Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On the Meaning of Cis

Eminism has a post up about further clarifying the meaning of the word "cis".  It highlights an increasing problem in some feminisms lately, where cis women (who have always identified as female and who were designated female at birth) are rejecting the "cis" identity, because the gender roles assigned to women in our society are oppressive and they cannot relate to those roles.  And yet... there are trans women who feel exactly the same way about women's gender roles in our society.  And they are still women.  I agree that most gender roles are oppressive, and I am perfectly fine with people rejecting any and every role to their hearts' desires.

But this post isn't about Some Feminists™.  Quite frankly, most feminists accept the reality of cis privilege, and the few who don't are being confronted regularly enough that I'm not motivated to continue that battle in this particular post.  I am, however, concerned with Eminism's insistence that people whose experiences aren't "trans enough" - defined by her as "someone who does not suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis" - must accept their ascribed identity as cis.  Taking thie counter-scenario to its extreme: what if literally everyone who claimed not to be cis was actually not cis? I don't care what they base their claim on. Maybe they're a butch-identified lesbian, maybe they're a gender abolitionist, maybe whatever. What portion of the population would all the non-cis people be? TINY. Cis privilege would still exist for that huge portion of the population that is most definitely cis, within a society that systematically delegitimatizes non-cis people's genders.

This is why I am not the gender police. While I do agree that some cis-but-not feminists are trying to have their cake and eat it too, and that the harm they are causing is as real as the cis privilege they are denying, I have exactly zero interest in spending my energy trying to slap a cis label on anyone I personally don't feel experiences "enough" trans discrimination. There are too many innocent bystanders who will get caught up in the casualties.  It also places the focus yet again on cis people's experiences, instead of centering the dialog around genderqueer and trans experiences.

It is difficult occupying the grey areas between cis and trans... As with a friend I know who is a very-light-skinned black person, and another who has an invisible disability, I am a genderqueer person who often "passes" for cis in society. Often times we have to say things like "no, I'm actually black" or "no, I'm actually in a lot of pain right now and need to sit down" and "no, I'm actually genderqueer" in order to trigger our swift decent from privilege. Other times, we risk being socially ostracized for living out our authentic selves without even saying a word, as we let the accusations come forth that we're doing white wrong, or doing ability wrong, or doing woman wrong.

Yes, I can hear you protest "but actual white and able-bodied and woman persons are policed too!"  Funny thing though: as soon as I came out as a not-a-woman genderqueer person, the tune society was singing changed from "you need to do X to be a woman" to "even if you don't do X, you're still a woman".  This is cis privilege: knowing that no matter how much the kyriarchy threatens to revoke your Woman Card, they will never actually do it; the moment you try to take them up on that offer, they'll drag you kicking and screaming right back into Womanhood.

If I got to define "cis" and "trans", here's what I would say (with a huge disclaimer that I'm not the Word-Defining Authority who represents all feminism):

  • Cis people are the people whose genders are accepted on the whole by our society, and who are allowed to live day-to-day as their own gender without additional hurdles of "proof" required to validate their gender before gaining access to gendered resources.
  • Trans people are the people who are told on a regular basis that cis people know what their "actual" gender is better than the trans people themselves, and who have to gather additional "proof" for cis gatekeepers before gaining access to those same gendered resources cis people take for granted.

Does this mean a butch lesbian who was designated female at birth [I keep using this example because the original article did] occasionally has trans experiences, such as people attempting to kick her out of a women's restroom for looking like a man? Yeppers! That does not necessarily mean her identity is trans, mind you - if she says she's a woman, she's a woman. But ultimately, anyone who dares transgress gender norms will be thrown from grace, and that deserves compassion and understanding beyond "but you do realize you're cis, right?"

So as a genderqueer person, I still do periodically ask myself am I cis? am I trans? I experience both. But ultimately, they become something else entirely in the long run: a constant reminder that I can never be a boring ol' regular person so long as systematic inequality exists in our society.

tl;dr - Binaries don't work.

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