“Cis” – one woman’s view

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is a two-part blog, co-authored by my Twitter friend @HannahBoo3131, Hannah Buchanan. We have been DMing for a while and not just on this topic. Until the debate on the use of “cis” came up, I had no idea that Hannah had been a man before she transitioned. Nor did I know she had cerebral palsy. Twitter is a conversation, and you tend to bond with people based on personality. She was one of many who DMed me over the privilege-checking blog.

She has some interesting thoughts about the term “cis”, objectionable to so many women, including me, and I thought I would blog them here. Hannah suggested we blog on this term together. As her post is long I will add part two later, my take on it. Follow Hannah on Twitter and read her blog here:

http://flyingontherainbow.com

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ALL ABOUT CISGENDER – by @HannahBoo3131

ALL ABOUT CISGENDER

So, there is a crisis in Middle Earth. Doctor Who is regenerating. But someone who is not regenerating is the novelist turned politician turned columnist Louise Mensch. Known for controversial views, she is not one to shy away from a controversial viewpoint, or for that matter expressing it. Having excoriated the term intersectionality recently she declared the word ‘cisgender’ to be “an offensive term she does not recognise.”

I joined in a discussion on Twitter with interesting results.

Now, when I first began blogging on all matters trans in 2005, I did not know what the word intersectionality meant, nor the word cisgender. So like all good practitioners of orienteering I asked those who knew what the term meant. I discovered that intersectionality means the way in which various forms of oppression one may or may not be subjected to intersect.

The word cisgender means on the same side as.

However after our heated and passionate but good-natured discussion on Twitter yesterday I can understand why the term may be problematic.

For background I am disabled and in a wheelchair. I have had cerebral palsy from birth. Yet there are many different terms to describe my situation like physically disabled, physically challenged, disabled person, differently abled, or to conclude person with a disability, or people with disabilities.

Many people within the disabled community have their own personal preferences as to which of those terms should be used. Indeed it would be fair to admit that there is no hint of universal agreement about such terminology at least not from me. I have always been of the mindset that the person I am should come first before any label which may be ascribed to me. Hence my own personal preference is for the term “person with a disability.”

Linguistically, I feel this is the most positive of the terminologies at our disposal. It seeks first of all to de-medicalise the person instead centring around who they are rather than what they are or what may be wrong with them.

There are also so many words, people become confused over which to use. “Just call me Hannah” I tell them!

More controversially perhaps, I do not feel comfortable with the connotations it draws up. Connotations like as helplessness, vulnerability, difficulty and non-productivity. Now whilst these descriptors may be an accurate portrayal of my life at times I like to think that they do not tell the full story.

If you were to describe me as a disabled person for example you may not be immediately aware that I consider myself to be a musician, writer and an avid reader. I am something of a news junkie too.

Further to this I am also trans woman having transitioned but not had surgery due to disability. However I believe that labels never tell the full story.

This is why I have some sympathy with those who struggle with the prevailing use of the word cisgender. Firstly, it is a word that many have still not heard of. It is a neologism in a sense. Some make the point that has been used in academic discourse for a number of years now. Not all of the population is in academia. Nor should we expect them to be fully at ease with theoretical concepts. Rather in engaging it is better to break down barriers with accounts of actual lived experience of anything not just trans issues.

Many people further feel it counters othering, that is to say the trans experience being considered outside the realms of possibility for human understanding. However, perpetuating othering by othering the majority of those who are not trans is somehow counterintuitive in my eyes.

A further problem occurs when you get into the realms of cis privilege. Many of those who are trans and their allies talk of cis privilege. That is to say that many people feel that being born not trans is a privilege.

I can understand emotionally why it may feel that way. It is rather like somebody achieving that goal of climbing the mountain by proxy in a cable car whilst you are still stuck at the bottom and have to climb.

However, I would question whether being born a woman or a man by default instead of being born trans is truly a privilege in today’s 2013 society.

Society in general is riddled with patriarchy and its consequences. Women are not paid equally to men, and there is still very much a glass ceiling in terms of employment. Women are subject to sexism as a byproduct of daily life. Initiatives like Everyday Sexism from Laura Bates attest to that.

Women also are subject to new phenomena entirely based on their womanhood. Such phenomena as slut shaming and victim blaming are now common experience in the everyday life of females.

When I transitioned I wanted the female experience, not just the fun bits, not just the make up bags and nice clothes. I wanted the female experience uncut. I had always spent my life around women and admire their stoicism, courage and strength. I admire the way they indulge in reciprocity and collective spirit.

