Transfeminist answer to ‘A feminist critique of “cisgender”’

I’ve seen this Feminist critique of “cisgender” several times, so I thought I’d offer my humble rebuttal. It’s one of the very first articles that come up when you type “cisgender” on Google, and argues that we shouldn’t use “cisgender” at all. It’s a bit scary and sad.

One of the important problems with the essay is that it proceeds from a vision where only one kind of oppression seemingly exists: the oppression of women by men. The argument is very subtle at some points and goes so fast from one idea to the other that the frequent contradictions are hard to pinpoint. I will leave the exercise to others. Even without pointing out internal incoherence, there is much to say against this article. Still, I’ve seen worse as far as trans-exclusive feminism goes. The rest of the blog looks like distilled transphobia.

In fact, the article isn’t really against using the word “cisgender” to describe people who are not transgender, but rather against recognizing that trans* people experience oppression as trans* people. I say “trans* people”, but only trans women seem to exist here. The variety of trans* experiences is only used in order not to recognize the stable gender identity of people who consistently identify as transgender (and especially as trans women). Cisgender people who consistently identify with their birth assigned gender, however, are not discussed, even though they are sort of in the majority. (For simplicity, I will mostly defend my point from the point of view of trans women. That’s what I am anyway.)

From it, you would expect the fight for gender equity and such to happen in a pure vacuum. This is obviously untrue. We can’t just state that gender is oppressive and discuss how it creates a structure of domination to make a genderless society without oppression appear. We have to work for that. In the meantime, we trans* people deal with a large number of problems cisgender people avoid. Yes, for me and others, they are a part of larger gender politics, but they’re principally extremely practical problems that impair our ability to function on a day-to-day basis. Apart from both generalised marginalisation, and in addition to abstract structures of domination, we have to deal with very basic needs and legal issues: access to legal name and sex change, access to healthcare (trans-related or not), safe access to public bathrooms, etc. When we seek recognition for our problems, it is not only because creating a less rigid understanding gender would be a good first step to gender equity. It is because we need those problems solved if we want to live more or less normal lives, which we can’t at the moment.

Down to details

Let’s now look at some statements more specifically. There are many more problems than those I decided to discuss, but I think this is a good start.

Feminism does not believe that asking whether an individual identifies with the particular social characteristics and expectations assigned to them at birth is a politically useful way of analyzing or understanding gender. Eliminating gender assignments, by allowing individuals to choose one of two pre-existing gender molds, while continuing to celebrate the existence and naturalism of “gender” itself, is not a progressive social goal that will advance women’s liberation. Feminism claims that gender is a much more complicated (and sinister) social phenomenon than this popular cis/trans binary has any hope of capturing.

First, not all trans* people “choose one of two pre-existing gender molds”. Only binary trans people do, to an extent. Genderqueer people don’t, for instance. And “choice” would need defining.

Second, while I disagree that transgenderism “is not a progressive social goal”, I should point out that most trans people don’t transition as a political gesture to get rid of the shackles of gender enforcement. Only a select few are ready to face widespread discrimination and abuse while undergoing difficult medical, administrative and social processes as a means of symbolic political action. First and foremost, they do it to be happy. Now, such apolitical behaviour isn’t necessarily neutral (I believe it’s beneficial, you don’t), but many more cisgender women and men are apolitical in their gender identity and expression. Why are we singled out here?

At the moment, whether we like it or not, gender exists, independently of transgender people. And everyone has to have a gender — in most/all Indo-European languages, gender is a mandatory grammatical category when referring to people. Don’t blame us for that. We just try to make our way within this framework, just like… everyone, really.

