On Heterosexual Privilege

Queen_George wrote a (very personal) post the other day, and my comment went off on a tangent that I decided I needed to turn into my own post. Interestingly enough, it’s something I’ve found myself talking about with people a lot recently. It involves privilege, namely heterosexual privilege. On Queen_George’s post, I said [sic]:

I struggle with the guilt of [the] heterosexual privilege that I have because I look like a “straight” woman. I can walk into any bar or store and be treated as a heterosexual person would be treated. When I’m dating a man, I retain that privilege. People assume I’m straight and treat me as such. But when I go out with a woman, I lose that privilege. It’s really hard to have it one day and lose it the next. I’m constantly shifting between worlds. And in fact, the only time I’ve ever feared for my safety was when I was on a date with another femme woman in a straight bar.

I struggle with the privilege I [am given]. Part of me doesn’t want it; I don’t deserve it because I’m NOT straight. Part of me likes it, because it makes my life easier. Part of me is angry about having it, because I’m NOT straight! Stop treating me like I am! When I date a man, society sees me as straight, and often my [male] partners, even when I tell them I’m queer and get heated and worked up about stuff, don’t really GET it. It’s such a hard place to be.

This is something I’ve struggled with a great deal lately. And most of my friends, being straight, don’t really understand where I’m coming from when I express my frustration with it. As I said, I look like a “straight” woman. Society assumes you’re straight unless you give them reason to assume you’re not, as heterosexual is the majority, and therefore the default. I’m a femme/feminine woman, which is how society says that women should be. Therefore, I do not challenge conventional gender norms, and appear to be a heterosexual woman by all accounts. And so I’m treated as a heterosexual woman would be treated: normally. I’m not “different.”

However, I am “different.” I do not identify as heterosexual. My queer identity is a huge part of who I am. But when I go out, I pass. And I retain my heterosexual privilege. When I go out with a man as my date, I continue to retain that heterosexual privilege. We are treated as a “normal” couple. No one looks twice at us. We are respected. We fit in.

But what if, tomorrow, I have a date with a female? I lose that privilege in the blink of an eye. And that’s a really hard thing to deal with. Not not having privilege; I could adjust to that. But having it one day and not having it the next. I’m forever in limbo. It’s not like I look like “a lesbian” and am treated in a certain way all the time. I’m treated as everyone else is most of the time, yet when I go out with a different partner, suddenly I’m not. It’s a confusing thing, because I toe the line between privileged and not.

I could easily take the privilege every day of my life by dressing the way I do, and by dating men. But at the same time, that’s not who I am. Even when I’m being treated as heterosexual, I know that I’m not. And that’s always in the back of my mind. I struggle with what to do with my privilege, though. As I said, I get angry. I get indignant. I get sad. In fact, I don’t really know where to end this post, because the entire situation is that conflicting for me.

Does anyone else relate to this?

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  1. KaraNo Gravatar
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Hi Britni, I can’t identify fully with you but I think this makes sense. Both Me & Jess would be considered femme style lesbians. Unless we’re being affectionate with each other, most people think we’re two straight girlfriends hanging out together. I’ve never dated a man, then a women or vice versa. So I don’t know what its feels like to go back and forth like that. I can just identify with constantly being mistaking for straight based on how I look.
    This was a great post and thanks for sharing it. Kara XOXOXOXOXO

  2. StaciNo Gravatar
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    OMG hell fucking yes I relate! Holy shit. This very subject has been on my mind constantly as of late. I’m a queer femme in a polyamorous marriage with a cisgender straight man. Not only do I have to deal with hetero-privilege guilt but I get femme invisibility and disdain from the queer community. It’s an incredibly difficult place to be.

    Like you, my queer femme identity is a huge part of who I am but for too long I hid this part away. When I met my partner, I became completely smitten and devoted and polyamory wasn’t even a thought at that point. I never consciously made a decision to hide my queer identity, but it just sort of disappeared. And that was painful for me. I struggled with this for a while and considered divorce but that didn’t feel right either because I still dearly love my partner; he’s my best friend and we have a life together. So we opened things up and I’m finally free to be my fabulous queer femme self. Of course, with that comes loads of assumptions from other people about me. I’m not queer enough for the LGBTQ community, too queer for the heteros. Straight men assume I’ll fuck anything that moves but the butch dykes I lust after don’t trust me.

    Like you, I feel caught between worlds. I don’t regret the choices I’ve made and am incredibly happy to finally be able to become who I was meant to be. But it’s not always an easy place. I have no words of wisdom to offer. Just know that you’re not alone.

  3. EveNo Gravatar
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    Oooh, yeah, I can definitely relate! This is something I’ve always felt a bit awkward and conflicted about. I don’t really know how to reconcile it. I usually pass as straight and kinda of “traditionally” femme (if maybe almost tomboyish half the time), but I identify as being closer to gay than straight. I sometimes feel almost guilty, like I don’t really belong in the queer community because I usually have straight privilege, which seems a bit silly, since I AM queer, even if people don’t know I am. Or I’ll feel “not queer enough” because I’ve dated/slept with far more men than women (mainly a function of circumstance and coincidence and the small number of people I’ve been with, as opposed to a greater preference for men). Not that that makes me any less queer or invalidates my experience, but it’s very much tied up in a feeling that hetero privilege somehow cancels out my place in the queer community. Again, that feels silly, since it’s not a contest to see who is discriminated against the most, but I have on occasion encountered some disdain for or ridicule of bisexuals from gay people who don’t take us seriously as being part of the gay/queer community, or who act like we have “hetero cooties” if we aren’t exclusively gay. Obviously this isn’t all gay people, but it is a significant number, and it adds to the turmoil.

    I second what Staci said about feeling caught between worlds. It feels like people have their own weird little prejudices about us too when they know we’re queer. Some straight people accept us more than they do gay people, but some think we’re just confused or trying to get attention. Some gay people don’t take us seriously, think we’re confused, or think we’re afraid to come out of the closet all the way, and a few times I’ve run into lesbians who think it’s much better to date or have sex with a lesbian than a bi girl, regardless of their personal traits (hetero cooties again).

    I could go on for a while. Suffice to say privilege as I experience it as a straight-looking queer woman is something I think about a lot, along with the weird ideas both straight and gay people sometimes have about people like me. I tried writing a blog post about the stereotype aspect of it, but I didn’t manage to generate any discussion since not many people read my blog. I would love if you would write more on this and related topics because it’s something I don’t feel I get to talk about very often with people who can relate, and because it’s something I think a lot of people don’t even consider if they themselves don’t experience it. I want to talk about this more because it’s so confusing and conflicting and I don’t know where to go with it.

    So yeah, I can relate. This post really got to me on a deep level. Thank you! Please write more.

  4. SkyddsDrakeNo Gravatar
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    I can relate in a sense, even if my experiences are a bit different. I’m not femme. Although I wear women’s clothing more often now than I have in the past, I’ve pretty much always been considered butch. The rest, however…

    This last October I married a straight man. You’re stereotypical “guy’s guy” to anyone that doesn’t know him well. (He’s actually a lot more open to things than some people would expect…) I can’t count the number of times that I had people insinuate that I’m now straight because I’m married. I get that I have that privilege of “passing” now because I’m married. I get that no matter how butch I might appear, I’m considered “safe enough” because I’m married. On the one hand, I get that I have that privilege now. On the other hand, I can’t STAND that people think marriage has changed who I am at my core. I got married to a man because the person I found that knows me inside and out, still loves me, is my best friend and lover, is my anchor, makes me feel valued and worthwhile happens to be a man. I’ve fallen in love with women who could have been that person for me, too, it just didn’t work out.

