Hello Testosterone, Hello Heteronormative Privilege

Ed. Note: The title of this piece refers to “Hello Estrogen, Farewell Heteronormative Privilege,” an essay recently posted here by Annika, a trans woman.

I’m a feminist and I’ve always been a feminist and I’ve been a queer advocate since I understood what “queer advocate” meant. I remember feeling the fire of resistance when I read the Berenstain Bears book No Girls Allowed. Brother Bear and his boy friends built a secret clubhouse and posted a sign out front that said “NO GIRLS ALLOWED.” There was even a drawbridge and mote to ensure the clubhouse remained for boys only. I was outraged.

So imagine my discomfort when the secret clubhouse that exists in real life (and has even more exclusionary policies) let down the drawbridge for me and extended an offer of membership. Actually, I wasn’t even offered membership – I didn’t have the chance to decline. It’s like I woke up one day and was a card-carrying member of the straight white men’s club.

I’m not going to lie. In addition to the discomfort of unearned privilege, being a straight white upper-middle class higher-educated guy in a world that loves dudes like that has also felt pretty nice. First of all, it’s been extremely stress-relieving to be seen as I am, and the male and hetero privilege being thrown at me does indicate the outside world’s perception and affirmation of my true gender and sexual identity. Second, being seen as “normal” is refreshing.

Annika wrote a really great and accurate piece on how interacting with the world is different for her now that she is part of a visibly lesbian couple. I experienced everything she describes in reverse. Since I was 17, I’ve dated women. As a visible lesbian, I experienced everything from uncomfortable public displays of “support” for my “lifestyle” to strangers’ awkward attempts-to-not-stare to obvious pornographic stares from straight men to hurtful homophobic verbal and even physical accosting.

When you’re visibly queer you have what women’s studies professor Daphne Patai first labeled “surplus visibility.” Essentially, when a space has long been dominated by one group of people (heterosexuals in this example), any minority presence (the queers!) appears excessive, gathers a great deal of attention, and is often deemed offensive by members of the majority. For example, while a man and a woman holding hands often go completely unnoticed by passers-by, two women holding hands are always seen.

For the first time since I was in high school, I could blend in. I didn’t have to be seen.

Once I started living as a man and transitioned to be seen as one by the rest of the world, I lost all visible queerness in my relationships and dating. And I lost this surplus visibility. For the first time since I was in high school, I could blend in. I didn’t have to be seen. Me holding hands with the girl I was dating didn’t mean something bigger than an acknowledgement between the two of us that we liked each other; it wasn’t a political statement; no one found it offensive.

When we called to book our North Carolina ocean-front hotel room for spring break, my girlfriend at the time said she’d be there with her boyfriend and the stranger on the other line said “aw.” For the first time, my relationship with a girl was celebrated by society at large as typical, cute young love. In the heteronormative world we live in, as I’m sure most of you reading this know, the love within visibly queer couples doesn’t receive that simple appreciation. That love is most often met with confusion, judgment, or voyeuristic curiosity.

So I’m getting a taste of the privilege awarded to straight couples – the privilege I knew existed in that secret clubhouse but really had no full awareness of until now. And while it’s as nice as you might imagine to suddenly not have to deal with all that surplus visibility, seeing and feeling the discrepancy between living as a gay woman and living as a straight man makes me want to work even harder to dismantle this heteronormative world. So my lesbian housemate can bring her girlfriend to Thanksgiving dinner without someone dropping a plate; so my queer friend in Arkansas can buy his date’s dinner without the waiter getting confused; so Annika can cuddle with her girlfriend in the backseat and tell her she loves her without fearing the cab driver’s reaction. So everyone’s love, sexual desires, and relationships are finally treated as normal as anyone else’s.

And sometimes I miss my queer visibility. Not only do I routinely feel guilty for my heterosexual privilege, but I also miss being a constant upset to the assumptions and rules of heteronormative society. Being queer was a large part of my identity for a very long time, and it was important to me that I was acknowledged as such. I wanted everyone to know that I was bringing this heteronormative system down! Now I just look like a cog in the machine.

And I miss the camaraderie among all of us visibly engaging in the queer battle. Two years ago, I was one-half of what the world saw as a college-aged lesbian couple. We loved holding hands as we walked through her Manhattan neighborhood. We lived for the approving smiles of other queers who seemed to be saying “yes! good for you! be you! be happy! fight the good fight! we’re with you!” One year later, I was being read as male and we no longer appeared to be fighting the good fight. When we smiled at queer couples, they usually didn’t smile back.

