Legible Identity Privilege
Is there such a thing as legible identity privilege?
This thought was tumbling around a lot in my mind for a while, particularly in discussions of what it means to be femme and presumed as female, but also when cis folks would ask me about assuming pronouns when you’re “pretty sure you know” someone’s gender versus when it’s unclear.
As a starter, I’ll say that if there is a legible identity privilege, it’s certainly not anything like as strong as other privileges such as being white. As a white non-binary person, I am less vulnerable to violence and harassment than any black or brown person, full stop. I explicitly reject any arguments that white non-binary people make around “binarism” putting them in a riskier place than a black trans woman, for example. See b. binaohan for why that’s fucked up.
But considering this as its own possible thing, I have a few thoughts. One is that, like “passing privilege,” this has a lot to do with specific cultural context and how other people perceive you. The two are also related. A trans man who is presumed to be a cis man might experience “passing privilege” alongside legible identity privilege, because he “passes” for a cis man and also “man” is a legible identity. Conversely, a trans woman who doesn’t conform to particular beauty standards and expectations might not “pass” for a cis woman, but could have a legible identity in cultural context–it is clear to most people around her that she intends to be read as a woman, and she is a woman.
My own experience is that I do experience “passing privilege,” because in most situations the people around me think that I’m a cis woman and thus aren’t going to be violent towards me or otherwise mess with me because of my gender, but I don’t experience legible identity privilege, because I have a non-binary identity that does not “match up with” any particular outward expression. There’s nothing I can wear that makes people think “oh, of course! squishy pink queer non-binary robot femme from an unknown planet, duh.”
If this is a thing though, I think it’s both a matter of degree, and probably results in fewer external consequences on its own than other kinds of privilege. The main consequence I’ve noticed is emotional, the frustration of what Melissa Harris-Perry calls misrecognition. It’s frustrating that I can’t communicate my identity to others through my dress or mannerisms, but no one’s going to deck me because my identity is illegible. Those who do experience violence because their gender expression “doesn’t make sense” to cis folks are suffering from the consequences of not “passing” as a legible gender, I think, rather than directly from having an illegible identity. Folks whose identity is illegible might be less likely to dress in a way that leads to “passing,” certainly, but not necessarily.
I also imagine that a whole range of folks could suffer from not having full legible identity privilege, though degree may vary. Femme queer women aren’t often read as queer, for example, by those outside the queer community. Butch women might be incorrectly read as men, or as non-binary. Straight femme men are often read as gay. But I’m not sure this is quite the same–there’s probably a difference between having an identity that can’t be communicated in our culture’s language of signs and symbols and having one that could be communicated but the person doesn’t feel comfortable expressing with the signs and symbols society deems to “match” the identity.
Thoughts? Leave a comment!