Privilege is one of the terms that have become ubiquitous in discussions about social issues, referring to the way society privileges people with certain traits above others. White privilege and male privilege are two of the big ones. A straight white man has won the life lottery; a disabled black lesbian, not so much.
For most of my life, being female is the only disadvantage I’ve had. I’m white, able-bodied, cisgender (not transgender), middle-class, educated — all forms of privilege. But then something changed.
After a lifetime of identifying as heterosexual I kissed a girl and I thought, hang on. There might be something here. I started dating women.
Quite abruptly, my straight privilege disappeared.
This is one of the best explanations I have found: privilege means that you think something isn’t a problem because it isn’t a problem for you.
For example, I was oblivious to the politics surrounding black women’s hair (and the fact that there are people who think it’s okay to go up to someone and touch their hair without their permission) until it was pointed out to me.
Suddenly, I experienced dating from the other side of privilege. All the things I had taken for granted — holding my date’s hand or kissing them in public, freely discussing my experiences with dating and relationships — became a minefield.
My friends have always known me as a straight woman, and although I’m supported, I understand there will be questions. But I wasn’t prepared for the reactions I got from strangers simply for being a woman who dates women.
“How do you have sex?” (Google!)
“Are you guys lesbians or just doing it for fun?” (Question from a random man when I kissed my date at a bar.)
“Don’t you miss cock?” (This from a complete stranger, a middle-aged man I met at a friend’s birthday.)
“Did a man hurt you?” (Another man I had just met, a friend’s new boyfriend.)
Of course, this is a question gay women are often asked, as if your sexual identity can only exist as a response to your interactions with men. My desire to be with a woman had nothing to do with the men in my life — it’s because I’m attracted to women.
There is the assumption, too, that queer women exist for the titillation of straight men — I’ve had to deal with a number of thinly veiled allusions to threesomes, from both strangers and friends.
Intrusive questions about your sex life demonstrate another kind of straight privilege: heterosexual people are so secure in their normality that LGBTQI people are immediately the “Other”, a group that can be legitimately interrogated because they are different.
This is hurtful, infuriating and wrong.
Privilege also means that the group you belong to is represented in the media as “the norm”, and when it comes to sex and relationships, this means heterosexual couples. Pick up any women’s magazine and the sex/relationships articles will be about “you and your man”. It is hard to explain how painful it is when you are dismissed because you are not “the norm”. A local magazine recently published the condescending short article 3 lessons we can all learn from same-sex couples, as if gay couples are a social experiment.
Another relationship article on a supposedly feminist website only referred to straight couples. I would never have noticed the omission previously; this time, I felt excluded. It is the sort of exclusion which my privilege would have made me dismiss — emotional advice for couples can be extended to everyone, surely?
It’s not about the practicalities. It is about not seeing yourself reflected in other people’s lives; about your life and your experience becoming invisible.
I texted a lesbian friend about the article and why it bothered me. “Well, duh,” she said. “This happens all the time.”
I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve experienced even an iota of the discrimination and harassment felt by the LGBTQI community. It stretches far beyond intrusive questions and lack of representation; it includes youth homelessness, lack of access to medicine, discrimination in the workplace and other serious problems that I’ve been protected against.
Rather, I discovered something that has changed in how I view my own actions: it is incredibly difficult to realise the extent of your own privilege, ever, because by definition you cannot experience life without that particular privilege.
As hard as we try, it is difficult to truly empathise with someone if you cannot identify with their life. I did not — could not — understand how it felt to be on the other side of privilege until I found myself there.
It is easy to become defensive when you — white, or male, or able-bodied — are told to check your privilege. Try to remember that you do not know what it is like, and listen instead.