A Study in Sexism: What Happens When Trans Women Lose Their Male Privilege

The surprise on the other side of the transition.

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Trans(form) is a month-long series on MarieClaire.com that explores the challenges, surprises, and victories of transitioning today. See the full collection here.

Two months after she transitioned to female, Deirdre McCloskey found herself having a quintessentially female experience. She was chatting with fellow economics professors at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, all of whom happened to be men. She was attempting to make an argument, but no one seemed to be listening. A few minutes later, a male professor articulated the same idea. "What a great point, George!" others exclaimed. 

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"I remember saying to myself, 'Yes! They're treating me like a woman!'" says McCloskey. It was a bizarrely backwards accomplishment in her quest to femininity. "And it was the first and last time I enjoyed such an experience."

There are countless hurdles to transitioning, some obvious, some less so. But for transgender women, there's one final surprise at the end of the tunnel: the realization that being their true selves puts them at a cultural disadvantage. That, in a way, they've been drafted to the losing team. 

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"All of a sudden, the world is, to a certain degree, a lot more dangerous or precarious."

"A lot of trans women are aware that there is male privilege before we transition–that women are not treated with as much respect as men," says Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. "But there's a big difference between knowing privilege exists and the literal experience of losing it." 

For Serano, the sexism hit her all at once. "All of a sudden, the world is, to a certain degree, a lot more dangerous or precarious," she says of discovering her new reality. "Those of us who made it to adulthood before we transitioned don't have the benefit of learning coping skills over time."

The transgender women we spoke with cited a litany of new challenges on the other side of their transition, which will be painfully familiar to the cisgender women reading it: getting talked down to, getting talked over, getting catcalled in the street, getting dismissed in the workplace, and so on. "I would be talking about a patient, and a male medical student would be kind of glazed over, staring at my breasts," says Dr. Marci Bowers, the first transgender surgeon to ever perform a gender-reassignment procedure.

With their unique perspective of gender relations, some in the trans community actually find themselves sympathizing with men. "I think there's a lot of what I'd call female privilege, too," Dr. Bowers adds. "A man is never trusted like a woman is trusted: by strangers, children. When men deal with each other, there's a certain distance they keep. There's a sisterhood and a safety among women, and it's a very helpful feeling."

Being male doesn't mean you're unworthy of trust. Being female doesn't mean you're unworthy of speaking.

It would seem that the key to all this lies in a less rigid gender binary. Being male doesn't mean you're unworthy of trust. Being female doesn't mean you're unworthy of speaking. "I've had people say to me, 'You shouldn't be reinforcing traditional gender roles that hold women back. Why are you encouraging a 'feminine' response to certain things?'" says Dr. Bowers. "But the point is that womanhood should be able to express itself in every possible way, not just the pre-defined ways. I think if there were more expressions of what it means to be a woman—in all its forms—the world would be a better place."

This story is a part of Marie Claire 's features series on what it means to transition today. Check back throughout the summer to read more, or find collected articles here.

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