Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nonsense is as Nonsense Does

As a companion to my new post on Below the Belt about use of the term "cis," I thought I'd amplify my issues with helen boyd's recent post on (en)Gender ("Jeez Louise this cisgendered nonsese": nothing dismissive there, nope!) about her objections to the term, as I found the post highly problematic for a number of reasons.

First, she claims that "cis" is unclear, because you can't tell if it means cisgendered or cissexual:
[...]I’m going to claim a difference between cisgender & cissexual. Cisgender, the problem seems to me, is not the easy opposite of transgender. Cisgender implies, or means, or could mean (depending on who you talk to), that someone’s sex and gender are concordant. So your average butch woman, who is not trans, or is, depending on how she feels about it (see Bear Bergman), is now somehow cisgender. So is someone like me. So is a femme-y gay man who maybe performs a more gender normative masculinity for his job. That is, those of us who have variable genders, who maybe are gender fluid or gender neutral but who don’t identify as trans, are now somehow cisgender.
I have a number of issues with this. For one thing, she does not make the same objection about "trans": that is, when we use trans, there's no clear indication as to what kind of trans person you are talking about: crossdresser, drag queen (yes, some are trans), transsexual, etc. So it demands something more from the term cis than is demanded from trans, which in of itself is an act of privilege.

But I also don't think that the division between cissexual and cisgender is clear, or even as important as helen (and Julia Serano) make it out to be. Yes, I know, it seems so logical: we make a division between sex and gender, so we should make a similar axis for trans and cis.

On closer inspection, however, it simply does not hold up. There are trans people, for example, who live fulltime in a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, with legal recognition of that gender, who have never had either hormones or surgery. Yet I feel more than comfortable calling them transsexual. And this just points out another issue: it puts so much focus on a transsexual's body, and not his or her gender--and that plays far too easily into the very ways that anti-trans people attempt to invalidate trans people's genders. Finally, I've met many trans people of all stripes, and all have had some sort of body issue that the cis people I know simply don't have--the motivations are completely different. Both a straight man and a heterosexual crossdresser might pluck their eyebrows: but only the crossdresser does it to look more like a woman. So even if we were to accept that cissexual is a valid distinction, it is experienced quite differently by cis- and transgendered people.

The key point for me is that you have to be transgendered to be transsexual. That is, transsexuality is a phenomenon within the larger trans condition. It is a variety of trans experience, not an essential axis of being. Therefore, I think it is safe to say that in the absence of other qualifiers, "cis" means cisgendered and "trans" means transgendered.

So, taking helen's two examples, can we call them "cisgendered"? I think we can, because both a butch lesbian and an effeminate gay man don't ever identify as a gender other than they were assigned. That is, a butch calls herself a woman, a queeny gay man calls himself a man. And when they stop--we call them something else.
Telling me, & other partners whose lives are profoundly impacted by the legal rights / cultural perceptions of trans people, that we are “not trans” implies that we are also not part of the trans community. I’ve been saying for years now that we are. When trans people are killed, harassed, not hired, fired due to discrimination, denied health care, etc. etc. etc., their loved ones suffer along with them. Their families, their lovers, their kids especially. We are not just “allies.” We are vested, dammit, & a part of the trans community, so when “cisgender” comes to mean, or is used to mean, “not part of the trans community,” we are once again left out in the dark. This is an extraordinary statement and I am struggling to understand why it was said.

First, I'd have a lot easier time figuring it out had helen not ended her post with this:
I have lots of genders, but I’m not trans.
So...this is only a problem if trans people say it?

Second, replace "trans" with "in a wheelchair" in that paragraph and you can see how this starts to get queasy for me.

What do we mean by "community"? When we say "gay community" or "deaf community," do we mean allies and families of gay or deaf people, or only those who are gay or deaf? I think the usage is often contextual, but most commonly we mean only those members who have the trait being discussed. And with good reason, because while an ally may simply stop being an ally--friendships can end, married people can be divorced, a person's political alignment may change--for the person with the trait it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to remove that trait. I don't think it is uncalled for to make the primary meaning of community those people who have the greatest self-interest in it.

This leads us to another of helen's points:
Likewise, cisgender seems to get used a lot in place of “ignorant or unsympathetic to trans issues” which is also bullshit. Being cisgender or experiencing cissexual privilege – say by having a doctor assume correctly that I have a uterus – is not the same thing as being ignorant or unsympathetic to trans issues.
The exclusion and silencing of allies is a problem for all progressive movements, not just trans movements: witness the problematic relationships between men and feminists, for example. Some people certainly make attempts to cold-shoulder cis people from trans discussions, and often this is hurtful and unnecessary. At the same time, however, we should recognize that a movement needs both safe spaces and leaders from within its primary constituency: I call this the "no male president of NOW" theory. And just as straight or white people can condescend, obstruct, or even derail gay or black rights movements, cis people can do the same in trans movements, and trans people are well within their rights to talk about it and safeguard the goals of their movements.

This doesn't mean, however, that use of the term cis means open season on trashing allies. Trashing is a serious problem for any movement; bell hooks talks at length about this in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Trans people have a responsibility to make sure that they use the term responsibly, and not just as a shorthand for "bigot." But cis people have a responsibility too--to listen to trans people, and not get so caught up on a point of terminology that they use silencing tactics wholesale to shut down discussion. Men didn't like the term "male privilege" but feminists insisted on it because it was a valuable concept that made visible a previously invisible prejudice; and while sometimes people used it in an irresponsible or even hateful way, the term has entered our discourse and is an important part of everyday discussions about gender.
i guess the point is that there are women, & gay men, who actually have legitimate & well thought out reasons for objecting to the term [...] so if all these explanations of why some people criticize the term or how it’s used, only convinces some trans people that anyone who is uncomfortable being called cis is (1) ignorant, (2) unhip, and (3) unwittingly transphobic, then i guess there’s been no point whatsoever in explaining that maybe people have their reasons, & that none of them have anything to do with being any of those things.

which i suppose means i should go ahead & go back to using “tranny” since i think it’s playful & sweet, & to hell with any trans people who don’t like being called that, because obviously they’re just (1) unhip, (2) ignorant, and (3) self hating.

