Stuff that Makes No Sense — And Most Cis People Don’t Know

This will be shorter than usual, but I think no one will blame me.

By “most cis people don’t know”, I mean that they don’t live any of this, never have to think about it either, because cis people don’t feel the weight of cisnormativity on a daily basis. In effect, most cis people have no way of knowing how ridiculous our society is in some ways unless a trans* person tells them. This is something I have observed while doing our petition for trans* rights. However, it still affects them in various ways all the same, because cisnormativity is strongly linked to pure sexism, to patriarchy, to gender as a structure, to the enforcement of identity.

It makes no sense that only the way to call people whose name is unknown is to assign them a gender. “Sir, you dropped your pen.” “Have a little change, ma’am?” “Miss, what time is it?” To most cis people, this is unnoticed (except perhaps “ma’am”/”miss”, because it also assigns an age category), but it is not by trans* people. And even in cis people, this reinforces gender as a structure, by reminding everyone that there is a structure and where they are in it (or rather where they are forcefully placed).

It makes no sense that centralized government police individual identity. No matter how many people use my real name, only the word of the government seems authorize random people use it. Individuality, in our society, is not a subjective experience: it is taken as an objective reality, incrusted in and enforced by official records. At my bank, you can’t change your legal gender, your name, even your title of address, nothing, without documents from the government. If someone writes me a check, either it will be invalid, or I will need to reveal my status as a trans woman and state my legal name. So I have to get through ridiculous procedures just to be recognized as who I am. Because no one believes anything about you if the state says the contrary.

It makes no sense that public bathrooms be entirely identified with gender separation. At the moment, how to you know where are the restrooms? Look for gendered symbols. A “woman” sign will never lead to a gynecologist or a women-only feminist committee, or a “man” sign to information about prostate cancer or a barber shop. No. A gendered sign means “bathroom for this gender”. The identification is so strong that people seem to have forgotten that there are ways to say that something is a bathroom without gendering them. Like, you know, saying “bathroom” on the door. Proof of all this: gendered single-occupancy bathrooms placed next to one another. If only one person can go in, why the gender sign? And if you don’t have enough people to need large bathrooms with multiple stalls, why have two of them at all in the first place, except to create a gender separation? Defining public bathrooms as fundamentally gendered is pretty strange.

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6 thoughts on “Stuff that Makes No Sense — And Most Cis People Don’t Know

  1. gwynfrid May 17, 2014 at 14:07 Reply

    Hi,

    First I’d like to thank you for your blog. As a “cis” person (a word I learned reading you on GitP forums), I was remarkably ignorant and therefore dismissive of issues faced by transgender people. Now I’m a little less ignorant, and I can sympathize with the painful situations and feelings that trans folks have to live through on a daily basis. That’s progress on the personal level, so, you have my gratitude for that.

    This post was particularly enlightening for me, as it illustrates things that I would never have otherwise become cognizant of. your points #1 and #3 are eye-openers.

    I’ll take the liberty to disagree with your point #2, on the other hand. I believe the certification of individual identify by government is critical to our economy, safety, and even, to a degree, to personal freedom. Reliable identification is necessary in a society that is built on trust, because trust only works when those who would betray it can be held to account. Without identification – and without government to enforce it – your ability to drive around freely and safely; to receive high-quality, taxpayer-subsidized health care (you’re a Canadian, if I’m not mistaken); to travel beyond your country’s borders with minimal hassle; to receive education all the way up to a nationally and even internationally recognized diploma; to pay for most purchases with a piece of plastic, including the convenience of doing so online with zero human intervention; all these things we take for granted would disappear or be at least severely compromised in a world with uncertain identification. This is why it is so important that you have a name, that it is intentionally difficult to change, and that its use is regulated by law.

    An alternative to government-controlled names would be to have a universal record of DNA-based identification accessible by police, border officers, and any commercial businesses. I’m not sure this would be an enhancement to personal freedom for anybody.

    So, I would suggest replacing #2 with a much more narrow definition : It is strange and unnecessary that the vast majority of first names carry automatic gender identification. What do you think?

    Best regards
    Gwynfrid

    • Lucrezia Contarini May 17, 2014 at 16:03 Reply

      Government doesn’t need your name, especially not your first name. It already doesn’t use it if it can avoid it because it’s much too ambiguous. To the government, I am, we are numbers, specific codes (some of which are gendered, but that’s another issue). Same thing at the bank and everywhere you need to be distinguished from other people.

