a network that links millions — if not billions — worldwide with common purpose. Meanwhile, my very identity and being remains medicalised. I could have my freedom curtailed simply because of a label ascribed to me entirely legally and I lack access to comparable networks of discourse and support that have proved to be a fantastic boon to women fighting the scourge of sexism and misogyny.
I know now that I shouldn’t have suggested that street harassment was a thing to be tolerated. I am genuinely sorry I ever thought it was appropriate to repeat the social lie I had been forcefed. I’d been misled by a harmful social structure for years. Told to bury the fear and terror I felt. But this was never a privilege I held.
Adversarialising didn’t help anyone in that situation. Common understanding and purpose would have. Each of us aware of our own privileges — without feeling the need to aggressively remind the other of them — would’ve been a step forward.
Live and learn.