Whom do you value? Do you value anyone more than others?
Probably you do. You might care more about your family than some random stranger you meet. You could show empathy hearing that stranger’s hurts, but might not take action to rectify them. You care more about people of your town or your country than those further away. McLurg’s Law makes sense: “The newsworthiness of a disaster diminishes in proportion to the disaster’s distance from the newsroom.” Even if you express it in more familiar form, “One dead Briton is worth 1000 dead Chinese,” it evokes queasy recognition. I care a lot about a murder in my town. I don’t know if I use the products of “re-education camps” of Uighurs.
We don’t notice social rules until they are pointed out to us, any more than a fish notices water. Privilege is unconscious in most people- white, male, able-bodied, straight, educational, class, thin, cis privilege gains people advantage. The disprivileged automatically defer. The privileged assume leadership.
With safe spaces amongst themselves, the disprivileged can find their power. The privileged can move from unconsciously assuming power in any interaction to relating as equals and allies, but that takes sustained effort. Without such effort, both privileged and disprivileged value the privileged more. For the privileged, it is much easier to pretend that you seek equality- “I don’t see colour”- than to work for it.
Sometimes there are zero-sum games. I remain haunted by a trivial interaction which symbolises so much for me. In the Quaker meeting I sit beside the elder, a Black man, and when we go to shake hands at the end of the meeting our hands slip past each other, because neither of us performs the unconscious deferential act of looking down to see they will meet. A Black man, a trans woman, both disprivileged, both welcome in a Quaker meeting which has a testimony to equality and where both are valued.
One or both, momentarily, subconsciously glancing down in a handshake, sets the relationship between them.
There is a feminist case for trans exclusion. Some cis women might be scared by trans women. The answer is to care for both, because both are vulnerable, not to exclude the trans woman automatically.
Beyond that, it is necessary for feminists to pay attention to female empowerment, to be the safe space where the disprivileged- women- claim their power. This is the root of the feminist trans-excluders’ different attitudes to trans men and trans women. Trans men are seen as mutilated victims fooled into having their breasts removed. Trans women might be grudgingly tolerated if they have had their testicles removed.
On claiming your power you may feel anger at the oppression you have unconsciously facilitated. Fully feeling and accepting the anger, grief and hurt helps us move into our power as autonomous individuals. The anger can then be energy for nonviolent resistance. It ceases to be something you must suppress, creating an inner conflict which disempowers you.
However, intersectional feminism recognises that there are additional problems for Black, disabled, queer, fat, or lower class women in comparatively privileged women’s spaces. We have to consider the disprivilege of all.
Cis privilege is clearest where men, attempting to be allies of feminists, bully trans women. Elliot would not have brooked any argument. Had I accepted that for some purposes I might be seen as a man, he would have insisted that I forego women’s spaces, then stop expressing myself as female or using a feminine name online. He can feel righteous ignoring my needs because he thinks he is standing up for women. This is called “white-knighting”. Graham Linehan is a more famous example. White knights can feel they are allies while suffering no reduction in their own privilege or status. Linehan told a House of Lords committee that his anti-trans activism had caused “such a strain that my wife and I finally agreed to separate”.
Cis privilege is intensely disputed when feminist anti-trans campaigners seek to exclude trans women. For some, we are men, a threat, the privileged people who must be rebelled against for women’s empowerment. Their campaign is discredited, at least among people in favour of equality, if trans women are also disprivileged. So the anti-trans campaigners are keen to show that we are not worthy of sympathy, by dwelling on the violence of individuals, or spreading the discredited myth of autogynephilia– claiming we are male sexual perverts.
Anyone interested in equality should seek to be conscious of the workings of privilege and to subvert it. Anyone seeking the right way forward on trans rights should be aware of the good points of the opposing position, in order to find common ground. Quakers seeking unity should value all the people involved, and not simply discount any individual or any view. Feminist anti-trans campaigners are seeking liberation from their own disprivilege through denial of trans women’s: their goal is just, their route is not.