This comment was addressed to me on the discussion boards at helen's site. But the thing is, and as I argued there, there really haven't been any good reasons to object: just people who feel that they're being called bigots, or saying that they don't identify as cis and thus the term shouldn't be used--on them, or really, on anyone.

But both arguments fail. First, it is not clear that every use of the term cis is conflated with "transphobic bigot"; plenty of feminist and progressive sites use the word every day in its primary meaning, "the opposite of trans." And yet I don't see posts by helen directed at Liss McEwan at Shakespeare's Sister, for example. It only seems to be problematic when trans people use the term. Now, the argument can be made that trans people use it the most more often in a problematic way. And I'll agree, but always with the caveat that trans people are also going to be the ones with the greatest understanding of cis privilege, and will call people out on it more frequently than others will. After all, who uses male privilege more often? Feminists or non-feminist guys? So yes, the most problematic uses of "male privilege" will be by feminists, but there will also be a much higher volume of overall use.

And it's not as if there isn't any oppression here or anything. That can make people upset.

The other argument is that cis is an identity. But it's not; as I said on Below the Belt, it's a descriptive term, like trans. That trans has more in common with an identity is purely a function of the oppression and disprivileging of trans people, just as it is with being black, or disabled. We use terms like "identify as trans" because there is a step you have to take, an identification you have to make: you have to reject the dominant culture's discourse about who you are--perverted, subhuman, crippled, and instead find a positive strength in who you are. Trans isn't an identity: it is the act of being trans, of being unashamed for what you are, that is the act of identification.

I mean, we don't talk about whiteness or being able as identities: and neither is being cis.

So all we are left with, then, is a really elaborate tone argument. And a tone argument is never an acceptable objection--it's a silencing technique. (As is helen's idea that the word only be used in an "appropriate" context, like a classroom.) And make no mistake, that's what's happening here. By telling trans people that there can be no word for people who aren't trans, we are being told that we are so unique and so different that we are the pure exception of the human race; that every other oppressed group gets to have de-centering language (sighted, able, hearing, straight) but we don't. That it is impossible to talk about not being trans without mentioning being trans. (Quick: I can write an article about dating as a straight woman, put straight in the title or the first paragraph, and never mention lesbians anywhere; that is impossible to do with a term like "non-trans.") And what happens when there is no term for non-trans? Simple. All too often, when people are talking about being non-trans, they will simply not even mention it: they will remain comfortably normal.

I am neither alien nor monster. I am not permanently othered by the accident of being born. And I will not accept a permanent second-class existence in the world simply because a three-letter word pisses some people off.


  1. I do think she almost makes a valid point about ally communities, but not about the language we should use to describe them.

    Cisgendered butch women and girly men are affected by violence against the trans community, because the horrible bigots who do such things conflate the communities. So yes butch cis women can have a personal vested interest in violence against the trans community.

    HOWEVER, one instance of overlapping oppression does not mean that as allies WE should conflate issues. I'm a heterosexual woman. I have hairy legs, hairy armpits, I don't put up with cat calls, I am an ally to the LGBT movement.

    People often assume I'm a lesbian when they meet me, or if they just see me walking down the street. I have a VESTED interest in people not harrassing lesbians by yelling "dyke" or "fag" or telling them "you just need one good cock and you'll change." I am harrassed as well. But that doesn't mean I'm not straight.

    I still have a lot of straight privilige. I can bring a date in public without fear, I never had to come out to my parents, (though they do wish I would femme it up a bit). I can always tell those people, "actually I do date men" and it can diffuse the situation.

    So even if butch cis-women or girly cis-men are sometimes oppressed by the same structures as trans individuals, it does not mean their experiences are the same. Or that cis-privilige doesn't exist at all for them.

  2. Much shorter helen boyd: "I don't like language marking me as privileged on any axis!" She is not part of the trans community any more than me having married a black woman makes me part of the black community and I resent the shit out of her claim that she is. It's up to me to be the best ally I can, but nothing in the world is going to erase the fact that I got white privilege.

  3. @nakedthoughts: Yes, exactly. If there is a point to what I've written on this blog so far (which may be assuming waaay too much!), it's that privilege is a complex topography not simply reducible to "pyramids" or whatever other structure you want to use. We all have axes of privilege, and the more we are aware of, the better we can pinpoint where we lie in that topography. And that, generally, is a good thing...if like me you want to tear the whole thing down :)

    @Moira: helen has been and should continue to be a good ally, but yeah, that part was extraordinarily out there, and it needed comment. I don't want to put a beat-down on her, but the whole post just was so weird that I thought it deserved comment. Extended comment, it would seem.

  4. If there is a point to what I've written on this blog so far (which may be assuming waaay too much!), it's that privilege is a complex topography not simply reducible to "pyramids" or whatever other structure you want to use.

    Because I'm really nerdy like that and did math way back when, I use an n-dimensional non-orthogonal vector space as a metaphor for privilege. Each axis interacts with all the others in complicated, non-linear ways.

  5. You'd like my Bastille Day post, then, Moira--it has an illustration of a an illustration of kyriarchy :)