I’m still navigating what this privilege means. I don’t want a membership to any clubhouse with a sign that says “NO QUEERS ALLOWED.” But as long as they’ve let the drawbridge down, maybe I can rile things up from the inside?

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read more sebastian at xxboy

Sebastian has written 16 articles for us.

121 Comments

  1. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to fall in or out of privilege, so your article along with Annika’s article were really interesting to read. Thanks for writing another great article!

  2. thanks sebastian for this great article.

    i’m cisgender but people constantly read me as male ever since i chopped off my hair in 2006 and apparently i still don’t know how to reconcile with it. it wasn’t so bad when i was going to college in manhattan; now though i work in an environment which is as far as i can tell 95+% conservative cisgendered straight people and the number of times i’ve gotten awkward glances for using the ladies’ room over the past eight months is absurd. i mean really. my name and face are on a poster next to my lab’s door.

    i fought it for the first year or so, correcting people who called me “sir” or “gentleman” and getting frustrated about it, but now i have to admit that most of the time i just let it slide. it’s so much effort and i’ve encountered enough harassment or painful scrutiny for correcting people (e.g. at airports, in semi-conservative countries) that i just let people think whatever they want to think, get my coffee, and go on living my life.

  3. Hi! Whoa this is a great article. Thanks for writing it!!
    I just wanted to write a quick comment to let you know that, somehow, I have also experienced that. I identify as queer, with a prevalent lady-loving tendency, but it so happens that my primary partner (I’m also non-monogamous) is a cis-man. Before starting to see him, I had been mostly with women, and I absolutely loved how everything we did had some sort of political relevance. I mean, damn, I love my activism was 24/7 (I also was particularly lucky/privileged to be going to a very liberal college in a very liberal town). At the time, I struggled with the fact that I seriously identify as queer and being seen with a woman automatically made me a lesbian. Even my dating history was used as evidence that I am a lesbian. So I had issues with that.
    However, nothing was more confusing and unsettling than dating a cis-man. The way I was treated, perceived, it all was so hetero. The questions I was asked by his friends, everything was so heteronormative. I mean, not for long, it’s not like I ever choose to keep my mouth shut around these parts; but still, it was unsettling.
    To this day I still struggle to not have my sexual identity butchered by people’s assumptions, but at least I’ve come up with better (read: more entertaining to me) ways to deal with it.
    ANYWAY, my actual point was to say: Hey! Thanks for letting me know that somehow I’m not alone in the heteronormative waters, and that, yay! There are other people out there fighting the good fight to make this a more inclusive place.
    Also, YES! I super look forward to your post on male privilege and the “dude” culture. Your perspective always rocks and I am seriously curious about how those two things work/feel. Yay!

    • Oh! It was meant to say “I identify as a queer cis-woman”, to give it the appropriate context.

      Oh! And now that I am posting a comment again I want to reiterate that your writing is awesome.

    • I can super relate to that, its like when you’re women sexually/romantically you’re in gayrainbowland and when you’re with a guy you’re in straightland and things in straightland are so hetero with everyone around you. Its all a trip and you just want to stay yourself, and have it not be trip, you know?

      I know I’m as articulate as a drunken unicorn.

      • I relate on this also, except for in my case it is gender. If you’re a man it’s one thing, if you’re a woman it’s another. None of it is necessary. It’s like if you were not religious, but people kept asking you are you a muslim or a zoroastrian Are You A Muslim Or A Zoroastrian ARE YOU A MUSLIM OR A ZOROASTRIAN WHICH ONE WHICH ONE. Ugh, who the fuck cares, you’re all fucking ridiculous!

  4. “But as long as they’ve let the drawbridge down, maybe I can rile things up from the inside?”

    This makes me feel like you’re part of a Trojan horse and are wheeling into the metaphorical Troy of straight, white people. Amazing. Maybe you’ll go down in history the same way?

    I’d be willing to be the new Herotodus of THAT story!

          • if i may be so bold, perhaps in this ad hoc metaphor, NOM could be represented by Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus whose wife left him (or was abducted/pick your version) for Paris of Troy. Agamemnon, feeling the need to restore the honor of his brother’s marriage/liking to fight, raised forces to seige Troy.

            countless lives were ruined because Agamemnon/Menelaus pursued with a massive force to redress an issue that was truly a matter between two individuals (three if you count Paris, and some wrong may have been done there, again, pick your version).

            marriage is between two consenting adults, yet NOM, an outside organization feels compelled to seige/campaign on behalf of “true marriage” to defend it, if you will, from the institution being sullied (all night elvis impersonator drive thru services aside, i’m sure).