But I realise that in transitioning, I must stand shoulder to shoulder with other women and other people trans and non, to affect real change for others and myself for the goal ultimately of a better world.

Yes,cis is a new word. Yes people can learn what it means. Yes it can be taught to other people. Personally speaking I always use the word incongruent. I was born in a state where my every fibre was incongruent with my body. Now I am congruent and I am happy. But I did not achieve that happiness by dwelling on the inherent differences between myself and other women. There are also many similarities and we can fight if we wish to for similar goals. I have been fortunate in my life both on and off-line to know many great women who have inspired me and continue to inspire me daily.

Sometimes I think it is not words we need but attitudes. We need to be open to positive engagement and willingness to listen to people who are all across the human spectrum.

We need to stop mudslinging between theoretical schools of thought, between radical feminists liberal feminists and any other kind of feminist. Calling anyone a TERF is counter-productive and does nothing to promote integration or understanding. Rather it just continues apace a kind of childish dialogue which certainly precedes my life.

It is important to remember that nobody becomes a radical feminist in a vacuum. It is important to hear the experiences behind the rhetoric which is not sucking up to transphobes. It is merely listening and hearing. If people have an opposition to the word cis, we should be prepared to listen to and hear that too.

In closing I would like to say this. Being trans is not easy. But nor is it the only oppression. Nor is it the only oppression worth considering. For example in some ways I would argue that many trans women are less oppressed than I am. I for context cannot put on my own clothes and make-up. I have to delegate most of this responsibility, and indeed most general responsibilities to my carer who is a complete saint, and I don’t know what I would do without her.

I am enormously grateful for her friendship and the services she provides. But the tacit point here is that most of the agency of my transition is taken out of my hands. The majority of the trans community are able-bodied, though I know many have hidden disabilities.

But nobody is taking anything away by refusing to engage with a word. You are still you.

And even if in trans eyes somebody is cis, they may lack other privileges that have not even been considered.

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photo by PortlandPictures.com

14 thoughts on ““Cis” – one woman’s view”

  1. The problem with the above is that it doesn’t actually say what “cisgenger” is meant to mean, i.e. a non-transgender person. Fortunately Wikipedia explained it in its first paragraph.

    I’ve no idea what a TERF is.

    1. TERF is a term coined by trans activists to refer to trans* exclusive radical feminists. I.e those who do not accept trans* women as women.
      It’s used most commonly as an insult or slur and rejected by most radical feminists.

  2. Hi Hannah & Louise, this is a great post which I feel gets pretty much to the heart of the matter. The arguments over language (particularly on Twitter) often seem to take over, and dominate, discourse, leaving many women baffled and silenced.
    For my own part, I don’t particularly have an issue with the word ‘cis.’ Words are as powerful as you want them to be. If a trans* woman wants to use that term to describe me then I can’t stop them and nor would I want to.
    Having said that, the language we use is massively important, particularly for women, as our lived experiences are so often dismissed or minimised through the words used about us. You mention ‘slut shaming’ which, for me, is hideous. Not just the concept, but the term itself. When did it become ok to refer to women as sluts? I understand the essence of reclamation but for me it only works if it has power, which I don’t think this does.
    And there’s a classic example of the minefield of language amongst feminists and women who don’t ID as feminists. No one can say with any conviction or confidence that we have cracked the issue of language. I suspect that all we can do is accept others’ choice not to be labelled with a term they don’t identify as.
    Looking forward to part two!
    Best wishes
    @planetcath

  3. I think this argument is more about what the word “cis” implies than the term itself (which is otherwise a neutral scientific prefix).

    By accepting the word “cis” as valid – as a counterpart to “trans” – you are implicitly accepting trans narratives as valid. Conversely, if you reject trans narratives (as is the case with some radical feminists), it is entirely logical that you’d object to being called “cis”, as it imposes acceptance upon you directly (and non-consensually). In other words you reject cis because you reject trans.

    Personally, I disagree with that position entirely, but I recognize its logical consistency.

  4. In general we use lables to identify objects, so we can quickly select the object we need. When we lable people, there is an underlying purpose. Often the purpose is not to identify but to provide an angle, to shade in or colour our opinion before we have a chance to form our own. Man killed in road accident. Motorcyclist killed in road accident. Same man, different lable but neither tells us who he was. It is ever thus with any lable attached to any person.

  5. “I had always spent my life around women and admire their stoicism, courage and strength. I admire the way they indulge in reciprocity and collective spirit.”

    I dislike this. It’s a stereotype. A superficially positive one, but a stereotype nonetheless and stereotypes are always harmful. What grounds have you for insisting these qualities exist in women (as a group) in some remarkable way?

    I know ridiculously stoic/courageous/strong/unselfish women and I know women who possess the opposite qualities in equal abundance, as I’m sure everyone does. Women are just people. There is no inherent dignity or strength in being a woman, as there is no inherent dignity or strength in being white.

    At the risk of sounding postmodern, which would certainly buy me a lynching from the conservative Conservative “common sense” Commissariat, isn’t all of this missing the point? By identifying any characteristic with a sex/gender, are you not contributing to oppression? Sex/gender is an oppressive social concept. I fear that this point is rather too easy to dismiss with a cry of “nonsense”, or some other meaningless noise, and rather unsuited to the medium of a blog comment, but I shall make it anyway. Ideally, wouldn’t the whole notion of cis/trans be an irrelevance? If we cease to consider, in everyday discourse, a person’s genitals, clothing or personality as a function of sex/gender, wouldn’t we all be in a better place? Why do we need to think of anyone as cis/trans-male/female at all?

    It’s generally agreed that the whole doctrine of “separate but equal” is false. Men and women can never be separate but equal. As long we continue to think in terms of this binary opposition, indeed any opposition of this sort, sexism will happen. Adding more labels and terms to the equation doesn’t fix anything. As noted in the post, it just creates more other-ness, more alienation.

    But to return to my main point, which I would prefer addressed even in the absence of a coherent response to the one above, are you suggesting that these characteristics are somehow lacking in men? If not, I don’t see your point. You’re playing on a cultural clichè, one I could just as easily deploy in praise of men…

    “I had always spent my life around MEN and admire their stoicism, courage and strength. I admire the way they indulge in reciprocity and collective spirit.”

    What’s wrong with that, writing aside?

  6. This is another insightful blog from Hannah. I too would like to see positive engagement and an end to the mudslinging.

    I’m a radical feminist who objects to the term ‘cis’ and, for me, the two main objections are a) that ‘cis’ means ‘identify as the gender they were assigned at birth’. Radical feminists believe that gender is a hierarchy created by the patriarchy to subordinate women. Therefore suggesting women are congruent with their ‘gender’ is essentially suggesting they are comfortable with their oppression. Which we know is absolutely not the case. b) the implicit notion that the individual is ‘privileged’. No woman can be privileged based on sex or gender, when they are the very basis and mechanism of her oppression.

    It is important that we use language correctly and do not erase the lived realities of oppressed groups. The problem with ‘cis’ is that it implicitly distorts our understanding of women’s oppression. I agree with Cath that terms such as ‘slut-shaming’ are also hugely problematic and should be avoided.

    1. Well-stated. I was going to post something similar but instead I will just fervently agree with you.

      I’ll just add that, as Hannah’s example of “person with disabilities”, people like to choose their own labels. I’ve been recently educated by a new friend not to call her a transwoman but a transgendered woman, and I’m happy to oblige. Similarly, I only have seen a few women on like who self-identify with “cisgender” or, more commonly, “cissexual”. Therefore, for most non-trans women, it is a label that is applied to them, not one they chose. Things might change over time but, right now, I think many women feel it is an identity that is being imposed on them and not one of their own choice.

  7. Daniel,

    why do you think this

    “By identifying any characteristic with a sex/gender, are you not contributing to oppression? Sex/gender is an oppressive social concept.”

    Are you completely opposed to science? I don’t get it. Sex confers characteristics.

    1. The key being the word “social”. As a scientific concept, sex is fine. I don’t doubt the Y chromosome’s existence. Race is a sound scientific concept. There are genetic differences between races, most obviously manifested in skin colour. However, I set my face like flint against any social differentiation on the basis of race.

      And, equally, it is when sex becomes a social concept that it becomes an instrument of oppression. On what basis can you socially differentiate between a man and a woman without being discriminatory? Employment, etiquette, etc., treating women differently is sexist.

      I’ll take an example for the part you quoted. If I were to say that women are nurturing, I would be being sexist. I’m identifying a characteristic with a sex when that link is socially constructed. I’m also invalidating the womanhood of any woman who isn’t nurturing. I’m saying that she lacks one of the intrinsic/essential characteristics of womanhood. Since human beings are generally seen in light of the man-woman dichotomy, by undermining her womanhood in this way, I’m undermining her humanity.

      Homophobia happens in much the same way. Homosexuality is identified with various effeminate mannerisms and the like, so a homosexual is deemed less of a man. Again? since we classify people as men or women, by being less of a man, he is being less of a person. He is thus deemed less human. Voila, homophobia.

  8. This is a great blog and one of the few that I’ve read where a trans woman has actually tried to look at the whole ‘cis’ argument from the point of view of cis women and tried to understand their reasons for finding the word offensive. I’d like to thank you for that.

    First off, let me say that I deplore transphobia and I certainly don’t see trans women as not being women or lesser women. I have been disgusted by some of the transphobic abuse I have read online. With that said, however, I’ve also been equally disgusted by some of the cis phobic comments I’ve read too. Prejudice is prejudice, no matter who the victim or the perpetrator is, and I feel that this is sometimes over looked in the trans community.

    I am someone who refuses to be labeled as ‘cis.’ Not because I’m transphobic and not because I want to exclude trans women, but because of what the label stands for in the trans community i.e., someone who is ‘privileged’, someone who hasn’t suffered or who has had life handed to them on a plate. Someone who has not earned their womanhood, which is the most offensive. I’ll say this now, *all* cis women, including the ‘dumb white cis girl,’ which is a popular trope in online communities and social media, earned their womanhood. Far from the Utopian wet dream that some trans women seem to believe, cis women did not have it easy while progressing from female childhood to womanhood. Going through blood rights are not easy. Going through sexism and prejudice on a daily basis is not easy. Being sexually harassed, assaulted and even raped, which most women will experience several times during their lives, is never easy.

    ‘Cis’ is a label that would have rape victims, victims of sexual assault, victims of violence, victims of intimidation, prejudice, misogyny, sexism, women who have lost jobs or who have been denied work, who have been under paid or not even paid at all, those who have been refused medical treatment (this happens to cis women a lot, particularly for women in the Middle East, Africa and Asia), women who have had their genitals mutilated, women who have been controlled, bullied, enslaved, starved, etc., etc., identifying as women who have led a privileged life on nothing more than the base fact that they identify with the body they were assigned to at birth. That is offensive.

    I don’t think trans women are aware that just as they are beaten, murdered, raped/sexually assaulted, treated with prejudice and violence, excluded etc., etc., so too are cis women and we have been since day dot – and I’ve never understood why one is considered worse than the other? As said before, prejudice is prejudice, violence is violence, rape is rape.

    I recently gave the following as examples, on another blog, to prove my point:

    Woman ‘A’ is a trans woman. Woman ‘B’ is a cis woman.

    Woman ‘A’ has been violently beaten by an abusive yob.

    Woman ‘B’ has been violently beaten by an abusive partner.

    The first woman is considered as being a victim, the second woman is considered as being privileged.

    Woman ‘A’ was refused a job for being a trans woman.

    Woman ‘B’ was refused a job for being a cis woman.

    The first woman is considered as being a victim, the second woman is considered as being privileged.

    If the trans community want cis women to embrace the label then they are going to have to drop the negative associations, which are based on pure ignorance, attached to the label because no woman is going to identify as someone who didn’t earn their womanhood, who hasn’t suffered, who is privileged.

    1. I like your examples because they actually illustrate cissexual privilege pretty well:

      In the first example, obviously neither woman is privileged – in the context of violence. In the second example, neither woman is privileged – in the context of employment.

      However:

      Both women might indeed face violence or discrimination for being women. But woman A also faces violence and discrimination for being trans. Whereas it is very unlikely that woman B will face violence and discrimination for being cissexual. This is woman B’s cissexual privilege (such as it is).

      That doesn’t mean the woman B is overflowing with privilege and walks through life free and happy. Obviously she isn’t and doesn’t. But in that particular context, yes, she has privilege.

      Note that I’ve specifically used cissexual there, rather than just cis, because cisgender privilege is rather different. For instance, if you were asking: who has more privilege between a feminine-presenting trans woman (who is not readily perceived as trans) and a cissexual lesbian butch, the answer would be far more complicated. The trans woman might well have more gender privilege than the lesbian butch in some instances (although her privilege would be precarious, in that it could be instantly revoked; i.e. if she is subsequently revealed to be trans).

      As for me: I am cissexual (in that my body matches my sex: male) and receive some privilege on that basis (in that my sex is regarded as valid and unchallenged). I don’t find that concept problematic at all, any more than I regard the concept of male privilege problematic. I receive male privilege, too, in a lot of instances — though not always since I am also transgendered (in that my gender and gender presentation doesn’t match what society regards as valid for my sex) and thus am vulnerable to gender discrimination, in the same way as the lesbian butch might be. [That I regard the social gender rules, which regard my gender is invalid, as themselves invalid hardly matters; society – or patriarchy – imposes them on me anyway.] If I was normatively masculine as well, I’d be just rolling in (sex and gender) privilege.

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