As most cognizant people understand, social power is distributed unevenly across demographics. ‘Privilege’ is one common model used to look at that distribution and how different demographics interact in society. This model attempts to rank demographics’ social power relative to each other in a manner similar to how the Mohs scale ranks mineral hardness. Unfortunately, privilege as a concept is pretty broken. Beyond illustrating a baseline understanding of power dynamics, the model is just too simplified to be of much use.
Consider trans women and male privilege. Some people argue that trans women benefit from male privilege because they are assigned to the male gender at birth and naturally fit society’s expectation of what a man looks like, which earns them benefits from strangers. Other people argue that because a trans woman is not a man, she cannot benefit from male privilege. The correct answer is that both arguments are wrong because the actual dynamics in play are significantly more complex than privilege can account for.
Take speech as a more specific subset of this example. Cis men growing up are taught through subtle cues that what they have to say is important— that people will listen when they talk, that they should project their voices. Cis women growing up are taught through similar cues that whatever they have to say isn’t so vital— that they should speak softly, that they should soften their assertions with phrases like “I don’t know” even when they do know. Trans women are not men and can’t benefit from male privilege per se, but they do receive the same speech cues in childhood that cis men do. I as a nonbinary person am still fighting to unlearn the speech habits that arise from those cues. I think of something to say and look desperately for a place to insert it into the current conversation for five minutes before realizing that it doesn’t actually add anything at all to the discussion. I tend to assume people will care about what I have to say even if it’s essentially meaningless garbage. That is a direct result of my upbringing, which was littered with sexist social cues intended for a cis man.
Another quandary related to speech is tied to vocal tonality. Trans women’s physiology tends to provide them with deeper voices than those of cis women. Because our patriarchal society teaches us to listen to men and to tune out women in one way or another based partly on vocal pitch, trans women sound more “authoritative” and people are more likely to pay attention when they speak. However, that same tonality can cause great emotional discomfort to the extent that many choose to undergo expensive surgery or vocal training or, as in my case, avoid speech around anyone too unfamiliar to overlook it. Can privilege be privilege even when it causes pain and the recipient would rather be rid of it?
Of course, cis women receive benefits denied to trans women. They can safely use bathrooms that don’t conflict with their gender. They don’t have to argue to ‘prove’ that they are women and not “men in dresses.” Cis women receive misogyny, but trans women receive both misogyny and transphobia. Which group is more privileged? At this point, that question is meaningless because both demographics are in pain and holding an ‘oppression olympics’ pity party only turns already disenfranchised groups against each other.
That said, privilege discourse has its use. It is completely useless for actually analyzing social power dynamics, but it is useful as a stepping stone in education. Gender, sexuality and social justice in general are full of such stepping stones, from ‘separation of biological sex and identity’ and ‘nonbinary genders in terms of the gender binary’ to ‘attraction as a linear spectrum’ and ‘what is ableism?’