identity politics

On Privilege & Gender (Part Two)

One more thing:

To Belle, and to the femmes I’ve dated and fucked and longingly admired: Thank you.

Thank you for swooning over my neckties and collared shirts, my perfectly messy short hair, my heavy belt buckles and swagger and the way I order wine for you. Thank you for having my favorite whiskey at your house for me, just for me, thank you for dressing up and looking your best, celebrating the costume of femininity, for putting time into your hair and makeup and outfit and shaved legs and stockings and lingerie straps that bite into flesh and shin splints from high heels and freezing legs from short skirts and the eyelash batting and the way I feel like a million bucks when I’ve got you on my arm.

I appreciate your gender expression, deeply, because I make more sense when I’m next to you. To quote Cody: “Let’s be honest: we need femmes.” I didn’t get who I was until I started dating femmes. This identity does not exist in a vacuum, and, for me, requires the duo dynamic inherently.

I have so much reverence for the femme aesthetic. Am I occasionally jealous of your ability to pass? Yes. But I understand – at least a little – the burdon of it, too, and I want you to share that with me. Femininity is assumed to be for the benefit of straight men, and to subvert that can sometimes mean consequences.

Yeah, I get tired of being on the front lines of visibility sometimes. But when I have a femme on my arm, strutting down the street, freshly fucked and we’re melting into each other, everyone who sees us knows what we are, and I love the second glances we get. I love the tiny revolutions that happen in the faces of strangers passing by.

Passing is not always a privilege. Some femmes I know have even said to me that passing is never a privilege, in fact. (I’m not sure I agree entirely, but I understand the argument.) To force someone to admit that it is a privilege is to force a hierarchy, such a power play, such an insecure I’m-better-than-you kind of move.

I’ve joked occasionally that femmes and other passing queers get to hear what straight people say when they don’t know a queer is listening. My lovers have occasionally told me stories of what they heard at work or school and I’m shocked – especially in PC-Seattle where I used to live, I never heard people saying homophobic – or even homo-ignorant – remarks around me, because I am visibly queer, they knew I was listening. As a writer, as an activist, as an observer of human character, I am fascinated by those conversations and interested in access to those places where I cannot go. Likewise, I sometimes find I have access to intimate (bio-hetero-) male conversations, where they let me in as one-of-the-guys and bitch about their wives, tell sexist jokes, or fawn over girls at the bar. A straight girl – and probably femmes – would probably not have access to these conversations.

I’m remembering a conversation I had with my friend and femme spy once upon a time, where she strongly asserted that there is no privilege in passing as straight, especially because sometimes, when she is presumed straight and then outs herself, she actually finds herself in more danger than she was previously and, I believe she argued, she’d be in more danger than someone visibly queer – a butch – because of the perception that her passing was actually deception.

I definitely see her point there, and it makes me feel highly protective and posessive of femmes, to think of the occasional dangerous situations they may be in. I still think there is some privilege in the femme identity – as there is some in the butch identity, some in an androgynous or genderqueer or any other gender identity, isn’t there? If there was no benefit, what use would it be? I suppose “privilege” here though is not the same as “benefit;” one implies a hierarchical gain within social structures.

Maybe I need to back up here. What is privilege? How do we define it? How do we know when we have it, when we don’t? And what, if anything, do we do with it when we have it? What are our responsibilities with privilege, how do we meet them? How do we avoid abusing our privileges?

Uh, I’ll think about that and get back to you. Chime in your two cents if you feel inspired, please.

Ultimately, though, I really want to stress that comparing degrees of oppression is fruitless and purposeless. Who does it help? Do you really feel better after forcing someone to admit that they have privilege? It’s one thing to have a discussion about it, to acknowledge the intricate complexities within identity hierarchies – it’s another thing to play these I’m-better-than-you games.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

9 thoughts on “On Privilege & Gender (Part Two)”

  1. Cody says:

    Bravo, my friend, Bra-Fucking-vo. Seriously. I want to have some more talks with you about this. Let's discuss when that can happen.

  2. dylan says:

    Cheers man. You fucking hit the nail on its head again.

  3. Zoe says:

    Whenever people start talking about comparisons of different kinds of privilege, I think of this Bob Kohler quote, after being arrested for protesting the Amadou Dialo shooting: (Kohler was also super involved in making sure homeless people living with hiv/aids were not denied housing).

    "I do not equate my oppression with the oppression of blacks and Latinos. You can't. It is not the same struggle, but it is one struggle. And, if my being here as a longtime gay activist can influence other people in the gay community, it's worth getting arrested. I'm an old man now. I don't look forward to spending 24 hours in a cell. But these arrests are giving some kind of message. I don't know what else you can do."

    I think of this too when people talk about (or, more frequently, try to deny the existence of) "bisexual privilege". There must be a way we can talk about privileges without downplaying the constraints and contradictions that come with them.

