The (Re)Education of Little Cis
I’m writing this as an academic. I’m writing this as an activist. I’m writing this as a cisgender-queer-male trans-ally who is tired of seeing poorly crafted, un-critical op-eds about a range of issues from race to gender/sex. (Thank you A. Finn Enke for the help in title choices, for obvious reasons you are unaware of.)
From the moment that Sierra’s Time piece retaliating against a portion of the gay community for appropriating what she deemed was “black femininity,” a litany of one-note, pre-packaged critiques have come out to discuss the delicate issues of allying across the axes of race, gender/sex, and sexuality. I’m responding specifically to one—a “clarification” piece from Brynn Tannehill about the “new ‘C’ word”—a horrible choice in titles that leaves the reader with ‘c**t’ on the mind. (Aside: if you, the author, think it’s overly clever to relate historically sexist terms with newer, correct ones—rethink that strategy.) But I think this can be read as a condemnation of most pieces that don’t think critically enough about how words, concepts, and ideas matter to the marginalized—and how we should be using them in public discourse.
First: Cisgender is not an academic term for its own sake. It began, as any reader of transgender history would glean, as a word from within both academic and activist domains. You can read my entry on the word itself in the inaugural entry of Transgender Studies Quarterly (edited by Drs. Paisley Currah and Susan Stryker)—a publication more people should be reading, but I’m seeing that even fewer are actually doing. The suggestion came across as this: “stop trying to make cisgender happen; it will ‘never happen.’” No, cisgender is happening—but in ways that the two authors on HuffPo Gay Voices aren’t considering. The term and the people who adopt it don’t claim to fill any identity or expression. It is a term that is suggestive of the similarity between a person’s birth assigned sex (no, not gender—rather sex) and their gender identity as an adult. Similarity in the sense that if the two match, that person is cis—if the two don’t, that person may or may not be transgender. As you can see from how I phrase it, may or may not—this suggests a non-binary gender/sex system. In other words, cisgender itself does not colonize or reify the gender/sex binary, as these two authors seem to suggest. It is instead those who use the term construct that meaning. Or worse, forget all about the fact that trans people still live in abject poverty, prone to discriminatory violence, and have no authoritative voices in this discourse. Trans, Cis-, Intersex—these classifications are works in progress. Stop embedding them with misunderstood meaning.
Second: The term cisgender was meant to replace the term ‘non-transgender.’ Why? Well, trans people aren’t abnormal. They exist within a gender/sex spectrum that hasn’t been fully realized in the social world. So, using cisgender as opposed to non-transgender helps the discussion, when used correctly, by indicating trans folks aren’t just some “non non-“ category. Using non-transgender as a means of identifying others, as well as self, carries the potential of actually making transgender an unnatural identity. Why “non-“anything, for that matter? Should I describe someone as non-white, non-male, non-female? Does it make sense to use classifications with a prefix that seems on the one hand to naturalize one category and on the other to completely de-naturalize the other? You can gather where I’m going.
Third: I hate to belabor this point: But suggesting that academia exists in total isolation from “the real world” reinforces a standard that is, well, factually untrue. I use terms, ideas, concepts, notions—a litany of cultural grammar that shapes young minds as an aspiring academic—in class all the time. I have face-to-face contact and regularly engage with students who do have access to this magical “real world” that exists “out there.” Starry eyed, their uptake of new ideas, thoughts, concepts, and cultural grammar enter the public terrain in very real, very imaginative ways. So, even if I were to grant the author that cisgender is only ever an academic term, or in the very least reeks of the ivory tower, I would point out that the author’s use of this term seems to enact my point: It has entered the discursive worlds of our public vocabulary.
Finally: The discussions that have been triggered in reaction to the kinds of criticisms Sierra began in Time (and her criticisms have been met by some well-articulated counter-criticisms here on HuffPo), turn on the notion of privilege. Privilege cannot be an oversimplified term—nor should it over-burden our dialogue as social agents for justice. It is a way of describing the material status of some agents who possess socially situated and structurally reinforced power over others. Take an exchange in which a perceived cisgender, white, heterosexual male speaks about the economy, or the existence of equal opportunity within it. Privilege determines an unmentioned (arbitrary) amount of credibility lent to his statements. The same cannot be said for a transgender, black, queer boi who has no home, no job, and no other means of subsistence. If anything this child suffers from a (arbitrary) credibility deficit. Why? Privilege grants some speakers the status as ‘knowers’ and others as fools.
Which is why it is imperative that we, as white allies, as cis-allies of all gender expressions, end this sickening united front we’ve developed against letting people speak in their own terms, for their own sakes, and through the lens of their own culturally distinct communities. Speaking-for and speaking-with are separate actions, requiring totally different listening repertoires—and it’s my impression from the discussions these days that we (the privileged whites, the cis-queers, the gays and lesbians) have been doing far too much of the former, and hardly any of the latter.