Women Shadowing a Man

My life got easier after top surgery. Is this what male privilege looks like?


The Guardian
March 6, 2020
By D’Lane R Compton

Since I visibly transitioned, things are better at work, there’s less struggle, and I earn more. It’s clear that inequality is real.

The weight removed from me after my top surgery was, I am certain, more than the 4.5lbs of my breasts.’ Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti/The Guardian

In spring 2018, at the age of 41, I decided to begin my medical and physical transition toward maleness by undergoing top surgery. The next morning, when I first unwrapped my chest, I was elated. Standing and looking at myself in that hotel mirror, it seemed that the weight of me was different. Although I was very sore, a burden had been lifted.

Perhaps the most extraordinary moment came when I hugged my girlfriend for the first time. It was as if there had been something between us that I hadn’t noticed until it was removed. I realized then that I had never been unable to feel absolutely close to her. It was an epiphany that I still can’t reconcile or understand in my scientific mind. Since my top surgery, I am a different person, physically and emotionally. My best friend described it as there being a “new ease about me”.

It has also seemed that there is a new ease to my life. Since I visibly transitioned, there is less struggle. My interactions are not as fraught. Things have gotten easier at work. I’m earning more.

I wonder: is this what male privilege feels like?

I am a sociology professor. And while I study issues related to gender and sexuality in my research, this year I’ve learned something about how gender (or gender presentation) affects a life’s trajectory in a very personal way.

Soon after my top surgery I went on medical leave for cancer treatment, and during that time I received two promotions: one to full professor and one to department head. These both included pay increases. The timing was, in part, a coincidence, as the wheels for these promotions had been put into motion prior to my physical transition. But when I announced my transition at work, there were still steps that needed to be taken, and evaluations and decisions that had to be made, before the promotions were granted. After a decade-long struggle to make more money, when I even had to resort to GoFundMe campaigns to help with my medical care, these promotions felt like they were bestowed at my feet with little effort on my own part.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that all this happened within months of my top surgery. It reminded me of a controversial Sarah Silverman commercial I had seen a few years earlier for the Equal Payback Project, in which Silverman states that she has decided to become a man because the average woman loses $11,000 a year due to the gender wage gap. And here I was, post-top surgery, mid-transition, gaining approximately that amount.

After returning to teaching, I started to receive very little, if any, pushback when I said no. This was especially the case with students. Within academia, it is not an uncommon belief that students make more requests (for grade changes, deadline extensions, and so on) of female-presenting professors. In my case, requests for extensions and grade changes decreased, and for the few that did occur, there was zero pushback to my response. It’s like I have a new superpower: the first time I say no, it is heard. Similarly, I rarely have to ask for something twice. I also experience fewer interruptions, and there are more apologies for taking up my time. Language in emails to me is more deferential than it has ever been before. I am no longer a McDonald’s where students place their orders.

The inequality that women experience at work and in day to day interactions isn’t just in their heads.

One might wonder: how do I know all these perks and interactions aren’t a result of merely seeming more confident after my surgery, or being happier? Or maybe people are being nicer to me because I had cancer? I, too, have these thoughts. But I’m also curious about the defensiveness that arises in response to the idea that changing our gender or presenting as male could change our life chances.

Sociologists understand things like gender bias to be built into our systems and interactions, rather than solely being the properties of biased individuals. Research demonstrates longstanding differences between how men and women are evaluated and treated in the workplace. Men tend to advance faster, creating a gender promotion and salary gap. A recent study conducted by LeanIn.org found that in order to close the gender promotion gap in business, we would need to add 1 million more women to managerial positions over the next five years.

In commercial that specifically addresses transgender men in the workplace, sociologist Kristen Schilt has found that a majority of her respondents report receiving some type of post-transition advantage at work, including gaining authority, respect and recognition for hard work, and gaining economic opportunities and status. Respondents spoke to how men can get away with more, and are given the benefit of the doubt, while hard-working women are ignored and their work is unrecognized.

This sense that I am now seen as someone with more expertise and authority isn’t confined to the workplace. I was recently approached by an older gentleman after parking my truck, who asked me what kind it was and how I liked it.

When he then told me he was thinking of getting a new truck and asked me what I thought he should buy, it suddenly came to me: even though I have not fully transitioned, he sees me as a man, and therefore as someone who can give reliable advice. I’ve always loved – and driven – trucks, but no man, certainly not a stranger, has ever asked me for advice about them.

I can never know exactly how much gender-transition surgery has affected my life and has afforded me masculine privilege. But the weight removed from me after my top surgery was, I am certain, more than the 4.5lbs of my breasts. It also includes the weight of social and economic disadvantages. It was, perhaps, the weight of womanhood.

One other thing is clear. The inequality that women experience at work and in day to day interactions isn’t just in their heads. We need to recognize women’s work and women’s ideas. We need to be willing to envision a woman as president. I will keep fighting for women, no matter what body I inhabit.