First, “masculinity” and “femininity” are not monolithic, static concepts that are wholly embraced or wholly discarded. Socially assigned gender roles encompass entire lives’ worth of behaviors and expectations, from cradle to grave. Most people’s identification with their “gender” assignment is not a simple Y/N. One may be aesthetically gender conforming, but at the same time, behaviorally non-conforming. Or vice versa. Or some combination of both. Most of us are not walking, talking stereotypes. It is unusual for a person to both appear and behave in unmodified identification with their assigned gender at birth. For example, a female-born person might wear pink dresses and lots of makeup, but behave in an assertive, detached, and highly intellectual manner. Or a female-born person might appear very androgynous, without any feminine adornment at all, but express herself gently, quietly, and with graceful concern for those around her. What about a female who is aggressive and competitive in her professional life, but submissive and emotional in her personal life? Who decides whether an individual is sufficiently identified with to be considered “cis”? Or sufficiently non-identified with to be “trans”? “Cis” and “trans” do not describe discrete social classes from which political analysis can be extrapolated.

[…]

As a woman-born-woman who rejects femininity as females’ destiny, I surely do not identify with my assigned gender in the way that “cis” describes. Indeed, no one holding radical feminist/anti-essentialist views about gender could be considered “cis” because, by definition of these views, we reject gender as a natural social category that every person identifies with. Feminists do not believe that everyone has a “gender identity,” or that we all possess some kind of internal compass directing our identification with “gender.”

The beginning of this is very true, but it also applies to trans* people. I know very few trans women who are truly stereotypical women. As far as appearances go, I’m probably one of the most stereotypical women (trans or cis) I know with regards to gender expression: I wear as much makeup as I can and love it, I would wear pink dresses if I had any — I don’t, so I settle for pink skirts and flowered dresses. However, I am following a completely male-dominated career path. I wouldn’t be any less of a woman if was butch and wanted to be a nurse.

Trans women do not transition because they prefer to be housewives rather than breadwinners. They just feel better when they are treated and accepted as women.

Saying that cis people may also have complex relationships to gender roles (only gender roles are discussed here) and are thus not so different from trans people is akin to denying our experiences.

One possible dividing line between cis and trans* is not self-recognition into stereotypes, but the experience of gender dysphoria. I have experienced sexism and dysphoria, and really, they are easily distinguishable. When people tell me that, as a woman, I should learn to cook and take care of my flat, I experience sexism. However, when I look in the mirror and see a man (is that me?), when I hear people refer to me as “he” and know there’s something wrong with it, when I’m assumed to be on the “boy’s” side, which I’m not — that’s gender dysphoria. I enjoy neither of these experiences, but the former has nothing to do with my desire to transition. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about… Imagine you, as a woman, suddenly grew a beard and started being called “he” or “Bob” or “that guy” — that’s the kind of feeling dysphoria is about. Until such things really happen to you repetitively, you haven’t experienced dysphoria. You don’t know what you are talking about, don’t act as if you did. Don’t comment on what you haven’t experienced.

Having a female gender identity is not about adhering to femininity. It’s not about taking feminine gender roles or preferring one set of stereotype to another. It’s about the desire, in itself, to be treated as a woman. What comes attached to this identity in terms of gender expression is left to the individual trans person, just as it is for cis people.

External observers cannot reliably determine whether someone considers herself “cis” or “trans;” they simply pass judgment by categorizing superficial expressions of masculinity or femininity as appropriate or inappropriate. In reality, any person who significantly defies the gender norms for their apparent sex will be subject to negative social treatment because of their non-compliance. This will occur regardless of whether the individual applies the label “trans” to herself or not. Under nearly all circumstances, stealth trans* people will be treated by society as if they were cis; and gender non-conforming cis people who do not disclaim their reproductive sex–including butch lesbians and feminine males–will be treated by society as if they were “trans.*” Framing the politics of gender as a matter of self-perception rather than social perception evades the feminist political inquiry regarding why gender exists in the first place and how these gender dynamics operate, and have operated, for hundreds of years.

