When Law Student Frankie Wood-Bodley began to transition the last thing he expected to experience was male privilege, but like so many industries, legal education is still a boys club.
Trans people have unique insights into the influence and operation of gender identity-based privilege in our society. For many trans people the process of transitioning, however they identify and whatever path that journey takes, often involves losing or acquiring male privilege.
I started law school before I transitioned from female to male and experienced two years of law school being predominantly perceived as female. Transitioning during university, and the acquisition of male privilege, gave me first-hand experience of the operation of male privilege in the context of legal education.
The legal community has often been described as an “old boys club”. Male privilege prevails despite women making up the majority of legal graduates for decades now. Additionally, women are not proportionally represented at senior levels in the legal profession.
Male privilege describes the phenomenon or system which advantages men because they are male to the detriment of women and non-binary persons. People with intersectional identities, such as black, indigenous, people of colour and LGBT+ experience, are impacted by male privilege disproportionately. And male privilege exists in all areas of society not just in the legal community.
I socially transitioned at the beginning of my second year. For me, this meant asking whānau and friends to shift from using female pronouns to male pronouns. I presented masculinely and began binding my chest. During this time, despite being masculine appearing, more often than not I was being read as female by those outside my immediate support network.
I began medically transitioning at the beginning of my fourth year by taking hormone replacement therapy and later having chest reconstruction surgery. Hormone replacement therapy catapulted my body back into puberty and masculinised my appearance. It is important to acknowledge, that while these steps were necessary for me, every trans person’s journey is different and they may not necessarily seek (or have access to) hormone replacement therapy or surgery.
The more my appearance masculinised, the more consistently I was perceived as male by those around me. An unfortunate consequence of this is that I began to experience male privilege. An unwanted byproduct of my decision to medically transition and something I was totally unprepared for having been socialised as a female.
The prospect of attending lectures conducted using the Socratic method is stressful for most students. However, it is particularly trans students who worry about whether or not they will be called on in front of their peers using the right name and pronouns.
As I transitioned there was an ever-increasing difference in the way I was treated by those around me. Regardless, I ensured that I was thoroughly prepared having done all the readings (often in too much detail), and tutorial exercises. By the time I went to lectures or tutorials I had, had many existential crises over the materials.
When I was perceived as female, I would be congratulated for bothering, or finding the time, to prepare for class and then grilled and scrutinised heavily despite giving an almost model answer. Comparatively, the more I was perceived as male, I would be congratulated for giving an academically insignificant and shallow response while my female colleagues gave more insightful responses and were subjected to stronger scrutiny.
This experience is but a snapshot of the way in which male privilege is experienced in the context of legal education. A lot of mahi is being done within the sector to increase diversity and inclusion issues including the impacts of male privilege. However, there is still a long journey ahead before the sector as a whole reflects the diversity of our society.