The Invisible Knapsack of Privilege Part II: Heterosexual & Cisgender Privilege

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Almost three decades ago, Peggy McIntosh published her now-legendary piece on White Privilege[1]. McIntosh likened white privilege to an invisible knapsack of advantages that white people carry with them, listing a selection from the abundance of everyday rights withheld from people of colour. This post is the second of two parts, in honour of McIntosh’s birthday this month. The first addresses the racial privilege I carried as a student growing up in international schools. This piece considers a few of the many ways that heterosexual and cisgender people benefit from privilege in international schools:

  1. Cishet people are free from concern that a teacher or classmate will misgender them.
  2. Cishet people never have to worry that a teacher will deadname them while taking attendance.
  3. The standardized tests that pre-enter personal information always check the box that corresponded with cishet people’s gender identity.
  4. Cishet people can be certain that both anatomy and relationships similar to theirs would be discussed in sexual education lessons.
  5. Cishet people can enjoy the playground and other common campus spaces without worry that they would be the target of verbal or physical harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  6. Cishet people don’t have to come out to anybody.
  7. Cishet people can attend dances and school functions with their partners, unquestioned.
  8. Cishet students can audition for a part in a play or try out for an athletic team without being asked to discuss their gender.
  9. Cishet students can use the school bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
  10. Cishet people are not assigned entire reading lists with characters and plots that completely ignore or invalidate romantic relationships like theirs.

How do you see heterosexual and cisgender privilege playing out in international schools today?

[1] McIntosh, P. (1998). Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In P.S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States, p. 165-169. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

10 thoughts on “The Invisible Knapsack of Privilege Part II: Heterosexual & Cisgender Privilege”

  1. As a parent of a transgender child, I thank you for bringing awareness to this topic. They are remarkably patient and respond to misgendering and deadnaming through educating. However, there is nothing they can do when filling out a form. There are no “gender neutral” or other boxes to describe diverse identities.
    I know, through my own research, that affirmation is the ethical thing to do. Thnks again!

    1. Dear Irene,

      Thank you for your readership and for your encouraging comments.

      I agree that many transgender people are exceedingly patient when it comes to misgendering and deadnaming, though the burden usually falls disproportionately to them to exercise this flexibility. My hope is that, eventually, educators will see it as their responsibility to get this right at school.



  2. Dear Emily,

    I’m less than persuaded that both cases are analogous (the former and the latter privilege). But perhaps the main problem with the issue you have pointed out is that, as often is the case, there is far too much appeal to emotion, and not so much as a logical treatment of the topic, or a logical presentation of a position with answers to possible counterarguments and so forth.

    One could equally write an essay condemning the privilege of healthy-bodied people, and point out how under-represented and discriminated transabled people feel (or in our case as teachers, transable students). Again, feelings. I’m not saying that they are not important, but to make them the yardstick of our ethical system is a recipe for intellectual atrophy.

    Now leaving aside the obvious common sense fact that people should not be legally discriminated based on their sexual orientation (which you seem to be pointing out), I’m actually quite curious about the implicit moral claims you are making, and perhaps you can elucidate a little bit more on them.

    You seem to be implying that cisgender privilege is wrong, as in ‘morally wrong’. And that implication or statement is binding for all people. Hence, a moral absolute. But why should we observe that imperative and not perhaps other counter-imperatives?

    The lack of warrants and justifications for your position makes it difficult to answer your question at the end of the text, since the question itself already assumes a moral stance.

    I hope that makes sense.


    1. Dear Jonatas,

      Thank you for your readership, and for your engagement in this important discussion. I will do my best to respond to the questions you’ve raised.

      In terms of the two types of privilege being analogous, I agree that heterosexual and cisgender privilege are not the same. However, they are related in the sense that both relate to gender and sexual minorities, which is sort of an umbrella used in the field. And, heterosexual privilege cannot exist without cisgender privilege. I consolidated the two for the sake of brevity, but certainly it would not be difficult to write two separate posts.

      While I do think that emotions are worth considering, I also rely heavily on scholarly research in my writing. If you’ll see my reply to Dominique in this same comments section, I’ve included a partial list of some academic references that you might find interesting, and which support my point from an empirical perspective.

      I agree with you that many people carry privilege because of their bodies, whether it be in shape or size or ability. I haven’t prepared a piece on this, but I think that one could easily create a list of ways that this privilege plays out to the advantage of some – and the detriment of others – in international schools. This theme really could apply to any dominant status where minority groups are disadvantaged.

      You refer to legal discrimination against people based upon sexual orientation as an, “Obvious common sense fact”, but this not necessarily the case. Unfortunately, there are still many countries around the world where legal discrimination against sexual minorities is perfectly permissible. I’m not sure where you are from, but it has been relatively recent history that sexual minorities have been granted legal protections in the legal system in my country (the U.S.) This is why it is important that we continue to bring the issue of privilege to light.

      Finally, for the moral aspect of it. Again, my reply to Dominique might help to answer your question (if I understand it correctly). The idea is not that I, as a heterosexual, cisgender person, created the system that gave me privilege. It was like this before I was born. However, if I do nothing to challenge it during my lifetime, then I am guilty of passing this system on to others. To say nothing is to endorse the status quo. This status quo causes significant damage to the gender and sexual minority children in our care, as professional educators, so I see it as my responsibility to acknowledge the issue and actively work to improve it.



    1. Dear Dominique,

      Thank you for your readership.

      Gender and sexual minorities are some of our most at-risk students for a number of negative mental health outcomes, including suicide (Fergusson et al., 2005; Garofalo et al., 1999; Kann et al., 2016; Russell & Joyner, 2001).

      This disparity with their majority peers has been attributed to the social stigma associated with minority status (Almeida et al., 2009; Burton et al., Dane & MacDonald, 2009; 2013; Hatzenbuehler et al., Herschberger & D’Augelli, 1995; Lea et al., 2014; 2016; Meyer, 2003; Tebbe & Moradi, 2016).

      From my perspective, and that of many other professional educators, this is a very real problem.

      I hope that you will reconsider; a more supportive and inclusive educational environment for all students saves lives (Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014; Heck, 2011).




      Almeida, J., Johnson, R. M., Corliss, H. L., Molnar, B. E., & Azrael, D. (2009). Emotional distress among LGBT youth: The influence of perceived discrimination based on sexual orientation. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 38, 1001-1014.

      Burton, C. M., Marshal, M. P., Chisolm, D. J, Sucato, G. S., Friedman, M. S. (2013). Sexual minority-related victimization as a mediator of mental health disparities in sexual minority youth: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42, 394-402.

      Dane, S. K. & MacDonald, G. (2009). Heterosexuals’ acceptance predicts the well-being of same-sex attracted young adults beyond ingroup support. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(5), 659-677.

      Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., Ridder, E. M., & Beautrais, A. L. (2005). Sexual orientation and mental health in a birth cohort of young adults. Psychological Medicine, 35, 971-981.

      Garofalo, R., Wolf, C., Wissow, L. S., Woods, E. R., & Goodman, E. (1999). Sexual orientation and risk of suicide attempts among a representative sample of youth. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 153, 487-493.

      Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., Van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective School Climates and Reduced Risk for Suicide Ideation in Sexual Minority Youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279-286.

      Hatzenbuehler, M. L. & Pachankis, J. E. (2016). Stigma and minority stress as social determinants of health among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth: Research evidence and clinical implications. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 63(6), 985-997.

      Heck, N., Flentje, A., Cochran, B. (2011). Offsetting risks: High school gay-straight alliances and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Youth. School Psychology Quarterly, 26(2), 161-174.

      Hershberger, S. L. & D’Augelli, A. R. (1995). The impact of victimization on the mental health and suicidality of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths. Developmental Psychology, 31, 65-74.

      Kann L., Olsen E. O., McManus T., et al. (2016). Sexual identity, sex of sexual contacts, and health-related behaviors among students in grades 9–12 — United States and selected sites, 2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Surveillance Summaries, 65(9): 1–202.

      Lea, T., de Wit, J., & Reynolds, R. (2014). Minority stress in lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults in Australia: Associations with psychological distress, suicidality, and substance use. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43, 1571-1578.

      Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674-697.

      Russell, S. T. & Joyner, K. (2001). Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 1276-1281.

      Tebbe, E. A. & Moradi, B. (2016). Suicide risk in trans populations: An application of minority stress theory. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(5), 520-533.

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