Saturday, May 1, 2010

How Cisgender Saved My Sanity.

Cisgender. Cissexual. Cis.

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!!!


  1. Oh, hey, this is probably the best post I've read about cisgender ever.

    I like to use Tobi Hill-Meyer's definition sometimes, that being cisgender means that society accepts your gender as valid - that is you are unlikely to meet someone who tells you that you are not who you say you are. Transgender means that society does not accept your gender as valid.

    That's kind of a nutshell explanation, although better than "not trans," which is entirely too reductive. I like the emphasis on what being cisgender means vs. transgender, and I like that you cut through all the debates and BS to put that out there.

  2. Thanks Lisa! You know, I credit you and QT with authoring many of the very first texts I'd ever read on cis and cissexism which really began to put cis-narrative bias in sharp perspective for me. At first I was annoyed by the term 'cis', thinking of it as yet another lofty academic word that I had to get used to, one that would only distance me from everyone else (ie cis people) in everyday conversation... but the more I used it the more clearly I began to see things. The net effect really has been amazing for my self esteem and self confidence. So thanks again!!

  3. Amazingly informative! OMG! Trust me when I say there are people that really don't give a shit! I think your are an amazingly articulate, intelligent, beautiful woman. Uh...that's it. I'm so sorry there is so much to deal with on your journey. But honey, remember we are all on a journey. You really are no different than all of us...period. I hope you can hear the inflection in my "voice" I am in no way being offensive - I hope you receive my comment in the spirit that it is given. You do what you have to do to within our society - but to me, you're just amazing...again - that's it! :) Thank you for sharing!

  4. This is a fantastic post! Thank you!

  5. This is amazing. Seriously. I have the 'problem' of being AFAB, looking the part, but unless I'm naked or in neutral clothing I feel like I'm in drag. Makeup=drag, heels=drag etc. Having said that I feel uncomfortable trying to identify as anything other than cis because I don't want to co-opt an identity that can't be mine. As a dyke with high T levels I get a pass, but I still feel like a Femme, but not a woman. I wish there was shorthand for 'not terribly happy as a woman, bigenderish dyke, but not wanting to co-opt a trans or GQ identity'. It seems easier to go with cis and avoid lengthy explanations like that!

  6. This post makes a lot of sense to me, as a cis-gendered woman! This term needs to keep spreading. A lot of people will resist it ("What do you mean I'm cis? I'm just normal!") but it will keep spreading and make people reflect on gender and make them realize that different types of people from themselves are out there!

    Let me go tell some of my cis-gendered friends there is a new term they can use!

    To Burtie: Aren't there terms like "genderqueer" or "boi" for example, that might not be how you identify, but offer alternatives? It makes me think there must be something for you...


  7. @Veronica

    Thank you for the compliment and the support!


    It certainly sounds like you identify along the trans spectrum, no? I think it's quite possible to be Cissexual but Transgender. One can feel just fine with their physical sex but have major issues with the gendered ways society interprets that sex.

    For me, the discomfort I felt simply having a male body, especially once puberty started, was fairly constant. There is just something that felt wrong about having the body that I did, a feeling that seemed to have nothing to do with anyone else but me. But even if I didn't have a problems with having a male body, I probably still would have been very feminine in my gender expression.

    I totally respect not wanting to co-opt the struggles of others as one's own. These issues are confusing for everyone. We all struggle to understand ourselves and our genders in a society that assigns gender to us along with a long list of rules and expectations that we never signed on for, but are accountable to anyway. Until that dynamic changes, we're all going to be struggling for the right words to know ourselves and each other.

  8. @Ciswoman

    Thanks for the support. I recommend reading Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano before you sign your friends on to the new lingo. She explains the terms much better than I've said it here. :)

    See my recent post about her book here.

