My senior year of high school, less than a month after my 18th birthday, I came out to my family and friends as transgender. I was assigned female at birth, but by then I had reconciled to myself that I was really a man. After coming out, I knew exactly what steps I needed to take to really feel like myself. I started dressing differently, I cut my hair, I eventually started hormone replacement therapy. Somewhere in this process came the biggest and most important change: People started to identify me as male in public. When this began happening regularly, I started to notice something strange. People’s behavior towards me when they identified me as male was pretty drastically different from when they identified me as female. I’m sure it’s not news to a lot of people (women especially) that there are differences in treatment based on someone’s perceived gender. But getting to experience both sides as I transitioned and my physical appearance changed made me realize that not only are there major differences in the way people interact with each other based on gender, but those differences speak to the ways that men hold a great deal of privilege in our society.
When I began to pass as male in public, one of the first things I noticed was the way women would react to my presence in a public space. I became able to occupy more space in society without even really trying. “Manspreading” has been talked about before, but when I began to live as a man, I was taken aback by the ways in which I was almost expected to take up space. On public transportation, women would sometimes avoid sitting next to me, instead letting me spread out as much as I want across two seats. When a woman is walking and approaches me, she will move herself out of the way so she doesn’t run into me, even if it is less convenient for her. In the halls at school or on crowded streets, I noticed that I didn’t have to get out of the way anymore. In conversations, in a classroom or a friend group or otherwise, male voices often dominate the conversation. “Mansplaining” is also a popular term now, and it happens all the time — when men talk over women or repeat what a woman has just said to dominate the conversation. My voice became something that people listened to, even when I had nothing important to say. If I interrupted a woman, she would stop and let me continue.
All of this was confusing to me. In some ways it was exciting, I felt important. I definitely got an ego boost at times. But I was confused as to why this change was happening to me. See, in my mind, I wasn’t really any different. I didn’t feel changed in any significant way; my outside appearance just matched what I felt on the inside for the first time. It would be a while before I realized that it was the subtle changes in my appearance that significantly changed the way people interacted with me.
A little later in my transition, I started school at a community college and got a job in the theater. By this time, I passed as a man with almost no trouble and I had gotten my name changed in the school system, so I walked in on the first day with nobody knowing that I was trans. I was immediately surprised by the way that I was treated when I began a new job as a man. In the past, people had often spoken over me and expected less of me because I was a woman in a business involving a lot of menial labor. When I became a leader in my high school crew, no matter how I acted in supervising my team, if I was taking the lead or telling people what to do I was being a bitch. At this new job, though, people listened to me. Even when I really didn’t know what I was talking about, I was trusted more than my feminine counterparts. I became head of a department immediately after joining the crew, and although I would like to attribute that to my incredible sense of leadership, I am certain that I wouldn’t have been given the same opportunities if I had walked into that job viewed as a woman.
Male privilege and toxic masculinity is in so many ways ingrained into our society that it’s difficult to notice it unless you’ve experienced it from the other side.ADVERTISEMENT
At a certain point in my transition, I became “stealth.” Basically, this means that unless I choose to tell people, I'm not identified as trans. This means that when I apply for a job or a school, or even if I just meet someone, they have no idea that I was assigned female at birth. Becoming stealth opened my eyes to the most disturbing difference between interactions as a man and interactions as a woman. When men interact with each other, there’s this sort of “code of silence” that comes into play. If a fellow man says something misogynistic, racist, or otherwise problematic, calling him out for it would violate that code. You are expected (almost required) to just play along. The first time I was put into this situation, I was terrified. I was hanging out with another guy I worked with, and in passing he made a derogatory comment about women’s skills in our line of work. He looked at me for some semblance of agreement. I couldn’t speak. I felt like disagreeing with him would somehow out me, that he would then see that I was not "really" a man, not the way he defined it anyway. I felt sick to my stomach as I nodded and laughed at his “joke.” That was when I began to understand the way that men pick up all of these behaviors that hurt, belittle, and demean women. They learn it from other men.
Male privilege and toxic masculinity is in so many ways ingrained into our society that it’s difficult to notice it unless you’ve experienced it from the other side. Because it is overwhelmingly women who experience the negative effects of male privilege, it has been labeled as a women’s issue. The problem is, women can only do so much to push back against these behaviors, because women don’t have access to the spaces in which those behaviors originate. The problem can only be stopped by men.
Regardless of your gender, it is important to notice the ways that male privilege manifests itself in our everyday lives. Notice when your male coworker interrupts or talks over a female coworker. Try to understand that being a woman in a professional setting often means you have to work harder than your male counterparts to get things done, just because no one takes you seriously. Call out misogynistic behavior when you see it. If you are a man, let your friends know it isn’t cool to think about women that way. Notice when you are taking up more space than you need. Check yourself when you find yourself interrupting a woman to prove your own point.
These things are difficult to do. After living as a man for a while, even I struggled with subconsciously participating in these behaviors, because it’s just something that men are allowed — even expected — to do. But just because it is allowed doesn’t mean it should be. As men, we should all hold ourselves to a higher standard than what society expects from us.
Top photo: Martin Sharman/Flickr Creative Commons
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Elliott Michael is a 20-year-old trans man from Chicago. He is currently a student at Oakton Community College. When he is not working as a stagehand in theaters in the Chicago area, he enjoys writing short stories, plays, and creative non-fiction. He wrote "Trans Male Privilege" earlier this year for a creative writing class. Follow him on Instagram @skelliott.michael.