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:
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.
photo by PortlandPictures.com