What is Privilege and how does it play out for people with “invisible” identities?

Ellen Samuels compares two types of “invisible” identities – invisible disability and femme lesbians. There are many other kinds of identities that can also be called “invisible”: mixed race, bisexuality, nonbinary gender, intersex, perhaps even transgender as a whole when viewed against cisgender queers. Some of these are invisible because their markers of difference are less clear (for example, a person of mixed race might have lighter skin; a straight binary trans person post-transition might appear to most as cis), others because there is simply no category in society for that kind of identity (for example, bisexuality is often considered a “lie” or a “closet case” and nonbinary gender identities are simply not recognized). Most of these identities get branded as “privileged” by their dominant and more visible identity counterpart due to their (supposed) ability to pass, but how much truth is there to this label and to what extent does this labeling simply perpetuate oppression of more marginalized groups? As Samuels writes, “Like racial, gender, and queer passing, the option of passing as nondisabled provides both a certain level of privilege and a profound sense of misrecognition and internal dissonance.” Similarly, if a mixed race person passes as white, a nonbinary person passes as the gender assigned to them at birth, a trans person passes as cis even in the gender they identify as, a bisexual person passes as straight, it is likely to cause internal strife. Whether the act of passing was intentional or not, the pressures to pass, sometimes making passing the only option, result from social norms and perceptions. More bisexuals or nonbinary people, for example, would chose to “come out” if their identities were available as comprehensible categories for them to claim instead of being challenged by both queer and straight/both cis and trans people alike.

While “passing privilege” certainly exists, it is not the same privilege that people who belong to the privileged categories/identities possess. While bisexual people who pass as straight gain some amount of straight privilege, it is conditional on their true identities being hidden and far less extensive. Tobi Hill-Meyer cautions on the dangers of using “privilege” accusations as a weapon against oppressed groups, writing “When trans women are pressured into being silent, rarely offering their opinion, and refusing leadership roles for fear of being seen as male or accused of having male privilege, that’s transmisogyny. When trans women are afraid to analyze or discuss the role of male privilege in their life because of the way accusations of male privilege have been used as weapons to silence, shame, and misgender trans women, that’s transmisogyny.” Moreover, discussions of passing privilege often ignore the internal aspect of privilege, denying people with “invisible” identities their sense of selfhood. For example, a person I follow on tumblr who identifies as trans and male to some extent but mostly passes as female posted recently that they still have male privilege stemming from their identity regardless of how they’re perceived and that denying this fact is denying them their identity and essentially being transphobic. In conclusion I want to quote Nico Dacumos from “All Mixed Up With No Place To Go”: “Nico is a flaming queer radical polysexual two-spirit female-bodied middle-class multiracial bottom who always ends up topping anyway Filipin@/Chican@ antimisogynist transgender butch fag in a polyamorous committed relationship with kids, extremely bad credit, and chronic illnesses and incurable diseases that seem invisible… The problem with being everything is that it mostly gets me a whole lot of nothing. In theory I should be able to claim all the identities and related spaces above, but we all know that’s not true. Instead I find myself isolated. And a liar” (23). Given the difficulty most people have with claiming just one “invisible” identity, it’s clear why more (invisible) identities would result in only more marginalization. The real question, then, is how we can make our communities more open and inclusive and how we can foster genuine discussions of privilege instead of “privilege wars.”

Works Cited

Dacumos, Nico. “All Mixed Up With No Place To Go.” Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity. By Mattilda Bernstein. Sycamore. Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2006. 20-37. Print.

Hill-Meyer, Tobi. “What Transmisogyny Looks Like.” The Bilerico Project. N.p., 25 Mar. 2009. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.

Samuels, Ellen. “MY BODY, MY CLOSET: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003): 233-55.

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