The Michigan Women’s Music Festival has been getting some attention from Pam’s House Blend within the past few weeks. The festival’s policy of trans-exclusion got me thinking about acceptance (and the trans-exclusion policy of my old church, of course), and then I attended a luncheon with a Domme/sub group this weekend and that got me thinking about how we sometimes find acceptance in the places that we least expect.

I’d previously heard about Michigan while reading Whipping Girl. Ms. Serano mentioned the festival as an example of discrimination against trans women—the event has had (and as far as I can tell, still does have) a womyn-born-womyn policy for festival attendees. In a way, I understand the idea—wanting the attendees to feel safe. Some of them have been abused and mistreated by men, and having women present that used to be men could be something of a traumatic experience. I get that.

I understand why someone would implement such a policy, but I also have reasons for disagreeing with it– primarily that I don’t think victims of discrimination ought to be protected via discrimination against others. I think there are very few cases where discrimination is justified, and this is not one of them.

It’s the mindset behind the womyn-born-womyn policies that will probably even keep me away from Dinah Shore in Palm Springs until I’m post-op (though I’d probably continue to protest against Michigan’s policy rather than ever attend it). As I’ve said before, I’ve had remarkably few problems since I started transitioning, and never really had any with being a trans woman in lesbian spaces, but I’m also usually part of a group and we’re going to a club where there’s not exactly strict entrance requirements.

Something like Michigan, or even The Dinah, would be a lot harder for me to navigate—I’d be constantly worried because I don’t usually make a big fuss about re-gendering stories about my past. I was, for example, on the boy’s cross country team in high school, not the girl’s. And so I’d be worried about tripping up and outing myself. I wouldn’t normally care about that, but there are times where it’s important not to announce that one is trans: for example, I don’t make a point of outing myself to the high school students I tutor (or to their parents). Being visibly trans has actually cost me some tutoring work in the past. Now, I don’t out myself to anyone unless that’s something they need to know. I wouldn’t out myself at Michigan or The Dinah, and I’m worried that my ease in talking about trans-related issues would lead to a slip that would out me.

The reason I talk about this is because the coordinators of Michigan tend to justify the exclusion of trans women by talking about the experiences of being born and growing up as a girl. That’s something that no trans woman knows anything about—except for maybe the 8 year olds that are starting to transition*. While it’s true that trans women don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a girl, under the thumb of the patriarchy, most of us, and I realize I’m speaking for myself more than others, would actually like to learn and share in what we missed out on, what we continue to miss out on because nature took it in her mind to be most cruel to us.

I’m not trying to play the “poor me” card again (though it seems I do have an inordinate amount of self-pity). I’m just trying to say that trans women have their own set of challenges, our own sets of problems through which we pass on our way to being women.

The things we have in common with cisgender women include being mistreated by men. When I was in school, I was teased, called names and bullied. I wasn’t sexually harassed (well, much, anyway) but I never had to kiss a boy out of fear for my safety. The threat of physical violence seemed higher against gender variant males than against girls, but that may just be my perception and I’m willing to concede that girls may have had it worse. I simply wasn’t a victim of the patriarchy in the same way as other women, but I was still a victim. I wasn’t oppressed, I was repressed.

A lot of cisgender people deride the notion of cis privilege, saying that it’s nothing more than my misplaced envy at not growing up a girl. I read some rant or other in which the writer was saying it wasn’t any different than being jealous of someone having a candy bar or a cute dog.

Consequently, I think this idea needs some clarification. First, growing up as a girl is in no way, shape or form similar to having a candy bar or a cute dog and if you think so, you’re dumber than a box of hair. I can go buy a candy bar or a cute dog. I can’t travel back in time and relive my childhood properly. That’s not just the worst analogy fail I’ve ever seen on the internet, it’s incredibly unsympathetic to people whose experiences the cisgender assholes know nothing about, so fuck them if they’re reading this.

What a lot of people, including some trans people, don’t realize is that trans folk benefit from cis-privilege, too. Let me explain: when I was a boy, yes, things were very confusing for me. I liked pretending I was a girl, and while I wasn’t happy, I didn’t have to put up with the same shit that girls did. That’s male privilege. The cis-privilege that I had was related to the fact that people didn’t question that I was a boy when I was presenting as one. Since I repressed my gender identity, I was able to make use of cis-privilege that in turn allowed me to take advantage of male privilege.

But trans people don’t get all the benefits of cis-privilege. Some trans women that express the “privilege” that a woman had growing up as a girl aren’t talking about how lucky a woman was to have been harassed or molested by males. The privilege that is being addressed is the advantage, the social advantage, to having your sex automatically authenticated by your parents, to be raised and socialized as the correct gender. Regardless of whether men have an easier time in society due to the effects of patriarchy, being socialized as the correct gender, even if it’s as a member of the oppressed class, is better and more useful than being socialized into the group to which you don’t belong. By way of example, I could talk about my experiences in having to learn how to use makeup, dress, style my hair when I was thirty, all the mistakes I made, and how embarrassing it was to be outed because I looked so terrible. I wasn’t socialized with experiences that were useful to me, and that’s at least one element of privilege.

I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what I’m saying. Cis women don’t have it easy, and I understand that socialization isn’t the most important thing in the world. A good education, a good job, having some money in the bank, having a roof over your head, having some kind of economic and social security is more important than knowing how to do makeup. Is knowing how to put my hair in a cute updo really going to get my ass out of the fire someday? Probably not. Then again, sometimes the most important details are the little ones. I had all of the things on the list I just rattled off, and I still wasn’t happy. I had to transition in order to take that label and make it mine. I was socialized into the wrong group and couldn’t be happy until I did something about it.

I’ve seen cases where discussion of cis-privilege led to cis people feeling resentful and attacked, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here. Most frequently, the cis person trying to defend themselves ends up saying something cissexist, and then the discussion deteriorates into a flamewar. I’m not out to start a flamewar. I’m trying to point that when a cis person claims to have no gender-based power to exert over others, that their privilege isn’t a privilege, that they’re making a demonstrably false statement. Maybe it’s just because of the blind spots in their experiences, the things they take for granted. Part of the definition of privilege (at least my working definition) is that it includes the blind spots in one’s own thinking, and it’s no surprise to me that some cis women don’t understand their privilege, just like some men don’t understand theirs.

In other words, there is some gender-based power in that role. Women may not always have more than men, but they’ll still have some. Cis-privilege is having your gender identity automatically assumed to be authentic by others. For trans women, there may be obvious tells that give us away, and rather than benefiting from cis-privilege, our identities are not accepted and we frequently become victims of cissexism. For most trans women who are out, our identities are almost always assumed to be automatically false and affected (trans-facsimilation), and almost always by cis people. That’s the power that others wield over us, the ability to accept our self-identification or humiliate us through a blatant denial. Cis women can ridicule a trans woman just as severely as a cis man, though it may not devolve into physical violence. That power is wielded by all members of society against trans people. In other words, the vehicle of the power behind cis-privilege is cissexism.

Once the privilege is expressed through cissexism, it’s not a matter of shrugging it off and ignoring the people who treat you badly. Sometimes we’re forced to deal with people who won’t accept us, who degrade and belittle us. Relying on someone who hates you is humiliating, an insult to the human dignity of the trans person. Trans people, as a result, feel that they can’t be themselves or else they’ll attract unwanted attention, possibly even violence. The end goal of the exercise of cis-privilege is the repression of trans-identities.

The experience of the Festival can also bring up some challenging feelings. Because most womyn feel uniquely “safe” at the Festival, they can experience feelings about the lack of safety womyn feel in many communities. The unique freedom womyn feel to be themselves at the Festival may bring up feelings about the burden of being “closeted” at home.

The freedom to be yourself in the above quote is exactly what cis-privilege is all about (the text is from the information page of Michigan’s website). It’s a freedom that trans people don’t have in WBW spaces, and it’s a travesty that there’s not room at the table for women of varying histories to be able to share their experiences.

Over the weekend, I experienced that freedom to be myself. I didn’t go to a WBW space, I didn’t go to a lesbian club. I went to the monthly “Munch” for LAD/s, the LA Dommes and subs group. I went with a very nice Domme** that I’ve been making friends with, and there were probably about 15 people or so at the meeting.

One of the group leaders came over and introduced herself to me and about two sentences in, just started in on how gorgeous I was. It was a startling experience, partly because it’s never happened before. I’m used to not passing, to being laughed at, pointed at, or ridiculed. I expect it, mentally preparing for it when I leave the house. I do this because if I can avoid the shock of being clocked when I don’t expect it, I can probably at least keep enough of my cool to a.) not cry and b.) get out safely. It’s a defense mechanism, and maybe what it’s done to me hasn’t been the most attractive thing in the world, destroying my self-esteem, but my safety is a little more important than my own good self-image.

Anyway, at one point near the end of the meet-up, I got up to use the restroom. Now, I *always* wonder what people say about me when I’m not around. As a trans woman, especially. I wondered how many of the Dommes and their subs had clocked me. I was more than a little defeated on the ride home when my Domme told me that, “everyone in the room knew you were trans.” I had been hoping I passed at least a little better than that. She continued her part of the story. “But while you were in the bathroom, every single one of them came up to me and told me how gorgeous you are.” I sat there in the passenger seat of the car, glowing, no longer crestfallen. She looked over at me and said, “How often has that happened, having everyone in a room know you for who you are and accept you?”

As I pondered her question, I thought about my family, my job, my church. I thought about the places I frequent online. I have never experienced that kind of acceptance, ever, anywhere, in my entire life. That realization was almost heart-breaking at the same time that it was elating.

Thinking about it in terms of WBW policies, such as the one at Michigan, is even harder. I think WBW policies encourage stealth dishonesty on the part of trans women who want to finally feel like part of a group, that in order to be themselves they have to cover up parts of their past, and I think that’s a horrible thing. I think what we all want, as women, is to feel safe, to feel un-closeted or unbound, to feel at home in our bodies; what we want is to be ourselves, just ourselves, with no pretense.

*There was one on Dr. Phil a year or two ago. I could have gotten plastered playing Helen Boyd’s Trans Documentary Drinking Game while that was on.

** who shall remain nameless. She doesn’t know I’m writing about her, for one. I’m hoping that she’ll be none too pleased about this particular development, and decide that I’ve been a very bad girl and must be spanked***.

*** Obviously, I have a kinky streak a mile wide. I could probably write a whole post on what it’s like to be trans and into kink, and maybe I will at some point when I have something worth saying. I think it will suffice to tell you that when I was trying to make sense of my gender identity, I had my kink conflated with it. That was a very hard thing to parse, and I would purge clothing without understanding the root of the problem, which was my gender identity. If I expressed my kink as a woman, it felt like two sins. What I mean is that I couldn’t come to terms with being a woman and that kept me from coming out of the closet as a kinkster, too.

On the plus side, my Domme is one of the only people who has understood my emotional anguish over discarding custom-made corsets or latex skirts in one of my guilt-induced purges. It’s nice to know someone who appreciates good clothes.