Thursday, April 9, 2009

Recognizing Privilege

I write a lot about the idea of privilege here. Because I do so, often in the context of criticizing male and heterosexual privilege, I think it's important for me to recognize my own privileges. Most people are privileged in some way. One of the ways that I am privileged is that I am a cisgender female. While I don't really buy into gender roles and do not consider myself all that traditionally "feminine" or "masculine," there is a unity between my gender identity and the sex that was assigned to me at birth. Because of that, I have privileges that I am often unaware of until transgender people bring them to my attention.

I recently read a post by Autumn Sandeen over at Pam's House Blend that reminded me of this privilege in the health care setting. As a lesbian, I know that it can be difficult and frightening to come out (sexual orientation-wise) to a health care provider. This is especially true when it comes to coming out to a gynecologist, who must necessarily ask detailed questions about a patient's sex life sometimes while you're in the vulnerable position of being spread eagle on an examination table wearing an ugly gown made of tissue paper.

Walking into most ob-gyn offices, there is certainly an assumption that a patient is a heterosexual cisgender female. One of the first questions asked is usually "What form of birth control are you using?" (Which I have actually answered in the past with "lesbianism"). But in all seriousness, it's awkward. It is sometimes scary to be assertive and remind people in positions of power that their heterocentric assumptions exclude some of their patients. You don't know how a provider will react, and many lesbian and bisexual women have been met with hostility and prejudice that has deterred them from seeking treatment and preventive care in the future. As a non-pregnant lesbian woman in the waiting room, I sometimes feel like an intruder, like someone who isn't there to do "real" ob/gyn things like getting a birth control prescription or talking about how my fetus is gestating or something.

I can imagine that a transgender woman would feel even less welcome in this space even though she, too, has needs that have to be met at the ob/gyn. The forms that one must fill out sends the message loud and clear beginning with those binary sex boxes "male" and "female" and culminating in the, as Autumn writes, sometimes "horrible experiences in medical settings [that] are common for trans people." Slights like these degrade the dignity of transpeople and prevent some from even seeking needed care in the first place. Making medical forms reflect the reality of people's lived experiences would be a small concession that providers could make at little or no cost to themselves to help all patients feel welcome. Treating people with basic respect and decency should be a given.

Having certain privileges isn't about being a "bad" person. It's about being aware that your experience in life is largely seen as a norm, as the standard, even though other people have equally-valid experiences in life. It's about being aware of how some people are the statistical norm, other people are made to feel pathological, wrong, immoral, and unwelcome in certain places because there are fewer of them. We aren't part of the problem just because we're privileged. We become part of the problem only when deny our privilege while promoting the idea that there is only one correct, non-pathological way to live and be in the world.

No comments: