It was the free eyeliner that did it. After over a year of avoidance I caved in and bought a copy of Glamour and yes, it’s as rubbish as it ever was (but “hey, it’s okay if your new sandals require strategically placed plasters to be wearable”. So, there’s that).

Peak Glamour Rubbishness comes on page 91, with a piece by Stephen Armstrong on “girl envy” (yes, I know). It’s one of those sleazy, sugar-coated MRA-in-disguise articles that tells you “hey ladies, you’re so great, what with your ability to multi-task, always look perfect, bear my children and do lots of shitty jobs so that I don’t have to!” Gee, thanks. Always good to know my subjugation is appreciated.

The piece goes on for three pages, providing plenty of choice nonsense to pick from. My particular faves include Armstrong quoting a fellow journalist, George, on what women are like once they’ve had given birth:

Mid-life crisis? Women have no time for that shit. From the outside, pregnancy looks like a nine-month crash course in the meaning of life. We men, on the other hand, seem destined to spend our late forties seeking enlightenment in Lycra that doesn’t fit, on carbon fibre bikes we can’t afford, doing triathlons. Yes, childbirth might do us a favour.

Yes, George. That is EXACTLY what it’s like. Post-natal depression? Never heard of it. Unhappy mothers in their late forties? Don’t exist. And then there’s Armstrong himself on why it looks like we ladies are “having a lot more fun”:

When we see you across the room – through a bustling party, in a high-powered meeting, back to the table after 15 minutes in the powder room or walking towards the bed – there’s something about the way you move, your mischievous smile, the smart joke and the totally sorted view of what’s needed that stops our heart and catches our breath.

It’s at this point you start to wonder whether Armstrong has met any women in real life or bases his whole reading of half the human race on TV adverts and rom coms. Certainly, he doesn’t seem to think women have an inner life in the way that men do. We don’t have any of those messy crises. We don’t feel conflicted or challenged or incompetent. We just sashay across the room, spreading sweetness and light, making everyone feel better with our “totally sorted view”. Jesus Christ. Thank god we’re not actual real, live people since that would really make things inconvenient for Stephen and George. (more…)

So yes, I’m writing another – another – post on the word “cis”. Everybody quake in fear! But I’ve had so many useful comments, which have given me so much food for thought, that I’d like to get them all out and see what happens.

The other reason is the previous post is based on personal pain. It was, as these things are, read as competitive. I felt hurt; other people felt hurt. This is an attempt to be more dispassionate and to explain why, as far as I can see, the term “cis” isn’t working – and why we need to allow non-trans women to define themselves on their own terms:

1 Cis is not a necessary alternative to trans

Many people find it hard to see what is wrong with this statement:

anyone not trans is cis

But what if someone said this:

“anyone not Muslim is Christian”

It doesn’t make any sense, does it? The fact that being a Muslim is predicated on having a religious belief does not mean that anyone who is not a Muslim must have a different religious belief, let alone one specified by you.

You could amend the first statement to:

“anyone not trans is cis or non-binary or genderfluid or two-spirit etc.”

However, then the equivalent would be:

“anyone not Muslim is Christian or Hindu or Sikh or Jewish etc.”

There is quite clearly something missing: the space for people who do not wish to be defined by these belief systems at all. In the case of the former statement, that would be a huge number of feminists, with good reason.

I am not religious. I don’t define myself as an atheist any more than I define myself as a “not believer in fairies”. I just don’t wish to define myself in relation to religion in any way, shape or form. Does it mean I don’t believe Muslims are Muslims? Of course not. Similarly, does not identifying as cis mean I don’t believe trans people are trans? Clearly not. Nor does it mean that I am agender (I am female and I am a woman. Gender does not come into it). An absence of belief is not the erasure of someone else’s. On the other hand, the demand that someone actively endorses your worldview by declaring themselves a believer or risk being deemed a bigot and subjected to ongoing threats and abuse … well, what would you call that?

