No, AFAB privilege is not a thing

I’ve been pretty loud about the relative privilege of trans men, but lately I’ve been hearing this term “AFAB privilege”, which frankly irks me as a feminist. So I wanted to explore the complicated relationship AFAB trans folks have with male privilege and feminism, and debunk some lazy tropes.

Edit to add – just to be clear, although today I am looking at how misogyny affects AFAB folks, I am not turning my back on my overall mission to highlight transmisogyny and the overwhelming inequalities trans women, and particularly trans women of colour, experience. I still think male privilege, and trans male privilege, are real things. But there are some complications . . .

There is no symmetry in our experiences

There is a bogus idea of symmetry that comes from our traditional, binary view of gender and what Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism””. If trans women are so doubly disprivileged by their gender and their transness, in the form of their unique experience of transmisogyny, then surely trans men must be equivalently advantaged? But it doesn’t work like that.

In reality, our experiences are completely asymmetric; when they live as themselves, trans women rapidly lose any male passing privilege they had (I don’t think we can call it male privilege because they’re not men), as they become visible as trans women.

We do not gain male privilege with anything like the same rapidity.

Prior to transition, trans women often have the experience of being treated Ben Barres, a trans man and scientist, head shot, wearing checked shirtas not being “real” or “proper” boys and men. This is one of the many reasons I dispute the idea that trans women are raised with straightforward male privilege. But we are also a long way off society treating trans men as “real” and “proper” men either, so the male privilege of trans men can be as complicated and conditional as for pre-transition trans women. Trans men such as Ben Barres (pictured left) have reported huge gains when their trans status is not known about, but this again becomes a passing privilege, contingent on our truth being silenced.

Many of us always had some masculine privilege, though. I gained from having a strong inner voice that could dismiss any negative societal messages about girls and women as not applying to me. It’s also much safer and more socially acceptable to be gender non-conforming in the direction of maleness or masculinity than in the opposite direction.

I take issue with the idea that I was “socialised female”. I was socialised tomboy, and that was unlike the experiences of my cisgender peers in both good and bad ways – male privilege, trans disprivilege both playing a part. And importantly, though often forgotten, cis privilege is not a “lesser” privilege to male privilege; the impact of being trans as a child undermined me more substantially than my masculinity advantaged me.

All trans people have experienced misogyny or misplaced misogyny

I’ve fought, and will continue to fight, for the inclusion of trans women in feminist spaces, and I acknowledge “male of centre” folks like myself are sometimes included in women’s spaces where trans women would not be welcomed. That sucks, and needs to be challenged. But I don’t think a full reversal of this is any more of an ideal, where we go back to the bad old days where any hint of masculinity renders someone’s presence within feminism suspect.

It isn’t a zero sum game, and I realise that many people fighting for trans women’s inclusion, myself included, have at times erased trans men’s need for inclusion in feminism. The way forward has to be more nuanced than a full reversal of the second wave status quo. We need to develop an understanding of how misogyny, and misplaced misogyny in the case of trans men who are 100% binary identified, impacts each of us differently, and a continually self-reflective view of how much our voices need to weigh in on each issue.

Labelling non-binary folks according to their birth assignment is oppressive

The terms AFAB/AMAB are as difficult to avoid sometimes as MtF/FtM, but they’re just as problematic. In another triumph of “biology is destiny”, the non-binary world is being categorised not according to the genders people are, but according to their birth assignments.

“AFAB privilege” is often lazy code for masculine privilege, but once that false connection is made we’re once again mired in the binary. There are plenty of ways in which an AFAB person can be trans without any sense of maleness or masculinity at all, because there are not only two genders. Equally, an AMAB person might not have a shred of femininity. At the same time, we might struggle to communicate our complex genders through the limited language of the gendered clothing currently available to us.