    But then, I’ve always been somewhat anathema to some from the LGBTQ community because I’ve never actually had sex with a woman. It doesn’t matter how few sexual partners I’ve had in my life, or that I don’t see sex as a solidifying factor as to whether or not I’ve loved someone… that’s kind of a different story, though, so I should probably get into that elsewhere. =P

    Any which way… Thank you for writing this. As much as I dislike hearing about anyone’s turmoil, it can be a relief sometimes to know I’m not alone in some of it. Makes it feel a little less like turmoil somehow…

  5. MaryBullstonecraftNo Gravatar
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this post; I totally identify with your frustration and feelings of guilt about passing. I am a queer, femme woman–but I have only had long term relationships with men. I’m ok with that, and I love my partner very much (we’ve been together 5 years)…but when I spend time with other queer or lesbian friends, sometimes I do feel guilty about how easily I am able to move around in the heterosexist world.

    One thing I try to do, though, is disrupt that privilege a bit. (This, of course, is a privileged thing to be able to do–I get to pick and choose the moments when I “out” myself. But given that I have this privilege in a heterosexist world that assumes I must be straight unless I “look” gay, I try to find ways to deploy it usefully.) I do this especially in my teaching (I teach philosophy in a university, and tend to focus a lot on feminist and queer theory)–primarily by making comments during examples that deliberately render my sexuality ambiguous, but without making that the topic of discussion. I find that this raises the idea in people’s minds–wait, is she??–without directly thematizing it, in order to make them wonder about their assumptions in the first place. This, of course, works better in the setting of a philosophy class where the point is to analyze our assumptions. And I often teach texts after that that deliberately call into question the presumption of heterosexuality, and why we often feel like we need to “know” other people’s sexualities or sexual practices in order to know how to relate to them.

    Anyone who taught could do this kind of thing in a similar course, of course. But I also think that the fact that I “pass” much of the time makes the process of making them question their assumptions more effective. All this to say that while I identify with the problem of being privileged in ways you don’t “deserve,” there might be ways to work that privilege in subversive ways.

  6. PandaDementiaNo Gravatar
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I really don’t understand feeling “guilt” over being the way you are. Frustrated at other’s actions because of the way you are, yes, I get that, but guilt? That implies that you feel you are doing something wrong. So you don’t fit into other’s expectations? *They* are the ones that should feel guilty for treating you differently, not you for not conforming.
    I also don’t understand how the way you look is ‘privilege’ instead of choice. You could choose to dress more butch, but you choose to dress more femininely. That’s a choice, whereas sexuality is not a choice and, I suppose, could be considered ‘privilege.’
    I’m either lucky enough to not have been treated differently or not to have noticed it when I have been out with girlfriends, so maybe someone can explain it to me, but the way I see it, guilt is for the guilty. You’ve done nothing wrong, so why feel badly about it?

    • Britni TheVadgeWigNo Gravatar
      Posted April 12, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Guilt over the fact that I’m receiving privilege that I don’t deserve. Guilt that I’m queer, yet most of the time, I don’t suffer the same discrimination that many other queer people do.

      As for how I look being a choice, to a large extent, yes, it is. But at the same time, gender really *isn’t* much of a choice, and I’m not someone that has a more butch or masculine gender identity. I could choose to dress that way, but it’s not who I am and wouldn’t fit with how I feel about myself. Many more butch lesbians dress that way because it’s how they’re comfortable. Their gender identity isn’t feminine, even though they are female and happy to be so. So while they choose to dress the way they do, it’s moreso to match their gender identity and appearance. I’m not butch, so I don’t necessarily “choose” to be femme; it’s just who I am. Does that make sense?

      • PandaDementiaNo Gravatar
        Posted April 12, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        The privilege explanation does, yes, thank you, but I still don’t understand feeling guilty. How can one “deserve” (or not deserve) and “receive” privilege? Isn’t it just our lot in life, what we’re born into?
        And, again, my thought is that you shouldn’t feel guilty that who you are helps you escape discrimination. I am in a similar boat that you are, being a femme bisexual, and I rally against discrimination against the LGBT community, but I would never feel guilty or apologize for the fact that I don’t have to suffer through it.
        Anyways, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around but thanks for trying to explain.