2 It’s morally unacceptable to demand that another person swears allegiance to a belief system they experience as harmful

This is what is being done when feminists who do not believe in gender as anything other than a construct are ordered to identify as cis. It is not merely unfair; it is cruel, a cruelty which is intensified when the consequences of not submitting are to be declared a hateful bigot and a TERF. There are non-trans women whose experience of gender is contained only within the harm that has been done to them and others. It’s not okay to then tell them that they just don’t “get” gender or that “real gender” is totally distinct from gender oppression and stereotyping. If they do not experience or believe that, merely being faced with such statements is traumatising. Gender has an absolutely real and valid meaning for them and to suggest that any attachment to this meaning encroaches on the space of someone more oppressed is manipulative and untrue. This is not about hierarchies of suffering, it is about the integrity of meanings to people who are traumatised in different but equally deplorable ways.

3 Individuals should have the freedom to identify with any gender – or none

This is linked to the previous two points and it is that basic: to be cisgendered has no meaning to someone who does not experience themselves as gendered in any way other than by the gaze of others. Indeed, to enforce cisgendered status on someone who feels this way is to double up the oppression; it’s asking someone to confess to an experience that they themselves do not believe in, in effect, to own up to ignorance of their own selves and submit to the higher authority of those who “know” their gender better (trans people will be familiar with how awful this feels, but so too will most AFAB women, who experience this in various ways from the moment they are born).

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Fred McConnell described gender as “one’s innate sense of self”. I don’t know what this means. This does not mean I am deficient or ignorant. It means I don’t think that’s what gender is. Hence when McConell says “cisgender […] refers to those whose sex and gender do match” I am 100% sure that I am not cis. I don’t experience this matching but nor do I experience a sense of allegiance with any other gender construct. It should not matter to anyone else that I don’t. It is not their business.

4 Trans women should not depend on non-trans women for self-definition

Why the hell should they even want to? My not-cis-ness says nothing about your trans-ness. You don’t need me as a foil to offer validation. You are your own person.

If we were to push this to its logical conclusion, we could say that one of us is right and one of us is wrong. Either gender exists as an innate sense of self or it doesn’t. Either God exists or he doesn’t. Why, exactly, would we want to push it to this degree? Will we ever get a final answer, a voice from on high? No. I don’t care if you don’t. Moreover this is not the same as me saying “you’re not the man or woman you say you are” (I think this can be particularly hard to grasp, not least due to the oppressive conditions under which trans people have to define themselves, but it’s true).

5 Evidence of innate difference is not evidence of innate gender difference

Or rather, it only is if you’re already someone who believes in gender as an essence rather than merely a construct. This is very straightforward but I don’t think this can be stressed enough. It is frankly absurd that radical feminists get termed flat-earthers and anti-scientific simply because they refuse to make the leap of faith that says, for instance, that evidence of different brain patterns in trans people can be linked to the concepts “male” and “female”. If other people want to make that leap, that’s up to them, but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with scientific proof. I believe Jesus existed. I also believe he was an amazing man. Is that evidence for the existence of a Christian God? No. Believing in God involves bringing together faith and evidence to form a coherent narrative. People who don’t have faith in gender won’t produce the same narrative in response to biological difference as those who do. We should be able to live with that. It’s only a problem when evidence of biological difference is used to justify gender-based oppression (which it has been, again and again). In these instances, an agnostic position on gender and biology surely seems the fairest way to proceed.

6 Beliefs are not the same as social and cultural privilege

It is self-evident that trans people suffer enormous amounts of discrimination and rejection. This does not mean that being an AFAB woman is a privilege in and of itself. In a society which continually dehumanises women it simply cannot be. Moreover, if you do not experience gender as anything innate, you do not suddenly have the choice to align yourself with the dominant gender. It’s not some liberating free-for-all. You’re just an AFAB woman dealing with a world that presents “womanhood” as something you are not.

Some trans women may think that non-trans women owe them – that our right to define womanhood on our terms is trumped by their greater suffering. Certainly, tweets such as this would suggest it:

faulty term

But such a view has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth of anyone’s experience of gender or womanhood. If you are a child who wants people to lie about their feelings so that you feel better, perhaps this is an okay solution. The rest of us would rather ask for cultural change and social acceptance for everyone. Such external acceptance would include you – but when it comes to self-acceptance, you have to do that on your own.