I love pretty things that some might consider feminine, but if I wear them, I am more likely to be misgendered. I dress to communicate my gender ambiguity, to balance out my female-[image: Sam Hope, someone who is still clearly AFAB, wearing a suit and tie]appearing face and body – not to express masculinity. And the fact is, no matter how masculine my clothes appear to be, I continue to be treated as and gendered as a woman in most situations, with all the casual misogyny that goes with that. A suit and tie is not magical armour against misogyny, or misplaced misogyny. As the picture, right, taken at a recent wedding, illustrates, it takes a ridiculous amount of overtly masculine dress and hairstyle to make people hesitate in gendering me female, which, to be clear is my only goal in dressing this way. Testosterone will change this for me, and I will accrue male “passing” privilege, but alongside this I envisage a struggle to express my “not-male”ness, in ways that could put me at risk of misogynistic violence.

Visibility is not directly related to privilege

“AFAB non-binaries are too visible” I have lately heard some folks say, citing Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus, and ignoring the fine and very visible tradition of AMAB folks queering gender and getting famous for it for decades. At the same time I hear equally strenuous arguments dismissing invisibility as a problem when hyper-visibility can have such lethal consequences.

There is nothing beneficial about either invisibility or hyper-visibility, and comparing the two is like comparing bananas to bicycles. They are two very different consequences of oppression and neither of them is a symptom of privilege, even if the consequences of one oppressive tactic is far more dangerous than the other. I’m enjoying this little moment of AFAB non-binary visibility, superficial as it is, but let’s be real, it’s a mere moment amid millennia of silencing.

Misogyny is a continuum

Eddie Izzard and Richard O’Brien both identify as transgender and are both internationally well known and successful. These folks live with primarily, but not ent[Image: Eddie Izzard on the Labour campaign trail with two others. Izzard is wearing make-up and a skirt suit]irely, male identities. I’m sure they’ve both been affected by misogyny. Yet Izzard (pictured left on the Labour campaign trail) is contemplating the possibility of a successful campaign to become the 2020 mayor of London, and O’Brien is returning to the Rocky Horror stage amid noisy adulation. I think the calculation of either of their gender privilege is more complicated than simply AMAB+Trans=All The Bad Things.

Misogyny is a continuum that affects trans people in complicated ways that are more related to our actual genders than to our birth assignments. With the possibility of multiple genders and presentations, and our complicated bodies, there are simply no straightforward ways to do maths that will be infallible in our attempts to play “Top Trumps” with each other over oppression issues.

For nonbinaries like me, and probably for a lot of trans guys, the variable mixture of male privilege and misogyny or misplaced misogyny we experience is difficult to negotiate. I have moments of frustration on the occasions someone tells me I have all the privilege. But I’m aware that trans women are unfairly told they have all the privilege much more often so I try and take it on the chin. And yet, it’s not right for anyone to make such lazy assumptions about any of us.

As a whole trans community we have so much in common in our experiences of misogyny and gendered oppression, our difficult relationships with women’s spaces that have been created for a safety we all might need, our perilous negotiations with the oppressiveness of invisibility and the unsafety of visibility. We need to let go of our unhealthy need to use our birth assignments as a point of reference, and start to explore our current genders and bodies, our losses and gains, in all their complexity.

31 thoughts on “No, AFAB privilege is not a thing

  1. Kit

    “Labelling non-binary folks according to their birth assignment is oppressive.” Yes. This.

    For trans people, the so-called privilege of being “socialized male” or “socialized female” is itself oppression. I know that for me, the socialization process was mostly a terrifying tunnel of failure that resulted in trauma and depression. This more than outweighed the social privilege accorded to me by being perceived male. My experience is certainly not unique.

  2. xstarbuckx

    Reblogged this on Life and other things and commented:
    Just loved this. Very well thought out. Thought it was a bit over-generalized in a few places and situation-specific in others but I think that’s a pretty easy trap to fall into given the diversity of human experience and the difficulty that one faces in writing about it.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Thanks! It was such a hard blog to write and I know I’ve fallen down in places, will keep working on it, thanks for your encouragement 🙂

  3. lesleydreamwalker

    As always a brilliant and thoughtful piece. But could I ask you for a favour? I am finding it very difficult to keep up with the new jargon because I’ve been out of the main loop for a few years now, so AFAB and AMAB had me foxed for a while. I take it they mean ‘A Female At Birth’ and … Just a small thing but it helps to keep up with your arguments and comments. Otherwise – a fantastic piece. Thank you for being you.