  4. Molly says:

    Bravo, Sinclair. Now I feel like you "get" what I was saying in that conversation months ago. :)

  5. Sungold says:

    I found my way here from your comment at figleaf's, Sinclair, and I really appreciated these two thought-provoking posts. I'd like to offer a couple of thoughts about privilege from the perspective of a feminist who's heterosexual, and married to boot – at the risk that some folks might read even my commenting here as an expression of heterosexual privilege.

    I constantly have a choice about whether to be forthright about my politics (which are fairly radical for the community I live in) or to "pass" as a completely normative, more or less conventionally feminine married woman. I mean, I can pass as a soccer mom if I so choose (and I sometimes do). Of course this is easy and comfortable – the default position.

    For me, I think that precisely this privilege engenders an obligation to claim my feminist principles – and to act as an ally to those with less heteronormative privilege – even (or maybe especially) when it's uncomfortable to do so. Of course, this isn't a parallel situation to a femme passing (or not) because I'm unlikely to suffer very severe consequences if I out myself as a feminist or ally. No one is going to beat me up. Probably the worst thing that has ever happened to me as a feminist was intrusive questioning by an INS agent: he wanted to know why I had a different last name than my husband before he let me back into the country. That's pretty tame stuff (and even so I was sweating bullets).

    Admitting my privilege is not the same as ranking oppressions (which I totally agree is a fruitless and destructive game). It's just the first step toward committing to justice for people whose situation isn't largely the same as my own.

    [ Very good point – there are many different kinds of privilege, and for those of us who occupy the radical margins, what kind of responsibility do we have to out ourselves when we pass as 'normal'? Thanks for the comment! – ss ]

  6. stchick says:

    Ok so I read both posts ( yours and Belle's). I am completely femme and pass completely as straight all day long. I understand both sides. My ex (sigh) had never called me out on my femme privilege. It was never an issue. But now I wonder did I overlook something ? Did I neglect her in ways I shouldn't ?

    grr. the guilt :(

    [ maybe your ex never called you out on your femme privilege because you don't use & abuse it. perhaps it wasn't a factor between you. that doesn't mean you neglected her. it's like any other kind of privilege, I think – being aware of it is a big step, and sometimes as much as you can do. I want to discourage you from feeling guilty – or, at least, to encourage you to take the guilt feeling and put it into something useful, like knowledge & empowerment, rather than just feeling bad about it. I certainly don't begrudge femmes any privilege they may have, it's just a fact of living in this social hierarchy that values femininity – and sex-gender alignment – in certain ways. — ss]

  7. jacket's girl says:

    As a new reader, I've been devouring your blog archives for the last several days and feel compelled to respond to this post. I had this conversation recently with my sweet/sexy/fabulous/feminist butch (who you remind me so much of) and there was tension in the car as we tried to make our respective points. I don't disagree that I experience the privilege that comes with passing/invisibility, especially as the parent of a kindergartener in a small redneck town. I recognize the shit my partner has to put up with each day she moves through this unfriendly world of small town elementary school parents and economically oppressed "dudes" at the local bar. I see it and I marvel at the grace and agility with which he deals with this reality. This privilege is real. I don't feel guilty about it though. I don't think I understand where the guilt is coming from in my fellow femmes. We are all struggling, but in different ways

    There are sacrifices to embracing my femininity after years of trying to "look like a dyke" so I could find a date and be recognized as queer. In a misogynistic society, the more feminine I present, the less respect I garner; not only from strait men, but from my fellow queers as well. Yes I gain adoration for the way my ass looks in heels, but that is not the same as respect. Yes I make better tips as a cocktail waitress when I wear lipstick and shake it on the dance floor. Yes I have power. I have the kind of power that comes from owning my femininity, and I use it. And it feels good. But I have to fight that much harder to be taken seriously in the classroom or at my real job. I have to use my intelligence and my wit to avoid dangerous encounters with men who have no intention of respecting me. I have to endure the "your not a real dyke" attitude and defend my right to present my gender in way that feels good to me.

    I was in a group of folks recently, wherein the gender expression and makeup was scattered along some invisible continuum between masculine and feminine – and I watched. I watched as the attention of the group migrated to whomever was the most masculine presenting speaker in the conversation. I watched as the most feminine speakers were quickly discounted or ignored. It was subtle, but this kind of ingrained attitude and behavior is possibly unavoidable in our culture (most cultures). Which is why it is so important to support each other in the differing ways we struggle through the daily bullshit thrown at us for being queer, being female, wearing skirts, or having an unorthodox gender presentation. All we have sometimes is the love and tenderness waiting for us when we get home and close the door behind us. Quibbling about who has more privilege or power or respect is not supportive, but engaging in these dialogs feels strengthening. It enables us to support each other better and love each other more fully.

    All this to say thanks to you and Belle for posting and facilitating this discussion. Y'all are a beacon for those of us who just don't have enough access to quality butch/femme sex-positive queer culture anymore.

    Thank you.

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