      It’s important to have the right name on the right file, but why the government monopoly here? Why does everyone need to know the government agrees? Why couldn’t I just go to the bank and ask to have the right name, the one I actually use? After all, they don’t need to when I change my adress or phone number. As I said, if I commit a fraud, they won’t care about my name, they’ll use my social insurance number to stick it to the right person.

      Oh, and sure, the fact that names are gendered is an issue, but it’s another discussion 🙂

      • gwynfrid May 20, 2014 at 20:31

        Thanks for your answer. I appreciate the discussion, as it lets me understand the issue better, hopefully.

        Your perspective is valid, but I submit that it is a very Canadian or North American one. Not every country uses NIS or equivalent to refer to people in every aspect of life. Come to think of it, even in Canada, I don’t think your NIS is referenced on your passport and driving license, right? Where I come from, the NIS equivalent is only used for health insurance and pretty much no other purpose – definitely not for banking.

        As for why the government should have a monopoly on this, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I believe the difference is cultural, to a degree. Being from Europe, I have a greater confidence in a democratic government than in a business or any other organization, unless proven otherwise. I understand that by and large, the Canadian approach is different.

        Government or not, some sort of central authority needs to agree to a unique ID method, and it’s all the more useful if it’s universal. This consists, in most places, to a combo of name + date of birth + gender (and yes I fully realize how problematic that last portion is). All things that one can’t change easily, are not too prone to error, and are easily understood and communicated by most. The alternative is either use an unchangeable number or go straight to DNA or biometric means. I’m afraid the remedy would be worse than the problem.

        The problem is of course for those who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Some countries have begun to allow for recording “other” as gender. Would you take that as an acceptable solution?

      • Lucrezia Contarini May 21, 2014 at 09:24

        I have little confidence on businesses, but they have no reason not to use the right name. If transphobia is a reason, well, anti-discrimination laws are there for that.

        We are already identified by numbers on computer systems and in physical archives, whether we want it or not. We just don’t always know these numbers and they are not always communicated. Name, etc., is used as a reference to these numbers. Even when the code is name+DOB+gender, there are random numbers at the end to make sure everyone has a different number.

        In Canada, social insurance number is indeed not displayed everywhere. There are different codes for different purposes. I have at least five at the government, all different, not all with my name, date of birth or gender obvious in any way. That’s not counting other institutions with account or identification numbers, including my bank, my university, the several libraries I go to, etc. To them, I’m that number. Every action I take is associated with that number, not with my name. Any other information is used to ensure it is, indeed, the account of the person trying to access it. They don’t necessarily use name for authenfication. Apart from picture on special ID or PIN, you can be asked for your adress, postal code, telephone number, or secret identity questions. Putting barriers to name-change makes the authenfication process unduly difficult for some people, including trans people. We are not the only people not to use their official name, btw. It’s just that in our case, it is a source of discrimination.

        Why do we need a central authority for identity? Everyone uses their own records, not central records. Even the government has fragmented records — when I did my name change, I had a form to fill in to warn various ministries that my name would change. The problem is not that the government knows your name, but rather that no one believes it’s your name unless the government has the same. Another problem being that the government has ridiculous standards for accepting new names.

        “Other” is better than nothing for some (but not for transgender people), so long as it’s by choice, in order not to single out and mark intersex people from birth and expose them to discrimination. But I have another article on gender registration specifically.

  2. […] (and as a result), daily social interaction rely on gender. I already addressed the fact that terms of address are mandatorily gendered in another article, but language is problematic way beyond that. Terms of address are easily changed — as in […]

  3. gwynfrid May 23, 2014 at 18:24 Reply

    Sure, every system uses their own number ID. But the ID to rule them all is name+DOB+gender. That’s what everybody will go to when everything else breaks and it’s the only way to bring the various IDs together. Doing so might never be necessary, but the mere fact that it is possible is enough to enable the society of trust that we rely on.

    That said… I’m no expert in these things, so I might be completely out to lunch here. It’s just that I don’t see how a society where everybody picks their own name and potentially changes it according to the context of use (different name for bank, driving license, passport?) could possibly work.

    In other words… “The problem is not that the government knows your name, but rather that no one believes it’s your name unless the government has the same” true, but it’s a feature not a bug.

    I don’t want to sound dismissive of your concerns. They’re absolutely valid and real. But I don’t think the solution is doing away with a key structure.

    (Off to read your post about gender registration…)

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