7 It’s important to distinguish between non-believers and extremists

Most violence against trans men and women is committed not by gender non-believers but gender extremists – AMAB men who cannot cope with the idea of anyone transgressing their strictly-bound gender rules (rules which radical feminists, who frankly don’t give a shit what you wear, how you feel or how you present yourself, wholly reject). It’s curious, then, that the feminist rejection of cis is instantly aligned with the transphobic violence of the über-cis. I think, deep down, the people who do this are conscious it is disingenuous. However, it’s easier to hit out at those whom you can claim threaten your sense of self rather than those who threaten your physical safety (just as it’s easier to rant at “militant secularists” rather than at Christian EDL members who set fire to mosques). Of course, it’s not fair. You alone are responsible for your sense of self. If someone tells you you’re shit or you’re not the person you say you are, they are wrong. If, on the other hand, someone else’s sense of self seems to contradict yours, this is not an act of aggression. It’s just people being people.

8 Gender as a construct is deeply harmful to AFAB women

This shouldn’t need reiterating, but it is. Rape, VAW, FGM, exploitation, inequality, femicide. Hence feminism. And yes, you can say “but that’s not real gender”. It might not be to you but it is to me. So let’s just leave it there.

9 No one ever gets final confirmation that they are A Real Woman

Because this isn’t a female version of Pinocchio. No blue fairy will come along and wave her magic wand. This is real life.

This was one trans woman’s response to my previous post (or rather, it’s the least offensive of her many responses):

on a plate

I’ll allow you a moment to laugh bitterly at the absurdity of it. If this person had actually read any of the previous things I’d written about the term cis (rather than cried “TERF” and “bigot” in response to the very idea that I’d had an opinion) she’d know that due to ill-health I didn’t experience puberty until I was in my twenties. I considered myself a woman before then, just as I considered myself a woman after having a miscarriage and will consider myself a woman when I go through the menopause and should I ever have a hysterectomy. Ovulation does not a woman make.

This is not to deny the political importance of defining “woman” in reproductive terms. I know a lot of people struggle to get their heads round this. But you just said … Well, yes, no one said this was easy! The oppression of women as a class is inseparable from patriarchal attempts to control reproduction. You can rebrand it by saying “pregnant people” all you like but a refusal to put misogyny in context betrays the perceived breeders/vessels/gestators (whatever we now call them if the right to use “woman” is withdrawn). They will remain a sub-class only one which has now been denied the dignity of a cultural and class heritage.

The upshot of this, of course, is that people have to share (I know, what a pain!). Pregnant trans men have to put up with being intermittently co-opted by Class Woman for the sake of political argument, and pregnant women have to accept (as, to be fair, I think most do) that their reproductive status is not a trump card in the Game of Womanhood.

There will never, ever, be a point in anyone’s life when they are handed a Certificate of Full Womanhood. Because that would be meaningless. We make of our womanhood what we can. It’s not a thing you can touch or measure in a test tube. It’s the messy context of a human life. Of course, not everyone thinks this, at least not yet. That’s why I’d argue that a push for greater acceptance of “messy, human, fuzzy around the edges womanhood” could strike a real blow against transphobia (in a way that demanding non-trans women identify as cis – and hence reinforcing the sense that womanhood truly is an absolute – never, ever can).

Yesterday Paris Lees wrote a blog post on Avery Edison, a trans woman who was being held in a man’s prison in Canada. In it, she described “a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy”:

It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are.

Powerful and beautifully expressed, this touches on something that lies at the heart of all movements for social change – this sense that you are not what others define you to be, that you are more human, more real, and as such you deserve more. That your life has a pattern and meaning other than those being imposed on it from above. We all know our realities better than anyone else. We know what forms us and we know what hurts us. We own the context of our own experiences.

I was thinking of this when reading Roz Kaveney’s response to my New Statesman piece on cis identities, gender and womanhood. It’s not a response as such, more a remarkably unfeeling lecture on how to be empathetic. It’s a curious thing, reading that what you believe and feel about yourself isn’t right, and that someone else knows better. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation of course; as a fellow woman, Roz, I’ve had people do this to me all my life. And here’s a gentle reminder, if you’re going to write about empathy again any time soon: the respect I show for your reality doesn’t render mine a poor, second-class version.

Your experiences don’t override mine, filling in the gaps, blotting out the parts no one wants to see. Your understanding of gender is different, but not heightened, not deeper, not more “real”. I am interested in the context it gives to mine, and the extent to which I may need to recalibrate in response; nevertheless, my flexibility doesn’t extend to offering up my own version of womanhood at the altar of your ego.

