This article is directed only at people who identify as cisgender. It is not intended to advise, address or speak to transgender people. I would hope the larger questions here would be of interest to all, but I am not attempting to enter the transgender conversation. I’m seeking to talk about the way cisgender functions in the lives of the people it is applied to, both those who are and those who are not actually cis.
Additionally, I fully understand that cisgender privilege is always present and always doing damage. I’d like to offer my thanks to the folks who have advised me to make changes and correct errors in this article since it was first published. Addition input is welcome.
Eli R. Green has written in the Journal of Lesbian Studies that, “cisgendered is used [instead of the more popular gender normative] to refer to people who do not identify with a gender diverse experience, without enforcing existence of a normative gender expression.”
Green’s is a key argument for why cisgender is such a valuable shift in language; because it does not privilege one form of gender expression over another as being normative. We need to do away with terms like gender normative. What we are seeking to create is a view of gender which holds all expressions of gender as equally valid, equally “normal.” All forms.
The American Psychological Association has this to say about the term transgender:
Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity (sense of themselves as male or female) or gender expression differs from that usually associated with their birth sex. Many transgender peo- ple live part-time or full-time as members of the other gender. Broadly speaking, anyone whose identity, appearance, or behavior falls outside of conventional gender norms can be described as transgender. However, not everyone whose appearance or behavior is gender-atypical will identify as a transgender person.
Rest assured, there is an ongoing and fierce debate regarding gender and its implications. All terms in the conversation are open to interpretation. That said, we can still approach a conversation about the cisgender designation, which I would suggest is burdened with two challenges.
The first challenge takes place when cisgender is assigned by one person to another, and the second challenge is simply in the intended meaning of the term.
Labeling People cisgender Who Actually Are
The designation cisgender is one of the few cases in which an oppressed group (transgender people and their allies) have requested to designate a preferred label for another group (non transgender people). Adopting the label of cisgender is central to supporting trans people, who are under constant threat from rampant and violent expression of transphobia; transphobia which, by the way, keeps many gender fluid people firmly in the closet.
But, accepting the cisgender label as a way to support trans people can come with a cost. It can lead to a parallel disempowerment of cis people; as privileged, dominant and oppressing of trans people. For some, this translates into justification for dismissal and silencing of people labeled as cis.
A friend of mine recently posted this comment:
“What I’m hearing a lot of right now, both here and on other social media platforms, is that my voice and my story don’t matter. Because I am a cis white woman in my 30s. So I should just shut up and sit down. Because I don’t ‘get it,’ I’m hurting more than helping, I’m part of the problem not the solution. And I see this happening to a LOT of really wonderful passionate men and women. And that’s not ok! And it’s also why nothing ever changes, nothing ever gets accomplished.”
Some cisgender people view the assigning of the cisgender label to others as a political necessity. They are adamant that others adopt that label or fall short in the battle for transgender rights. But, it is when others are badgered or coerced into accepting the label that the line between activism and aggression is crossed. In that moment, cisgender advocates are doing damage to the very trans causes they support.
In labeling others as cis, we bring our own privilege into play within the framework of that political space. In that moment, by not inquiring, we are enforcing our view of gender. This is a show of dominance, and a show of dominance is a show of privilege. Period.
There is justifiable rage about the lives being destroyed by violent abusive transphobia. It is completely understandable that transgender people are not always inclined to allow cis people free access to their conversations. This is why I’m making a point to direct this article at cisgender people only. I respect the central idea that the transgender community needs to find its own path forward.
But we must acknowledge the assumptions people will make when I say this. The dominant assumption would be that I am cis; which, given my public performance of gender, is understandable. But I may also be saying this in order to protect my status as a closeted transgender person. To ignore that possibility is to miss a huge blind spot in the conversation about cisgender in America.
Labeling People cisgender Who Actually Aren’t
A person’s public performance of gender does not necessarily match their private performance. Given the degree to which we police and punish gender nonconformity here in America, a great percentage of people are likely to perform gender differently in private; some to small degrees, some to much greater degrees. In the heat of the conversation about gender, is important to mark the distinction between privilege and “passing privilege”; the ability to pass for cisgender when in private, a person is actually transgender.
How do we make room for those people in the gender conversation without forcing them to out themselves?
Transgender people can remain hidden; looking and behaving cis for decades without anyone ever knowing. They can hide from their own children, their own spouses, and in some cases, they can even hide from themselves.
In America, we are all under intense pressure to perform gender in ways that are cis conformist. We know we’ll be punished economically, socially and/or physically for failing to do so; up to and including being murdered.
And yet, in the heat of advocating for trans issues, if we declare cis to be the proper label that another person should adopt, we miss the opportunity to inquire, to engage, to understand. We run the shocking risk of labeling a closeted transgender person cis, which closes down the conversation, silences a trans person and drives a simplistic destructive binary even further into our conversations about gender in America.
(To learn more about how we closely police the male performance of gender here in the U.S., read Charlie Glickman’s excellent explanation of the Man Box.)
The Line That Doesn’t Exist
The laudable intention of the term cisgender is to “normalize” all gender designations, but in order to do so it must indicate a dividing line between trans and cis people. There is no such line. The ambiguity and fluidity of gender performance in human beings makes us all capable of moving along the continuum at will. It is our social and cultural rules that limit our movement, not our natures.
Furthermore, even if we could witness the most private performances of gender by people around us, the possibility of conclusively placing them in one category or another is by no means assured.
