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(c) by Mary Griggs

idahoI want to blog about privilege today. By that I mean the unearned advantage, power or entitlement conferred by membership in the dominant group. For example, some of us receive age advantages, ethnic advantages, physical ability advantages, as well as advantages related to nationality and religion.

These benefits are often times invisible to us. From my own life, I was taught to recognize racism only as individual acts of discrimination and bias by members of my racial group and not to see the institutional racism of the system itself. For many years, I was ignorant of the sometimes subtle and generally unsought racial advantages that were conferred on me because of my skin color. To me, it was normal to never have to worry about being harassed because of my race when shopping or driving. I learned history where people who looked like me made the major contributions and advancements and those who didn’t were usually barbarians, savages and natives who needed my race’s interference in order to develop. I benefited when my race was used by my mortgage and credit card company to determine my credit worthiness – in 2011, Bank of America was fined $335 million for minority discrimination.

Unless we make a conscious effort to see the privilege, those in the dominant group can blithely ignore what our brothers and sisters who are different face everyday.

To raise awareness for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, I want to focus on straight and cis privilege and why it is important for us to be aware of how taking advantage of this unearned power can harm our interactions with others.

Miroslav Volf, in his book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation asks, “Why should I embrace the other?” His answer is: “the others are part of my own true identity. I cannot live authentically without welcoming the others – the other gender, other person or other cultures – into the very structure of my being.”

Many straight people have never really thought too much about the other. They never consider the status, privilege and reputation that they enjoy simply by being in the sexual majority. They can turn on the television or open books and magazines to see role models for romance and relationships in their orientation. They are able to talk openly about their relationships and receive public recognition through engagement congratulations, being allowed to become lawfully wedded across the nation (with all the rights and responsibilities thereof) and even get support when their partner is ill or dies.

Not so with many gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Beyond the fact that I live in one of the thirty-one states that has a constitutional amendment against marriage equality, did you know that I can also be fired for being a lesbian in more than half of the states of this great nation?

I spent time in Baton Rouge this legislative session to fight for protections for LGBT public employees here in Louisiana and we couldn’t even get House Bill 85 out of committee. Forum For Equality’s public employee survey indicated more than 60% of them had witnessed bigotry or discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity but we were told that protections for LGBT people would lead to discrimination against Christians.

That is of the aspects of heterosexual privilege that absolutely infuriates me. The assumption that homophobia is an acceptable offshoot of faith does a disservice to the many religions which preach love over hate and the many individuals who would never consider forcing their spiritual beliefs on others. One’s faith is not an excuse for bigotry nor should it allow one to oppress or discriminate against non-straight people. Additionally, the conviction that anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender cannot also have faith (ie cannot be a ‘real’ Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc) pushes many LGBT people and their allies away from organized religion entirely.

Moving beyond straight privilege there are the advantages conferred upon those whose sex assigned at birth reflects their gender identity and expression. For example, I was sexed female at birth, I experience my sex to be female, I identify as female and, while I tend toward the more butch side of the scale, the expression of my gender identity is generally within the accepted female gender role.

Now, we live in a patriarchy. Male privilege is everywhere. As a feminist, I believe gender is a social construct designed to oppress females as a class. Gendered thinking harms and restricts both women and men by creating a hierarchy based on how well one cleaves to or deviates from the ideal of femininity and masculinity. Only the abolition of gender will end the oppression of women.

Until such time as we can create a society free from gender, however, we need to acknowledge the very real existence of transphobia. My discussion of cis privilege does not any way minimize the negative impact of sexism. The discrimination faced by women is a terrible thing. So, too, are the health, housing, and employment disparities faced by trans people. Violence against women is at epidemic rates. So, too, are the rates of violence faced by trans folks. Rape, assault and murder should never be used as de facto social control but they are and both women and transgender people are terrorized by them.

I grew up with cis privilege. For my entire life, my female identity has been respected by my parents, my teachers, my doctors, my relatives, my classmates, my employers, and most people I interact with on a daily basis. My documentation matches the gender I present to the world, so I don’t have to fear being denied services at a hospital, bank, or emergency shelter because the staff has the power to judge whether the gender marker on my drivers’ license or passport matches my gender identity.

I was a tomboy growing up, with short hair and sporty attire and I experienced plenty of double glances when using public restrooms. At no time, however, have I felt endangered or physically intimidated by those who believed I was in the wrong facilities.

Unfortunately, it is a very real fear for many trans men and women who are subjected to verbal abuse or physical attack when they go to relieve themselves.

And the verbal abuse in not limited to restrooms. Far too many transgender individuals are harassed on the street (many times by police who profile them as sex workers) and on the job. 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people participated in the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey which found widespread employment discrimination and economic insecurity including:

  • Double the rate of unemployment: Survey respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population.
  • Widespread mistreatment at work: Ninety percent (90%) of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job
  • 47% said they had experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender non-conforming.
  • 26% reported that they had lost a job due to being transgender or gender non-conforming.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Other today. Consider the reality they experience on a daily basis. Ask yourself if you really want to live your life or base your morality or gird your marriage with an identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings.

Now think about what you are willing to do to change things.

The truth is we all benefit when false power through socialized privilege is rooted out. Relinquishing the status of the majority can allow us to build a community together based on equality and justice for all.