Atonement on the Burden of Male Privilege

And the privilege gap that exists between cis male and trans woman…

Social ladder. Photo by Susanne Jutzeler from Pexels

It ’s no secret that one of the hardest battles trans people may face is with themselves. First and foremost is overcoming the inability to believe that you could ever be a member of your newfound gender identity — both by virtue of being chained by the image in the mirror and by supposedly lacking the qualities that you have always adored in others.

But when it comes to tech and to trans women in particular, there’s one additional fault which one may carry as a burden — the benefit of male privilege.

Back when I believed I was a man, I was certain, almost daily, that I was taking the rightful place of a more talented woman just because patriarchy helped me get where I am.

It’s no surprise that I felt the need to atone for that, both before and after coming out.

Coming out of the closet finally opened a whole world of opportunities to do that. A newfound ability to more safely communicate with women and take part in women-only spaces which by design were meant to promote women.

I did my share and tried to add more and more volunteer work until one of my cis friends hinted that I may be aiming for too much and needed to take some time to consider my limits.

As time went by, however, I gradually learned that truth was more complex than that. There are many forms of privilege one can have — ethno-racial, financial, and geographical, for example. But the trans woman’s supposed male privilege is one of the few that no one in their right mind would want to pay the terrible price it carries.

Notwithstanding the complex relationship trans women have with male privilege, namely, that previously-mentioned subconscious rejection of it, thus, leading trans women to being poor recipients of it.

That, by itself, was not enough for me to fully consider the situation, but eventually, something else happened which radically changed my line of thought as it finally dawned upon me:

I was going to get the punishment of a lifetime for my previous lifetime.

To quote one of my trans mentors: (doing <something> was) “a good way to get the assumption of competence back after transition.”

There was no need for me to atone because of the slew of “kind souls” out there who would exact a terrible price on me for betraying patriarchal norms. Or cis-normativity as a whole, as the practice is not limited to cis men. Anywhere from blatant accusations to not-so-innocent hinting.

But there was more, even when limiting oneself to amicable allies.

You see, being the sole woman in a tech team, or even the sole woman in a small startup company is definitely an unpleasant experience, even a deterrent.

But it sure beats being one of a handful of your kind in an entire industry and that being the sole trans person in a large company is the norm and not the exception. Literally and not figuratively. Searching for local trans colleagues yielded a dozen names and that’s it.

During my last job search, I once asked my HR interviewer, out of curiosity, if she’d ever interviewed a trans person. She had successfully recruited dozens of tech employees but I was the first trans person she had ever interviewed.

When my grandmother grew up, she got her medical doctor degree as a Jewish woman in an Arab country, with patriarchy being the norm and explicit racial discrimination (in the form of “numerus clausus”) as a way of life. These things seem so outlandish and impossible nowadays in modern western society, but then again so are the things trans women have to put up with, to a cis woman.

One of the questions posed at the local edition of the *famous show “you can’t ask that,” in the episode dealing with transgender people, was “Why are all trans women prostitutes?”

Prostitutes. Certainly not someone you don’t expect to see in a tech company, or need to pay any respect to. And indeed, slandering trans women is still all too common on social networks, even if they’re highly respected professionals. I had it, my colleagues had it, and even some of the best-known names in the industry have had it.

On that very same show and with regards to that specific question, one famous trans activist started to tally the glass ceilings broken by trans women. The list was short and for the most part, consisted of the rare single example as “someone who has made it.” Glass ceilings long broken by cis women and now considered a triviality.

And when I joined a local Facebook group for trans women and introduced myself as a techie, one of the replies was. “it’s so good to see that there are trans women in tech here.” As if there’s a good reason this would be an exception and not a norm.

And that’s without considering even more endemic factors — namely, that the sheer number of cis women is strong leverage by itself. Numbers that we’ll never have.

These numbers carry with them a wider, more focused selection of inspiration to draw upon — not too remote to be considered unrealistic, not too underwhelming to provide none. They carry clout and leverage, they carry the ability to create competing establishments…

Whereas we’ll forever be at the mercy of ally groups — be them cis women or LGB/queer circles. We’ll always have to weigh our words, maneuvering elegantly between the drops, lowering our heads and keep some of the criticism to ourselves. And even events that implicate our personal domains invariably leak to our jobs.

We’re not wanted on dating sites or as lifetime partners, denying us the support we need. We encounter transphobia daily in the news and on social networks. Bit by bit, it wears us out and breaks us down.

So, when one of the first few instances when my newly acquired de-privileged status manifested, I was mostly met with kind feedback — but also seriously tone-deaf feedback. How some failed to see the vast privilege gap between us painted their well-intentioned but ultimately harmful suggestions in an entirely different light.

Even if my cis women friends can partially relate, they need to acknowledge that our experiences differ vastly and that they should perhaps take a step back and listen.

Any serious discussion about supporting a minority group, any minority group, needs to be held with privileges in mind. Some questions need to be asked:

  • Am I aware of my privileges?
  • How do I use my privilege to support those who don’t have access to them?
  • Do I really offer my most, or do I mostly signal my virtue?

I know at least partially how that feels — I mean, I was in that very position. That voice that screams inside “But I’m an ally!” that defensive feeling of “I’ve done nothing wrong!” an internal protest at the subject even being brought up…

Imagine a man saying this to you as you confront them about the sad affair of being a woman in tech. It’s the exact same feeling.

Considering one’s privileges is hard. More so when you’re part of a marginalized group yourself. Willingness to let go of them is even harder. But it’s needed now and it’s going to be needed in every foreseeable future too.

Make sure you use your privilege wisely.

*Link: Israel’s “You can’t ask that” transgender episode, forwarded to the moment of context, subtitles available: סליחה על השאלה | טרנסג’נדרים — שידור בכורה ביוטיוב!

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Gil Bahat (she/her)

Gil Bahat (she/her)

A Gil, of all trades. DevOps roles are often called “a one man show”. As it turns out, I’m not a man and never was. Welcome to this one (trans) woman show.

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