Gender, despite being constructed, permeates my whole being. I identify as a man. When I go to the store I am presented as, socialized as, received as, pressured into being, and communicate as a man. I use a men’s restroom. I speak as a man and people hear me as a man. Even when by myself and looking in the mirror I am confronted with the residues and traces of my masculinity—yes, gender is external, a social system that continues along with or without me, but it implicates me and I imply it. Although I do not believe there is anything biologically essential about how we as a society have presented and composed gender, there is something essential as regards my personhood—I am a man, and what I do and where I go and who is there engrafts, extends, or deflates this.
This means that all the privileges men have are mine with or without my consent. Masculinity extends beyond me and no matter how I personally treat women I reap its plunders of war—those plunders afforded by systemic pay inequality, assault, and rape (Susan Brownmiller called rapists men’s “shocktroopers”). Even if I volunteer as support for rape victims, a woman will be hesitant, nervous, or perhaps cross the street if I approach her late at night. I on the other hand wouldn’t feel nervous, certainly wouldn’t cross the street, and possibly be confused or perturbed by her behavior. But this is because I collect powers and privileges about myself simply by nature of my socialization and how I am presented.
Of course there are dissonances. When I walk into the grocery store wearing jewelry, a woman’s top, and tight floral skinny jeans, an obvious dissonance between the role-as-a-man I am supposed to be performing and the performance I am giving becomes obvious. This gap is traumatic for some people (often, but not always, other men). Whether they take offense at the audacity to question gender-roles and binaries or it reveals guilt they share at similar unacted upon desires, who knows, but people scapegoat the person who doesn’t fit. It calls things into question, puts words and structures in doubt.
There is a tension here. A tension between people thinking both, at the same time, that gender is wholly essential, entirely biologically given, and wholly accidental, not who they are. The presupposition is that I, by wearing floral skinny jeans et al, am acting out an unnatural desire, something outside the structure, against my nature, therefore not “human,” and yet that they are not “acting” a gender, that their gendered existence (clothing, voice, mannerisms, body, etc) is incidental to their personhood, their humanity. The thought emerges that they are a person beyond any institute (of gender), they are free, but yet anyone outside the gender binary is likewise “outside” the institute and therefore perverted, ecstatic, animal. Because they follow an implicit law, they would like to think they are free—while yet simultaneously accusing those who question it of being an outlaw.
I am no expert in the history of “Natural Law” or virtue ethics or St. Thomas Aquinas or anything, but I am inclined to think that this played no small part. Of course being male, white, and generally privileged seems “accidental” to someone who is white and male—one would have to admit his finitude and complicit participation in systems of power and abuse. And seeing as the history of Western thought is the thought of a white supremacist patriarchy (although a few other distinct lone voices have survived), well, it is unfortunately little surprise that white men are often entirely blind to their privilege. But it is quite clear that they thought being a woman was essential to a woman’s being—thus she was excluded from education, work, religious thought, and nearly all forms of public power. It makes sense, in a very evil way, that ideologies about gender and race and class would emerge alongside and in support of this power—whether they be religious or scientific ideologies (social Darwinism, eugenics, etc).
People with privilege (cis, white, male, upper-class, able, heterosexual, etc etc) are unaware of their privilege and take any questioning of the structures that supply them with this privilege as an insult to the very “natural” structure of things themselves. I include myself here too of course. No matter how many pairs of floral skinny jeans I own I am obviously endowed with privileges and power. I move about so often oblivious to my gender, race, class, et al, that for me too it takes “queer” figures outside my comfortable systems of power to shock me, traumatize me into seeing how deeply and essentially ideology and institutional privilege penetrates and constitutes my being. Gender is not biologically “essential” in some sort of ordained hand-of-god coming down and structuring my being sort of way, but it is essential to who I am: who I’ve been socialized as, how I present myself, and how I am expected to act.
It seems like a lot of people say they “get” that being sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, et al is bad—while simultaneously being oblivious to the privileges these very relations provide. So let’s get one thing straight—my position as a subject is composed, at least in part, by the systems of power I am implicated in. I often do not “feel” male or white or middle-class because I exist in a milieu of ideologies that tell me not to question my position—that the only reason women receive less pay is because they are bad workers, that black men have a higher arrest rate because they are criminals, that the poor are lazy, and all that bullshit. I reap these benefits, even when I don’t want them, because questioning privilege and one’s positionality means acknowledging I participate in a gender, a race, a class. These institutions penetrate deeper into me than I can see and extend farther from me than I can grasp. BE AWARE OF YOUR PRIVILEGE.