For example, consider a cross-dressing heterosexual man. Would a man who performs gender in this way be transgender or cisgender? Does he/she dress to express an otherwise suppressed female identity or is cross dressing a fetishistic expression of the male self with no true female identity being manifested? It can be one or the other, or a blend of the two.
What about frequency of behavior? Is one gender bending moment enough to define one’s status? Ten? One hundred? A thousand? A lifetime of hidden moments? Where is the line drawn that validates a gender performance as transgender?
Accordingly, since we can not:
- Know most people’s private performance of gender, (or aspirations for performance that may not yet have manifested)
- Nor define the definitive status of a person as being exclusively cis or trans…
…there is only one context in which the cisgender label is morally and politically acceptable. This is when someone willingly and without coercion assigns cisgender to themselves.
Otherwise, we are policing others based on their public gender performances, the burden of proof falling on individuals who must either out themselves as non-cis or risk being relegated to “unearned privilege” status in transgender community conversations. In this context, cis status takes on an rigid political frame, assigning by default cisgender to anyone who does not provide an acceptable public gender performance which proves otherwise.
What About Encouraging Play, Experimentation, Exploration?
One of the causalities of how we use language in the war against transphobia, is the loss of the lighter, more joyful discussion of gender play and gender experimentation. We are suppressing the wider ranging encouragement of people to perform gender in the grey areas between cis and transgender.
The implications of how we have languaged the gender conversation, the political necessity of defining privilege, clarifying groups and exerting influence over meanings has diminished the spaces in which we can collectively play with our own view of gender. The conversation has become so polarizing, that people are afraid to ask, to inquire, to explore. And that’s not just cis people. That’s transgender people, too, many of which have lived a lifetime in relative isolation.
How we categorize people, impacts their most intimate relationships. In naming ourselves or other in our lives as belonging in some specific category, we risk narrowing the potential range of gender performances possible. What if we could instead define our gender as a range of expression, that shifts and changes as we explore and experience it?
Dr. Saliha Bava, a researcher and couple and family therapist in New York City talks about the role of sense making and meaning in how we name and categorize things:
In support of trans, cis was created. But this categorization, this sense making, places us in a binary instead of accentuating a spectrum, and as such, is hugely problematic. Binary making is one form of categorization. Categorization is needed to make sense. When categorization takes the form of binary making, it is at the root of why we continue to struggle as we organize our ideas about the world and our experiences. The challenge for us as humans, in issues of class, race, and gender, is in our tendency to categorize in binary ways exclusively. The challenge is how to move on, how to go on together, without relying on the need for this binary category making and naming.
The key here is to resist the urge to name things instead of automatically relying on naming. And if needed, hold these names lightly, maintaining the flexible both/and stances that allow us to be held by complexity and honor difference.
The political is personal. It is relational. Labels can shut down political, social and sexual dialogues, equally. Accordingly, couples need to find a language that works for them….that is freeing and expansive; language that has the potential to grow their desire and relationship. If we, as partners, label one another using the language created by others, language designed to create categories, we risk shutting down the exploration we need to create a fulfilling relationship where one feels seen, heard and held for our emerging gender identities.
How we language and categorize gender performance is crucial to how we create spaces within our relationships. Desire is a space, not just a feeling or activity. For instance, if a man likes to wear heels as part of his sexual play and his female partner plays along, and, he doesn’t label himself as Trans or cis; it remains simply sexual play for them. But what if the female partner refers to him as Trans and he doesn’t identify with that category? Suddenly he is forced to orient himself in relation to that category. He shifts. He changes. Perhaps something is lost.
We need to learn when to let go of categories that don’t serve to open up and expand our exploration of gender in both our private and public spaces. Sometimes naming can be useful but it loses its usefulness when it limits who we can become.
Accordingly, Dr. Bava offers the following proposals for cisgender use etiquette:
- Ask, don’t assign.
- Don’t force the person to say why the don’t want to identify as cisgender.
- Share your meaning of cis and ask others what they mean by it.
Dr. Bava’s message is clear. Where language is concerned, it should help to explore our ideas about gender, not limit or calcify them. In holding language lightly, and allowing for the both/and we can free ourselves to live richer more diverse lives.
Here’s my suggestion: genderall.
I’m completely in support of those who would happily self assign the label cisgender. But for those who would prefer not to, for any one of a number of reasons, one solution would be to self assign an intentionally ambiguous AND intentionally inclusive gender status. I would humbly like to suggest genderall.
This can be an transgender ally position that leaves our status undefined, giving people a space in which they can both undermine the normative/nonnormative binary while also changing the political implications of their participation in the trans rights conversation. By removing the implied unearned privilege of cis from our status, genderall people become explorers, advocates and activists in the journey to redefine what gender means.
This third category would also reduce the numbers of those who, by virtue of their public performance of gender, are simply dumped into the cis category. We need a more proactive stance, that instead of calcifying our place in the gender spectrum asserts our right to support the mystery, fluidity and discovery of gender. The genderall label, or something like it, would allow us to politicize the right to be everything that gender is, a space which will always hold what we are, no matter how that grows and changes over time.
Meanwhile, I hope we can all go forward with a more fully realized sense of awe about the magic and mystery of gender. In this way, we might set aside our assumptions and take a more inquiring curious stance. The conversation about gender is deserving of nothing less.
This article would not be possible without the tireless advice and collaboration of Dr. Saliha Bava, a couples and family therapist who is in private practice in New York City. I’d also like to offer additional thanks to Lisa Hickey for her thoughts and ideas.
Photo by: Kate Ter Haar
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