In a piece filled with kindly, long-suffering explanations of what I “really” think, Kaveney describes how “when someone like Glosswitch, not ill-intentioned and probably not meaningfully describable as transphobic, announces that they are going to talk about gender, alarm bells ring all over the trans* part of the internet”. I know! Just imagine, me, a feminist, having opinions and thoughts about gender! It’s bound to be total crap, right? The whole tone of this sounds disturbingly patriarchal. I picture myself in a Mike Leigh film, a seventies housewife who’s got drunk at a dinner party, my embarrassed husband making excuses for us both: “Don’t mind Glosswitch, she means well but she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about!” Poor Glosswitch. She does get these “ideas” about womanhood. Don’t hold it against her, eh? She’s not transphobic, after all; well, not “meaningfully describable” as such (wink, wink).

Like all people who mistake projection for empathy, Kaveney seems to suggest she is being kind:

I get that, as a young cis woman, Glosswitch experienced major areas of dysphoria about body and social role; I understand that she thinks, not entirely without justice, that these give her some share of what trans people go through.

Well, actually: no. That’s not what I think. I don’t define my experience of gender solely in relation to people who experience it differently. I don’t see it as a partial, broken-off narrative, useful only if it will earn me the right to take part in a conversation that belongs to someone else. This is my story. Mine. I own it. It is every bit as complete and real as yours, and this is true of every single woman on Earth, cis or trans. This will make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but there we are. That’s empathy for you.

This doesn’t mean gender is arbitrary and meaningless, floating in the ether. It is embedded in all of our lives. We each make our own definitions, form our own versions. That doesn’t mean the totality of these versions is harmless. We can still read its impact. It’s not the case that when beliefs about gender kill women – or cause them not to be born at all – these women don’t really die because hey, that’s not how you see gender operating. This is no more valid than suggesting that racism isn’t that bad, really, because you recognise people of colour are equal to white people. You don’t get to deny the reality of structural inequality just because you simply don’t feel it deep within yourself.

Kaveney writes that “the range of meanings attached to the word gender are attached to a range of actual lived experiences – that is how a living language about sex and equality develops”. I am a linguist. I have PhD in languages. I might not be quoting Butler but I am not a child who needs words explaining to me. I also know that it is naïve in the extreme to pretend that language necessarily develops in a positive direction, becoming more progressive and inclusive. Any development which takes from females the means to articulate the relationship between gender, biology and oppression – and does so at a time of massive structural inequality – is not a positive one. It is, on the contrary, erasing and dangerous. Kaveney would like to suggest that any articulation of the misogyny inherent in reproductive oppression means giving in to “the people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedom” since they are also erasing trans men. This is disingenuous beyond belief. A denial of the structural roots of oppression is not a move for inclusivity. Misogyny is real. It is no less real when it has an impact on those who do not identify as women.

Of course, like all women, I am used to people talking down to me and feeling, not angry, but disappointed. Often they sound like this:

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together.

Oh dear :(. The trouble is, empathy isn’t saying what people would like you to say. It is about trying to understand. Kaveney doesn’t like this. You are, it appears, either right or wrong:

What’s also politically dangerous is [Glosswitch’s] assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

God forbid that anyone should operate on the assumption that, in a world in which beliefs about sex and gender oppress us all, we’re most of us trying to do our best. God forbid anyone should try to act in a way that identifies humanity and good faith even in those we disagree with. God forbid that we should hesitate before daring to look at anyone – anyone at all—and say that they are, to quote Lees, “fake. Inauthentic. Not who you say you are.” God forbid that I should believe my reality can stand toe to toe with yours.

I haven’t written this for the benefit of Roz Kaveney, or indeed anyone else. I’ve written it for me, because it makes me feel better to restate that my reality is mine. It’s important to be able to reclaim these things. You can take something from deep within yourself and lay it out for public consumption and it will be there for others to take and put into whatever context they wish. Nonetheless, it’s still yours, whoever you are. It can’t be distorted and shoved back inside you as something else, something you neither knew nor felt.  Anyone at all should be able to empathise with that, at least if they were to try.

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