If I apply for a job and only have ID that doesn’t match my asserted identity, I will be judged as a trans woman, not as a non-conforming cis man. I might very well be denied my identity, which is not something that happens to non-conforming cis people. In some cases, transphobic people attacked me as a man who didn’t fit their assumptions of masculinity, but sometimes, it was specifically as a trans person — stuff like “transitioning is wrong”. Yes, one person recognized that I was a trans woman and went out of their way to tell me I was wrong to transition at all.

If you want to introduce only a difference of degree between the “negative social treatment” received for 1) having a feminine demeanor as a man and 2) having gendered ID that doesn’t match your asserted identity, because both will be judged as non-compliance to gender norms, that’s fine. It all goes back to how enforcing gender is ridiculous and oppressive — on this, trans* activists and feminists agree. Actually, proportionally more trans* people than cis people will agree with the latter statement. But don’t go saying that cis people experience this on the same scale or intensity as trans* people. Some people want to deny us access to the bathrooms we should use and which match our “apparent sex” in most ways, on account of what our sex was at the time of our birth. Cis people don’t have this problem, whether they conform to gender roles or not.

It is true, however, that privilege is given on account of perception of conformity. Trans* people who can actually go stealth enjoy some amount of conditionnal privilege. This is called “passing privilege”. However, some can’t pass, whether they would want to or not. And even stealth people live in the fear of having their identity revealed. Cis people don’t have to live through this either.

The pattern of gender, constituted through gender’s repeated performance on the stage of life, demonstrates that males and masculinity are institutionally dominant over females and femininity. Gender is not just a fun dress up game that individuals merely identify with in isolation from all contextual and historical meaning, but the most powerful tool of structural oppression ever created by humans.

Notwithstanding variations caused by intersecting factors such as economic class, national jurisdiction, and cultural differences; the collective female social location is consistently less than similarly situated males in terms of: (i) material resources received as an infant and child, (ii) respect, attention, and intellectual encouragement received as an infant and child, (iii) risk of being sexually exploited or victimized, (iv) role within the hetero family unit, (v) representation and power in government, (vi) access to education, jobs, and promotions in the workforce, (vii) property ownership and dominion over space.[vi]

While socialization does teach women to be submissive and men to be dominant (because patriarchy, etc.), this does not mean that one is not subject to discrimination if one has undergone socialization as a male. Trans women experience sexism in that other people consider them as women. Most people don’t know or care how you were socialized. For lack of a better example… When men hold the door for me, they don’t inquire whether my parents brought me up as a boy or a girl, what my genitals look like (basic politeness here), or even whether I have the increased muscle mass derived from testosterone which justifies their holding the door. They just see a woman, and behave accordingly. Describing sexism only as the result of socialization is a grave over-simplification.

Although (i) and (ii) are not necessarily problems experienced by trans women as such (they might be if they discover their trans identity or assert their gender non-conformity early on, however), all the others apply equally to all women, cis or trans. However, as you say, history matters — trans women are subject to even more discrimination than cis women, indeed, to both misogyny and transphobia. Just as trans men experience discrimination in ways cis men don’t.

Recognizing this, feminism understands gender as a powerful– but not inevitable– tool of organizing social relations and distributing power, including physical resources, between the sexes. The near-universal quality of life disparities enumerated above are created, enforced, and replicated through the enforcement of gendered difference and the meanings assigned to these differences. Being born with female appearing genitals and, as a direct result, being coercively assigned the feminine gender at birth, is clearly not a (cis) privilege, nor is it socially equivalent to males’ masculine gender assignment. Female-bodied people and male-bodied people are not similarly situated persons in regard to gender based oppression. Gender is not simply a neutral binary. More importantly, it is a hierarchy.

Cis privilege does not exist, man-privilege does.

Being born as a woman is not a privilege in itself. However, being assigned the right gender at birth is. At least if said assigned wasn’t forced surgically.

In no way are cis privilege and male privilege mutually exclusive. Cis men and women always experience privilege with reference to trans men and women.