            …and seriously, if we’re gonna dislike someone from an hisorical POV, Agamemnon was a ruthless man who was willing to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to redress his boasting about being a better hunter than Artimis. not a nice guy.
            http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/agamemnon.html

          • boldness accepted! I will now have this metaphor neatly on file in my brain with the correct characters should the need to use it in conversation to impress a lady ever arise.

          • That certainly sounds reasonable to me! Had I known my metaphor would garner such interest I would definitely have thought out more possibilities.

  5. Fascinating article, Sebastian! It’s so interesting to read both Annika’s and Sebastian’s articles back to back; they offer such great insights into the way things are coming from different angles.

  6. I love that Autostraddle has both a transwomen and transman (right terms?) blogger. I think I’m pretty good about trans* stuff in general (pronouns, gender identity etc etc) but I’m really enjoying reading these articles to further educate myself. That makes me sound like kind of a jerk, but hey. Knowledge is power. Which also makes me sound like a jerk, haaay.

    • If your interested in further educating yourself I highly recommend reading:
      -“She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders” by Jennifer Finney Boylan
      -“The Color of Sunlight: A True Story of Unconditional acceptance between a a rural RN and a blind, terminally-ill transsexual” by Michelle Alexander
      -“Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano

      -She’s Not There is an interesting read that covers the basics of the trans-female experience.

      -The Color of Sunlight is an amazing and heart wrenching story that brings to light the fact that gender is a mental imprint from birth and not a socially constructed framework.

      -Whipping Girl explores the gender politics of transition and the sexism that is part of the world that we live in. If you’re new to the trans experience, I would recommend saving this book till later because I’m trans and even some parts went over my head.

      I can’t really speak to good books covering the trans-guy side of the spectrum, but I think there are a enough trans-guys here that can recommend some good reading.

  7. This is a topic that I’m really interested in. I’m a femme dyke and when I’m hanging out without my girlfriend (or a group of visible queers) people generally presume I’m straight; however, when I’m with my girlfriend, we’re visibly a queer couple. I feel the shift between assumed heterosexuality and surplus visibility on a regular basis and it is dizzying.

    Part of me wishes I looked queer all the time, because walking down the street and knowing that most of the queers I pass don’t recognize me as “one of them” is tough for me sometimes, but on the other hand, I completely understand that my social and job opportunities are much wider because of my presumed straightness. It’s a tough conundrum.

  8. I love this post. I have been dating a transman for the past few years, and though I feel as if we are queer – to the public we are just seen as a ‘normal’ straight couple. We definitely have heteronormative privilege. Sometimes I feel sad that we’ve lost our ‘queer card’.

  9. Thank you @Sebastian for sharing this with us. And thank you, @Autostraddle for supporting such an amazing array of queerness on “our” site. I can honestly say that I have gained a whole new perspective on the trans community, and an appreciation for what they go through in our society that I never fully grasped before I read about it.

    • It’s good to hear that our stories are helping the queer community and the rest of the world understand our perspective on life and the struggles and challenges that we face on a daily basis. I’m relatively new to Autostraddle and I absolutely love the awesome community that I’ve found here! We’re all queer in our own way and we need to embrace and celebrate the variety that makes us all truly human!

  10. This is awesome. It inspired a new lesson plan in my GSA in which me and my vice president, who also just happens to be my TRANSGENDER BOYFRIEND (sorry, I can’t get over saying it ever since he came out) will talk about surplus visibility and what to do when you get crap for making out when heteros are doing so much worse.
    Thank you.

  11. I spent the day musing on the concept of surplus visibility in the back of my head and am still interested about how it affects the nature of non-straight-appearing couples. It does explain why my girlfriend and I show very little sign of affection in public and even then, I’m a little hyper-conscious of it despite it not being an issue at my school.

  12. i liked this a LOT and i think a lot more needs to be said about all that crap about queer identity politics and how a lot of people divorce ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ and ‘trans’ politics when really i think we should all be fighting for a lot of the same things together… i think a lot of ladies, whether they admit to it or not, are a little bit transphobic because they don’t understand that trans folks aren’t all suddenly like “hell yeah! i pass for straight now fuck y’all weird homos back in gayland! i don’t care about ladies and their problems AT ALL ever AGAIN! shit’s so EASY now!” — i think a lot of women inaccurately feel “deserted” and have these false notions that ftms “did it just for the sake of the privilege” or something similarly crappy. and i think they should probably read this.

    it’s also funny because, like other folks mentioned, as a super femme gay lady, my gender presentation feelings and the sort of privilege i have there couldn’t be more different than sebastian’s, but there was so much to relate to in terms of feeling uncomfortable with a lack of visibility in certain environments.

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