  9. Glad my writing helped!

    Sorry I forgot to come back for comments. Looks like the post got noticed. :)

  10. This is extremely well-put.

    When I first heard it, I wasn't entirely sold on the term cis. I recognized the need for a counterpart to trans, but I still felt like the use of 'cis' implied a binary gender system. This seemed pretty clunky and regressive to me, especially since cis was coined to more accurately describe transgender issues.

    Reading this post clarified my perspective, though. Cisgender only means that you identify with the gender role that society assigned to you, NOT that this gender role is 'correct,' or even that there are only two gender roles to be chosen from. I'm not sure why I thought of it that way in the first place; now I see that 'cisgender' actually highlights the fact that gender is a broad continuum, by emphasizing how much of that continuum is socially unacceptable for any given sexual identity.

  11. I agree that this post is amazing for all the reasons already stated, but I especially love how you emphasize that gender identity is so incredibly important and so incredibly *imposed on us without consent*.

    And I also love how you shine a spotlight on the power of naming things. Normally I think of language as limiting and wish for someone to invent some non-creepy form of telepathy, but reading this post left me in awe of words and how powerful they can be -- as a force for good, no less!

    You're awesome. May I signal-boost this post?

  12. numol

    Thank you very much. Of course you may. I'd be honored.


  13. What? I wasn't assigned anything. I don't have to think I'm a man, I just am. Thats like saying I was assigned to think human.

  14. @Anonymous

    What? I wasn't assigned anything. I don't have to think I'm a man, I just am. Thats like saying I was assigned to think human.

    I beg to differ. In no place is "Human" designated on your birth certificate, for instance. At no point do you have to check "human" on official forms or on government id's etc. But your gender, I take it, M, has been assigned documented and aggressively enforced since the time of your birth. Yes,long before you could speak, before you were ever even aware of your own name or what a man or a woman was. It was already decided for you that that's what you were and that's what you would always be.

    Lucky for you you happened to agree with everyone else.

    If you just WERE a man and it were just self evident as being a human being, thn all of that documentation and legal enforcement of your manhood thru out your life would be as unnecessary as it is to document and legally enforce that you are human.

    Cisgender folks never have to think this hard about how much gender assignment predominates legal identity at every turn. Cis ppl get to tell themselves stuff like "oh i just AM a man"... and because society agrees that that's what you are, you never get the pleasure of said society getting up in your face, physically and legally, to tell you that who you THINK you are and FEEL you are is wrong, that you're not who you claim to be, you are who WE claim to be, and so on...

  15. @Jane Laplain

    "I beg to differ. In no place is "Human" designated on your birth certificate, "
    Only because were are the only surviving species of man. If Homo neanderthalensis(Neanderthals) survived then it *would* be an option. but i digress then I'll use race as example instead of species. I'm black but I don't "feel" black and I don't conform to the stereotype of urban blacks. I could also use nationality..I don't feel or think "American", I was just born here.

    it's hard for me to put in words but to me this is like a person who has schizophrenia complaining about everyone else who doesn't understand them. How could they since they would have to have scizophrenia...i don't want to sound harsh..but thats the only way I can explain what I'm trying to say(and yes I know transgenderism was declassified as mental disorder but I think it's at least a form of delusion)

  16. @anonymous

    Youre starting to troll, so I will only publish this one last comment from you from now on.

    First, your opinions are hardly unique about "transgenderism" to use your term. IF you hope to persuade me or anyone who reads this blog regularly, you won't.

    Secondly, it's fine that you have accepted the premise that your reproductive system explains everything the world needs to know about your gender identity. But I'm pretty sure you must realize that you haven't spent a whole lot of time thinking thru things like this. At least, given your clumsy disableist comparisons to schizophrenia (ummm.. what??) it sure doesn't seem like it.

    I'm sorry that you have to live in such a confusing world, where people keep saying weird things like being born with a certain kind of crotch doesn't mean you have to base your whole life around that. But the world is what it is, my friend.

    What did you hope to contribute here, exactly? I'll just have to wonder. Go in peace.