Eliminating sex-based gender assignments, while leaving hegemonic masculinity and femininity intact,isn’t going to rectify this imbalance. The cis/trans* binary is a gross oversimplification of the gendered dynamics that structure social relations in favor of male-born people. Gender is a socially constructed power hierarchy that must be destroyed, not reinterpreted as consensual, empowering, individualized “gender identities” that are magically divorced from all contextual and historical meaning. Such a framing invisibilizes female and feminine oppression by falsely situating men-born-men and women-born-women as gendered equals relative to trans-identified people. Though possibly unintentional, “cis” now functions as a significant barrier to feminism’s ability to articulate the oppression caused by the socially constructed gender differentiation that enables male/masculine supremacy. Cis is a politically useless concept because fails to illuminate the mechanics of gendered oppression. In fact, it has only served to make things more confusing.

No. “Cisgender” is just not about male-female gendered dynamics. It’s about something else completely. These issues do not relate to the fact that gender creates a hierarchy. From the strict point of view of trans* issues, patriarchy is not the meaningful structure under discussion — cissexism is.

If “failing to illuminate the mechanics of gendered oppression” is the criterion for uselessness, everything is useless except (some varieties of) feminism. Discourses against racism, classim, ableism, homophobia, etc., offer no significant insight into “the mechanics of gendered oppression”. Once again, why are only trans* discourses singled out here?

Being cisgender doesn’t mean you don’t experience oppression. It just mean you don’t experience one form of oppression. It’s just like being White or from the upper-middle class or straight. It doesn’t mean you don’t experience sexism, you just don’t have to deal with racism or classism or heterosexism.

For the purpose of discussion, we need words to describe realities. That some people are not trans* is a reality. “Cisgender” is only the respectful word to describe these people. The other options, “real” and “biological”, imply that our trans* identities are fake, that we’re Frankenstein constructs.

We exist. We are real. We have issues to deal with. Recognize your privileges, accept that you’re cis and be a trans ally. Now, let’s crush all oppressions together!

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7 thoughts on “Transfeminist answer to ‘A feminist critique of “cisgender”’

  1. girlfriends Cheating May 5, 2014 at 17:48 Reply

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  2. gzeu May 7, 2014 at 11:08 Reply

    I enjoyed your rebuttal of the original article greatly. Transphobia and misinterpretation of the trans/genderqueer identity movement have been long term issues within the feminist discourse sphere. I am a queer cis-woman, and used to identify as “feminist” but after I did an academic paper on how the medical institution at large treats the issue of intersexed peoples and trans peoples, I decided that “feminist” was no longer an identity I could continue to carry as I read a lot of feminist literature on the subject that was outright hostile to trans/genderqueer identities, and I have not seen the issue resolved within modern feminist discourse.

    I now identify as “queerist”, a term that’s not really “a thing” but rather an ongoing ideology I’m working on developing. Basically, it recognizes the inherent incorrectness of the gender binary while maintaining the legitimacy of trans/intersexed/genderqueer identities.

    That being said, I really enjoy your blog!

  3. […] choice, a conscious decision, is a powerful and very harmful myth. I already alluded to this issue in another article, but without going into the […]

  4. […] See also my answer to trans-exclusive feminist discourse against “cisgender”. […]

