Cis Privilege is a Lie: How the language of transactivism tries to manipulate women

Cis Privilege is a Lie: How the language of transactivism tries to manipulate women

I was at the laundromat today and The Doctors was on television with their guest, “lifestyle blogger,” Katherine Schwarzenegger. She was asked if she likes Justin Bieber and she promptly and buoyantly replied, “I’m a woman so of course I do!” Being unable to contain my disgust at not only this pronouncement but also at the fact that “lifestyle blogger” is even a thing, I cursed aloud, which thankfully no one at the laundromat seemed to mind. But more importantly, it also made me think about how the preface, “I’m a woman so…” should never be used on a statement so vapid and banal as liking Justin Bieber, and rather, should be reserved for only those things that women truly share the experience of. And then I thought, this is why people believe that “cis privilege” exists – because being a woman has been reduced to liking Justin Bieber, chocolate, reality tv, makeup, and fashion – in essence, a lifestyle.

As feminists we take the responsibility of choosing our words wisely very seriously. How we talk about things matters because it directly impacts how we think about things and thus how we act on them. And language is a touchy subject especially within contemporary feminism. When you discredit the material reality of being a woman in favor of viewing it as an “identity,” it’s easy to see how the concept of “cis privilege” could make sense to a lot of people. When they hear how transwomen are murdered at a high rate, they say “when a trans person is attacked in the street just for being trans, cis privilege seems very, very real.” At face value this makes sense, however, it’s logically nonsensical.

Colloquially it is often said that “cis” people experience privilege over trans people. But rather than meaning a desirable or favorable individual experience, such as finding a romantic or sexual partner or being able to freely enter the women’s restroom, privilege refers to a set of conditions or benefits conferred to individuals by virtue of being born to a particular social class, which goes mostly unnoticed by the recipients, thus rendering it invisible as a lived experience.

The fact that resumes with male or “white-sounding” names have higher response rates for job interviews than ones with female or “black-sounding” names is illustrative of the concepts of male privilege and white privilege. For the most part the men and whites getting responses from their resumes will believe that they have earned it because they are the best qualified applicants, and most likely it will never cross their minds that they are the beneficiaries of an intangible system that confers higher status upon them.

Being a woman is not a lifestyle. It’s not an identity that can be commodified and consumed or bought and sold. Privilege and oppression do not refer to desirable and undesirable individual experiences and “cis privilege” is a lie. Yes it is true that trans people face threats, harm, and discrimination but that has nothing to do with “cis privilege” and everything to do with homophobia.

Radical feminists want to see trans people protected under the law while still recognizing that the reality of being a woman has vast material and social consequences that are not to be trivialized, undermined, ignored, or cast aside in order to prioritize the demands of transwomen. And if “cis privilege” really existed, one would think that the concerns of women would be taken seriously, however, more often than not the opposite is true. So the next time you hear something about “cis privilege” don’t just take it at face value – there is more to the story, and that story usually involves using language to manipulate women into going against their own interests. In other words, don’t believe the hype – transactivism is misogyny.


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