      • Brilliance ProperNo Gravatar
        Posted April 12, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        I think this is the first time I’ve commented on your new blog. As a black man I can say that I have certain “privileges” based on my appearance but of course I have ones I lose as well because of my appearance. To talk to any other group of black people I seem “normal.” I wear baggy clothes and I listed to rap music. However I’m married to a white woman and so after this is found out I become “that” black man. The one they assume doesn’t love black women/people because of my mate choice… and that’s a privilege I don’t want. I get treated different because of my wife? Fuck you. Can I say I don’t ever enjoy some of the benefits of being me? Never. You should enjoy who you are and what you are.

        That’s why I don’t get the part about privileges you don’t ‘deserve.’

        In the same sense I could say that a black kid born into wealth doesn’t deserve what he gets because other black kids are born poor. In that same sense I could say that Pax (Angelina Jolie’s adopted kid) is undeserving because he was picked out of his country/group/family to live the high life. It doesn’t make sense. You are fundamentally you. You always will be. But privilege based on appearance isn’t much but talk, perception and assumption. Everyone looks like something or someone who does something. Be you regardless and don’t go out of your way to feel guilty because you look different than you act. What does a bi woman or man look like? A gay one? There’s no template so never act like there is or go out of your way to feel guilty. You’ll feel better later.

        • EveNo Gravatar
          Posted April 12, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

          It’s not really that we don’t actually deserve that privilege or enjoy its benefits (because who doesn’t deserve or enjoy the privilege of not being discriminated against?), it’s more a feeling of not deserving it. I don’t know that anyone’s telling us to feel this way, but it does appear to be a common feeling among some queer people who pass as hetero or as having “normal” gender expression. (judging by the comments, not all of us feel that way, but a noticeable group of us do)

          I think it’s something to do with feeling cut off from the queer community or somehow not deserving to be accepted in the queer community (or sometimes actually not being accepted by parts of the queer community) because we don’t necessarily share the common experience of what it’s like to be discriminated against for being queer (or just the experience of what it’s like to be queer in general if a lot of our experiences overlap more with those of straight people). And a surprising number of people in the queer community don’t take us seriously as being legitimately queer, which I think directly ties into the feeling of guilt over seeming straight or not being “queer enough”.

          Plus it just feels weird and kind of icky to constantly be treated like someone I’m not or have it assumed that I’m someone I’m not. I think for me, that’s even bigger than the privilege aspect, as important as that is. I want to be recognized for who I am, not for who people think I look like. Does that make sense?

          I agree that it would feel a lot better not to feel guilty over something outside my control, but I think that’s just part of figuring out what my queer identity means to me. I’m still figuring out where I fit, and in the mean time I feel a lot of confusing and conflicting things. That’s why I think it’s important to talk about these things, especially since it’s obvious I’m not the only one grappling with these kinds of feelings about being queer.

          • PandaDementiaNo Gravatar
            Posted April 12, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

            Thank you for your input, Eve. Though I still wish guilt weren’t a feeling associated with being who you are, your response helped me understand it much better. :)

      • StaciNo Gravatar
        Posted April 13, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        I definitely agree. Butch and femme are gender identities and are not chosen. Obviously there are lots of genderqueer and genderfuck folks too who do to some extent choose a gender presentation, but again, that’s who they are and how they identify. And it’s definitely much more complex than just clothing or makeup.

  7. alanaNo Gravatar
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting.

    I know this post is about heterosexual privilege, but I also think a lot of this stems from the general distrust (though I feel like that may be too harsh of a word) a lot of people have towards bisexual people. Staci summed it up what I’m getting at with, “Straight men assume I’ll fuck anything that moves but the butch dykes I lust after don’t trust me.”

    I also think there is a quantitative expectation with bisexuals. It’s like you have to parcel up your feelings and experiences so other people can judge whether or not you’re “truly” bisexual. Does that make sense? Like every individual factor gets considered. (Do you have sex with the same sex? Have you dated someone of the same sex? Would you ever date someone of the same sex? Are you dating someone of the same sex right now? Is it because you prefer the opposite sex or is it just down to chance essentially?) It can get pretty annoying since I know what I feel on the inside.

    • EveNo Gravatar
      Posted April 13, 2010 at 12:25 am | Permalink

      I relate to this.

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