  5. Ethan June 25, 2015 at 03:58 Reply

    I appreciate and agree with a lot of what you have said in this article. For the most part it is very well thought out and gets deeply into a hidden part of our society. My only critique is that you said that Transmen don’t seem to exist in this gender oppression. I understand that this was written and published over a year ago and am hopeful that your position on my critique has already shifted. I’m going to say it anyway because it is a huge sickness within our community and maybe we can shed even more light into the darkest corners of our collective Ego.
    As a Transman, my experience has definitely been formed by gender oppression; I was labeled “girl” at birth, raised as a girl complete with Barbie dolls, purses, and all the madness that is women’s fashion. My wife loves that I know that stuff because I can help her accessorize and make informed comments on how different fabrics breathe in different weather. What I was taught as a kid was to be quiet, not show how smart I am because it will cause problems, I learned how to phrase my ideas as questions just to be heard at all & watch my cisgendered male colleagues get the credit and accolades for the idea I had just put forward in the same conversation. Those behaviors are deep within our personalities. The fight Transwomen fight with the world everyday is the same fight we fight inside our own minds. I wonder if the uproar that trans women rightfully make around gender is an expression of their male privileged upbringing; in much the same way we, Transmen tend to fade into the background when there’s open conflict. We have been groomed since birth to initiate change Quitely and Covertly. So, I take offense that even in your article about gender oppression and the fight for visibility you have overlooked and dismissed Transmen. The very thing you fight against is continuously done by Transwomen to Transmen, in my experience.

    • Lucrezia Contarini June 25, 2015 at 12:39 Reply

      Thanks for your comment!

      Can you point out what part of the article you’re reacting to? I don’t remember saying that trans men don’t experience gender oppression. Do you mean the bit where I say “only trans women seem to exist here”? If so, this was the impression I got from the article I was answering, because it did not, in fact, take trans men’s experiences into account. I certainly did not mean that trans men don’t exist or that they don’t experience oppressions, just that TERFs forget they exist.

      As the article says, it is true that some trans women have experienced some amount of conditionnal and partial “male privilege” in their upbringing (as the article recognizes: “Although (i) [material resources received as an infant and child] and (ii) [respect, attention, and intellectual encouragement received as an infant and child] are not necessarily problems experienced by trans women as such (they might be if they discover their trans identity or assert their gender non-conformity early on, however), all the others apply equally to all women, cis or trans.”

      I do notice a pattern of trans men doing more work in the background of trans communities while trans women are much more visible and take the credit, and I do see that as an important issue. However, I would be very careful before saying that it’s the consequence of different upbringings (although maybe it contributes). For starters, some trans women don’t really get the kind of privileged assertive male education this argument assumes, but instead a childhood of transphobic/”homophobic” abuse. Trans women also experience a lot of violence (for instance, the people we see die or be brutalized every so often in the news are overwhelmingly trans women of colour), and that can also lead to being more militant. Anyway. Just saying that there are many factors that contributes to this pattern. I recommend this article btw: https://feministchallengingtransphobia.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/things-are-not-always-what-they-seem-to-a-prejudiced-eye/

      As for the invisibilization of trans men, it’s a fair criticism. That’s partly because that’s where I’m coming from when I talk about these things, but partly because it’s an answer to a transphobic article. First, trans women get the brunt of the violence coming from transphobic feminists, so the experience of trans women has to be defended first. Second, these transphobic feminists tend to invisibilize trans men to start with: as I say at the beginning of the article, other trans experiences that those of trans women are only used to dismiss trans women’s experience. Although it’s a I tried not to replicate that pattern of invisibilisation (I had seen it as a danger, and one that was compounded by the fact that my personnal experience is not that of a trans man), your answer tells me that I did not succeed, and that’s on me. Full apologies :\

      • Ethan June 27, 2015 at 04:47

        Thank you for your response, I appreciate that we can have a thoughtful and respectful dialogue on such a charged subject. I want to respond more fully after I reflect some more. I do want to acknowledge that I misspoke and am deeply sorry that my previous response to your article said, at least by not qualifying my statements, that I wasminimizing or dismissive to the brutality and depravity that Transwomen of color face everyday. And that I seemed blind to the often stark differences in education level and the Grand Canyon level socio-economic divide between virtually all women of color and every one else. My heart breaks that anyone would ever be treated the way these truly heroic women are treated every day. I’m being sincere when I say they are heroines.

        Again, I want to give your response the full consideration it deserves before I respond and given the Historic Events of today I will be out in the streets of San Francisco celebrating our hard fought victory. Happy Pride!

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