  4. Pax Ahimsa Gethen

    Thanks for writing this. I’m an agender trans male and have been troubled by this discourse myself. While I speak out for trans women and for more visibility of nonbinary transfeminine people, I don’t think it’s fair to equate being female-assigned with having cis male privilege.

  5. Arys

    I am a bit surprised that you never mention the very specific oppressions that AFAB people face as such, like so-called FGM, selective abortions, attacks on reproductive rights (that are most largely directed towards AFAB people).
    I agree with what you say though.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I personally feel most of those issues are specific to people of certain cultures and that therefore citing them as a white person to make a point about the circumstances of AFAB people in general would be highly appropriative and dubious – there are places to speak loudly about those issues, but this is not the place.

  6. Nicki UK

    I am MtF transperson who dislikes wearing makeup but even wearing it i still get labelled in male terms by most people i have limited interaction with, eg. shop workers and the general public. I do have a number of friends who do not care what I look like, if i have even shaved, that is nothing to do with being trans but more due to depression and MS. I love wearing skirts, dresses, but even wearing them those people still see a man not a woman.
    I am not one to complain but seeing Mtf Transpeople being respected and labelled correctly is somewhat annoying. I am hoping that when my biggest visible male attribute is gone it will make things better, but i am not going to be holding my breath. I have other issues namely with the GIC Centre at CHX, London and their lack of answering questions sent by my doctor. That is not what this posting is about
    Where the hell did AFAB and AMAB come from, i bet the USA and the religious right/GOP.

  7. Kay Foulkes

    Thanks for this article, I am slowly coming to terms with my non-binary identity, 18 years after medically transitioning. Like yourself I use socially ‘feminine’ cues to avoid misgendering (though I dislike that term because I don’t consider myself to exist within binary gender.

    It is hard to exist outside the commonly accepted narrative, and I know that my trying to explain that I am transsexual but not transgender is something that is seen as unnacceptable and I’m attacked for “invalidating” other people by having my own concept of sex and gender.

    I liked your mention of “biology is destiny” as this fits with my own mindset… I accept I was born bio-male and will never be biofemale… but that doesn’t mean I’m stuck being bio-male but instead have moved as a transsexual female to something closer to bio-female.

    Anyway, thanks again for this article, it helps me feel a little less alone.

  8. L

    “I have moments of frustration on the occasions someone tells me I have all the privilege. But I’m aware that trans women are unfairly told they have all the privilege much more often so I try and take it on the chin. And yet, it’s not right for anyone to make such lazy assumptions about any of us.”

    When do people say that trans women have privilege? In every group or site I’ve seen it’s been ‘AFAB people are all privileged shitlords and trans women are perfect oppressed angels.’

    I am sick of having my struggles diminished because I am AFAB. I am sick of the hatred against transmasc people being erased, of this myth that we are less likely to be attacked or sexually assaulted.

    For some further reading, check out this article debunking the myth of trans men having things so much easier

    And for the record, no, I do not hate or have anything against transfeminine people.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      When do people say that trans women have privilege? A lot. Trans men/masc people are often guilty of saying that they were “socialised as women” and have all the disadvantages, while trans women were “socialised as men” – it’s way more complicated than that. I think the stats you quote are part of the confusion – all trans people are victims of elevated levels of, for instance, childhood sexual assault. It’s easy to assume that these stats are high for AFAB people because of being AFAB, but the AMAB stats are roughly equal – suggesting that being trans is the main risk factor for all trans kids, whatever their birth assignment. If you factor in that generally AMAB children are at lower risk, then you also see the risk for trans girls increases more than that for trans boys because of being trans.

