There’s a lot of talk about “privilege” these days: “white privilege,” “heterosexual privilege" or “male privilege.”
It’s not uncommon to have some kind of privilege and not even know it. Many of us in St. Louis and elsewhere don’t know how to define it. But some people learn about male privilege in an unexpected way. They know what life is like for men and for women because they've lived both.
More about that in a minute.
The first thing to know about male privilege is that it isn’t something you earn, according to Washington University social work professor Vanessa Fabbre.
“It’s something that society gives you, whether you want it or not,” Fabbre said.
But 'I've worked hard'
Fabbre said it’s common for men — and women — to argue that male privilege doesn’t exist.
“This is where people might say, ‘Well I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got. I started from the bottom up. I’ve earned everything I have,’” Fabbre said. “And that is true.”
But how is that true? How can you have privilege if you don’t feel privileged — when you don’t have things handed to you, like money or a college education? Fabbre noted that male privilege has nothing to do with wealth. It’s about two very distinct criteria.
“The first is what we call unearned entitlement. For example, feeling safe in public,” she said.
That’s something Sayer Johnson of the Metro East area learned about unexpectedly. He’s a transgender man who began transitioning from female to male nine years ago in his early 30s.
Johnson said he always came off as a more masculine female. Even so, before he had a beard and mustache, and a flat chest …
“I was afraid of sexual violence because of the body parts that I had,” Sayer said.
How about now? “No, it doesn’t happen,” he said.
It’s not that men don’t ever feel afraid or aren’t attacked, Fabbre noted.
“Of course men are hurt. Men are the victims of crime and violence as well but usually it’s not because they’re moving through the world as a man,” Fabbre said. “And so women, because they’re moving through the world as women, feel that violence at a much higher level, and are on guard.”
What about that second criteria that defines male privilege? It’s called “conferred dominance.” That’s an academic-speak for society giving power to one group over another. Johnson’s new life gives him plenty of examples.
“If I’m in a circular conversation, heads turn my way to hear my opinion,” Johnson said. “If I’m in a restaurant with my female friend or partner, they bring the check to me.”
And don’t get him started on the different way he’s treated when it comes to parenting.
“Being in the grocery store with my three children, hundreds of times when I was read as a woman, nobody ever said anything to me unless my kids were acting up and now I’m complimented on what a good father I am,” Johnson said.
Fabbre hears a lot of stories like that from transgender men. They’re in a unique position to understand male privilege first-hand. It’s something that’s also documented by a feminist website.
Epiphanies can happen during something as common as a visit to an auto repair shop.
“Having lived their lives as women before and comparing those two experiences, they say, ‘Well, they brought me right back there and took me under the hood and showed me what was wrong with my car and explained all these things to me,’” Fabbre said.
They also tell her, "I didn’t feel like someone was trying to sell me something I didn’t need."
Cuts both ways
People who transition from male to female can have the opposite experience: losing male privilege they didn’t even know they had.
Stephanie James of Maryland Heights lived as a man for more than 50 years, and had a successful career as an account manager. She recalled how one of the bosses began treating her differently right after her transition.
“He’s looking around and says, ‘Anybody want some bagels?’ And everybody raises their hands, of course, and he says, ‘Well Stephanie how about you run over to Einstein’s and pick us up some?’” James remembered. “And I said, ‘Sure how many would you like?’ It was like yeah, I see where this is going.”
Still, Fabbre says, having male privilege – or not having it – isn’t destiny.
“If you have privilege, you might also have many struggles, and it doesn’t mean that your life is going turn out great,” James said. “And if you’re someone who experiences a lack of privileges, or disadvantages, it also doesn’t mean that your life is miserable or that you’re doomed to fail.”
Some transgender men feel their newfound advantage is a kind of superpower.
"There's a great deal of responsibility in trying to recognize that privilege and use it for good," Johnson said.
Eli Chi is also a transgender man. After transitioning a few years ago, Chi realized people made stereotypical assumptions about him based on their perception of him as male.
"I feel that men in this world are looked at as hard and aggressive and show no emotion and that's not me at all," Chi said.
Chi wants people to know that having male privilege doesn't make someone a bad or unfeeling person.
"I am this emotional person. I am a bit softer and I do show affection to other male-presenting people," Chi said. "I think as a trans-masculine person, I can help reconstruct masculinity."
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL