It's as though before I knew these terms, I was wandering in a thick fog of SOMETHING... a perpetual feeling of unease, of being alone on stage reciting a monologue I wasn't prepared to give. I, the trannie, am the actor. Everybody else, the audience. No, to be honest with you it was much more like I was auditioning for the part of woman... ALL THE FUCKING TIME. In my mind, there were women at the judge's panel. And there was me that Transsexual performing the part of woman on stage. In the world there were the natural born males females who own the rights to manhood/womanhood. And there were us Transsexuals who must apply to get into the club.
This feeling of 'otherness' wasn't exactly unfamiliar to me. After all I'm also black. So in this society there are women. And then there are Black Women. Always presented in unspoken italics. In this society it's normal to be white, it's normal to be NOT trans.... anything else is an adjustment to the norm. Just plain different than one would expect. "Not that there's anything wrong with that!!" Always seems to follow. Ugh.
Over the years I developed a habit of avoiding talking about myself at all costs. I began to hide. I began to devote all my time to passing, to detaching from any and everyone who had known me before transition. In my mind, it was getting to be too much work to explain how I could have been born the way I was born and still consider myself to be a "real" woman(???!!?) It was too much energy to deal with people treating me like I was a counterfeit 100 dollar bill. I was tired of getting caught in that infinite loop of justifying, explaining, defending my transgender life in relation to everybody else's 'normal' lives. Knowing there was an elephant in the room but somehow unable to see it or touch it. I could smell the elephant every time someone said "wow so how long have you been living as a woman???", or even, Gawd forbid, if I used that damnable phrase myself. I could hear that elephant braying at me whenever I tried to explain to friends how calling me a transsexual woman in one breath but calling my sister a "genetic" woman in the next was deeply, intolerably offensive. Trying to explain this disconnect but failing miserably to break through. I knew I was getting made out to be less than, a "woman but not really," but how else did I go about describing my experiences in relation to others without doing just that?
Without Cis, the vocabulary for these discussions is dismal. "Normal" vs "transsexual"? Genetic vs. Surgically constructed? "Standard Issue" vs. "Hand made?" Of course there was always "trans" vs. "non-trans." I am a trans woman, my sister is a non-trans woman, etc. A definition in negative seems a bit forced, like a concession to political correctness rather than a useful description of lived differences... but I couldn't think of any other way to say what I was trying to say that didn't come off as a grave insult against me.
Enter "Cisgender" and my enlightenment.
Cisgender isn't yet a universal term, but it has been gaining ground in the last couple of years. If the rumors are true that it's been around since 1995 I don't understand what the hell has been taking it so long! Where were you when I need you then, Cis??? Most people who do use the term regularly currently define cisgender to mean, simply 'not transgender," period. In my arrogant opinion, this is incorrect. I do understand it as a useful shorthand, but I also believe its much too important a concept to leave the definition at that.
Saying that somebody is cisgender simply means they are "not transgender," is no more accurate than saying somebody is White simply means they are "Not Black." This kind of shorthand enforces the very binary thinking it should serve to critique. Moreover, it implies that trans is already universally understood. Ha! Is it that the people using cis this way would rather center discussion around trans identity rather than on the oppressive dynamic that generates cis and trans identities in the first place? Perhaps.
There is a basic social phenomenon that unites each and every person in a society, cis and trans alike: Upon every live birth, society assigns each new person his or her very own gender identity. And with the force of government law, the society documents and polices this assigned identity at every phase of the individual's life.
You too, whoever you are, were assigned an identity shortly after your birth. This identity is legally and socially binding. It directly informs what happens to you from that point onward, how you will be treated, how you will dress, how you will be allowed to behave, how you will be rewarded for performing up to cultural expectations for your assigned gender, and how you will be punished for failing to perform up to specs.
Think about this for a second. I mean really think about this. One could say that Gender is arguably the single most personal and far-reaching aspect of human self-awareness, and it was decided for you. Nobody asked you. Nobody allowed you to figure it out for yourself first. And now the rest of your life will be spent exploring and negotiating the limits of this legally and socially binding gender identity you've been assigned!
If during the course of your life you have no major quibbles with your gender assignment, if you remain more or less comfortable in the gender identity you were given and you make no moves to alter this social and/or legal assignment, THATS Cisgender. And your response to all of the above is probably a big "Yeah but so what? What else is society supposed to do?"
If instead, you come one day to take MAJOR issue with your gender assignment....if eventually you feel so uncomfortable as to maneuver partially or altogether outside of the strictly enforced boundaries of your original gender assignment... then THATS transgender.
Cis and Trans imply MOVEMENT first and foremost. Movement either within or away from the sex/gender identity you've been assigned at birth.
In the context of gender identity, all of us are who we are because somebody else decided what our bodies meant and who we would turn out to be.
Please don't get me wrong. I am NOT saying that all gender is socially constructed or that the only reason we feel about our gendered selves the way we do is because of our having been assigned to live a certain way. I am not taking sides here in any nature vs nurture debate.
What I am saying is that any discussion about gender, particularly gender rights, gender variance and gender-based discrimination HAS to be understood in the context of the compulsory aspect of gender identity. That is to say the question of what makes us who we are is inextricable from the question of who we are compelled (by society, by government law) to be.
All this internet bickering about the validity of "cisgender" as a concept, certain groups feeling that they are being forced to identify as cis against their will.... OMG SHUT UP! You don't have to identify as cis if you don't want to (a cis privilege in and of itself, *ahem*)! Cis , for you, simply describes what happened to your life after you were born and everybody but you decided what your gender was and you said, either thru your action or inaction, "Yes, I agree. I am this thing called a woman/man."
Trans describes what happened to your life after you were born and everybody but you decided who you were already but at some point you said NO THANKS i'd rather be over HERE .... Cis and trans are not descriptors of some inner truth; They expose the external imposition of an alleged truth.
This rethinking of "normal" gender identies as cisgender life trajectory has had a profound effect on me personally. I've finally been able to stop comparing apples to pineapples, ie my life, my body as it compares to those of my mother, sisters, etc. I've been able to see that their lives are no more natural or correct than mine, and no less artificial, no less constructed or arbitrarily defined than mine. I do NOT have to adhere to a cisgender standard in order to find value in my own transgender life. That's HUGE. This has even widened my perception of other aspects of my identity, particularly of race and ability. It has given me a much needed context to frame my "non-standard" experiences, and clearly names the oppressive subtext I've been drowning in all along.
Now that I have a WORD for the elephant I'd been seeing smelling and hearing all along, I can finally clearly see how the terms I was using beforehand normalized a cisgender life trajectory and pathologized everything that deviated from it. Only cisgender bodies were "real" bodies. Only cisgender women were "real" women. Being assigned male or female at birth and staying within the legal and social confines of that assignment was "natural." Moving out of the legal and social confines of your original assignment is "deviant." See how much easier it is to identify biases this way??
Pretty sneaky, Cis!!!