    2. tsop! (@_ttsop)

      Then you obviously have never met TERFs or the general population at large. Trans women are more likely to be the target of transmisic violence than trans men, i.e. HB2 laws geared to prevent trans women from using bathrooms.

      1. Sam Hope Post author

        Hiya, it would help if you a) read the article, and b) take a second to observe that this is one blog amidst an enormous volume of writing and campaigning against terfs and transmisogyny. Your comment has no bearing on what I actually wrote. I am not claiming trans men do not hold privilege over trans women, or that transmisogyny does not exist, or that terfs are not a problem for trans women more than afab trans people. I am however claiming that not all amab trans people are women or femme and not all afab people are men or masc, and that it’s reductive and lazy to boil people down to birth assignments just to get a point across about how **trans women specifically** rather than amab people generally are treated.

  9. Mark

    I’d mmm surprised you mention Richard O’Brien given his incredibly anti-trans feminine misogynistic comments and agreements with the sentiments of Germaine Greer.

    Although he does arguably fit a rather clinical definition of trans in identity and biology not matching 100%, his lack of understanding and vitriol make me hesitant to want to put him under a trans umbrella.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      1. we can’t exclude people from the category “trans” just for being horrible people. 2. I wrote this blog before O’Brien made those awful comments, although I’ve never been his no.1 fan

  10. Pingback: Word of the Week: AFAB/AMAB – GLBT News

  11. ettinacat

    “There is nothing beneficial about either invisibility or hyper-visibility, and comparing the two is like comparing bananas to bicycles.”

    Yes! I’ve seen people trot out arguments like this against aro/ace people, saying that we’re not oppressed because no one knows what we are, but being assumed to be just “bad at being straight” is not a privilege!

  12. menescus

    Thank you!
    I am afab nonbinary. I had to leave the one support group in my town for trans and other gender variant peeps because I couldn’t handle being constantly silenced due to having “afab privilege”. In this instance it was being used in reference to afab peeps being welcomed into terf spaces. As if that is a privilege! Reading this article has been so helpful and validating.
    Interestingly, it was the trans masculine peeps and trans men doing the silencing.

  13. Ocean Bard

    I have been trying to wrestle with the fact that while I am non binary I am percieved as a woman and thus deal with the situations that come with it. Yet I don’t feel right going to women’s groups that are designed to deal with those or empowering events for women. Honestly, not quite sure what to do about it. I’m not in a position to come out fully but I also don’t want to be seen as lying to those who are a part of that group or event.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I totally feel you. As someone who is male of centre I do not go into women’s spaces, and have fought very hard for my exclusion and trans women’s inclusion in these spaces – it pees me off when cis women would include me just because I’m afab. That being said, my risk as an afab trans person of sexual abuse and assault is higher (double) than that of a cishet woman, and I have been the victim of serious misogyny-related violence my whole life. It’s not the same as transmisogyny, but it’s there, and sometimes people conflate all afab trans ppl with cis men and think we have the same privilege, we don’t. Just because trans women don’t have the same privilege cis men have does not mean we do, it doesn’t work that way. I would like to find a way for us to be included in conversations about cis male violence without feeling like I am encroaching on spaces where trans women still feel excluded.

      1. rainbowdaleks

        Many people think about this as symmetry.

        For example, they say “trans women / NB amab people don’t have cis male priviledge and socialization” which is true. And from this deduce that (all) afab trans people MUST be priviledged.

        Or conversely, some trans men say “I was socialized female”, and while it could maybe be phrased better, what they mean is “I lived / still live misogyny and am not treated equally to a cis man” which is true too. But then, deduce that amab non-binary and trans women MUST have some (or all) cis male priviledges.

        As if one is the mirror of the other.

        This mirror thinking is also why people think all amab trans people are femme, and all afab masc.

        Which doesn’t make any sense. And leads to silly, absurd and useless “debates”.

        It’s also just a transposal of the “symmetry” that people attribute to cis women and men, supposedly opposite to each other.

        And while there is some symmetry between cis male and female socialization and priviledge/oppression, you can’t analyze trans/NB lives through this prism…

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