I’m writing this in response to some discussions I’ve observed on Twitter between cis and trans women, most of them feminists. I want to write honestly about my own feelings because there is some disjuncture between what I feel and what I actually want to feel. This is an odd post to write because I’m terrified of upsetting people who’ve experienced far greater difficulties than me, plus it’s hardly as though the world is crying out for my personal views on cis and trans identities. On top of that, I don’t want it to be felt that I’m having a moan or comparing forms of discrimination. All the same, I feel like a fraud if I’m sitting there tweeting “fuck off Julie Burchill” and not being totally honest about the gaps in my understanding. In some ways I feel it’s even more cissexist to work on the assumption that a substitute for understanding is silence; I can’t help feeling that buried within this is an even greater assumption of cis superiority.
I am a cis woman. According to Wikipedia, one definition of cisgender is a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity”. Referencing Julia Serano, the entry also describes as cissexual “people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their mental and physical sexes as being aligned”. A quotation from Eli R. Green states that “the term ‘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”. I am sure there is a great deal more I could learn about this. I haven’t learned it yet. This is just where I am.
While I find the idea of “a ‘normative’ gender expression” not being enforced reassuring, words such as “match” and “aligned” unsettle me. I don’t know what they mean in this context. I know I am called a woman, but going along with the words you’ve been given – and we are only ever told there are two, man / woman, nothing more – is not the same as actively consenting to the conditions of their use. It’s not even the same as passive acceptance. I chip away, with partial success, at challenging the definition of what a woman is, but I worry that unless I cling on to some of the inaccurate bits, I’ll be left with nothing and that won’t be allowed in my own environment. I am not passivity, not prettiness, not powerlessness, not reproduction, not nurturing, not domesticity. All of these things should be choices, not womanhood itself. But then what am I? If I am also not my womb, not my vulva, not my hormones, not the sound of my voice, where are the conditions of my womanhood? Are there any at all?
My reproductive system does not define me or make me “more woman” than other women, trans or cis. Nevertheless, the discrimination faced by people who have this reproductive system – in attitudes towards, and experiences of, periods, pregnancy, breastfeeding, abortion, menopause, hysterectomy etc. – is not random but systematic. I think there is a fear – and I share this fear – of not having a name for this in particular. These things have been, and continue to be, a focus for feminism, but I notice that increasingly this focus is perceived to be cissexist. I’m not disputing this - if I’ve got the terminology right (and I’m still working on it), it does seem to me to be cissentialist. Even so, I talk about my own experiences with my physical self in terms of a broader feminist project because I don’t have any other place for them. It’s not meant to be exclusive or defining, but it is. Fertile people with wombs – the leaky, breedy, bleedy people, not necessarily women – have an insurance deal with feminism, but at some stage the terms and conditions will have to be reviewed. They have to be, otherwise it’s not fair. But all the same, we’re scared of losing out.
I’m scared of losing the structures in which I understand and communicate my feminism. I don’t want my feminism to be a feminism that excludes, but I want to know my place in it. I don’t want to look like a caring person, I want to be one, and I don’t know how to do this when it feels like we don’t have enough definitions to go round. I don’t want to admit I’m greedy and protective of words that aren’t mine alone, yet I’m scared that if I let go, I’ll have nothing on standby. Discrimination is reinforced when it’s discrimination for which you don’t have a name; that’s no excuse to jealously guard terms which should not be exclusive, but often it’s why people do it.
Well, those are my thoughts at this stage in my life. I would not be surprised if much of this isn’t a stage people go to before reaching a better understanding of things, but I don’t know how to reach it yet. Right now I don’t feel as though we have enough words for who each of us are, or perhaps by having two – man, woman – we have too many already.