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:
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):
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).