Rethinking CIS: finding a few grains of truth in a fucked up TERF story.
If a bullshit argument gets repeated over and over again, sometimes it’s worth weighing it again to find out what it is inside that argument that makes it so appealing. I’ve been thinking a long time about objections people have to the word ‘cis’. Most is just bullshit ‘blah, blah, I don’t want my privilege labelled’, ‘blah blah, I want to be able to label you as other’ etc.
But one argument stood out:
We’re assigned a gender too.
Now, before we start, some common definitions of Cis:
“Cisgender means that you agree and identify with the gender you were assigned at birth.”
“Cisgender is a t type of gender identity perception, where an individuals’ experiences of their own gender agree with the sex they were assigned at birth.”
“Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.”
“If the doctor announces a baby as being a girl, and she is fine with being a girl, then she is cisgender.”
“You’re cisgender if the doctor says “it’s a boy” and you’re basically like truuuuuuuuuuuueeeeeeeeeeeeee forever”.
Now, there is something obviously absent here: transness. The experience of being assigned a gender that does not align with your gender identity. The experience of being transgender. But there is something implied in all these definitions too: agreement (notice the word agree in 2 of them), comfort, being ‘fine with that’, the absense of trauma. That, I think, is a mistake.
See, being assigned a gender at birth is not merely a word, it’s a pretty big package deal. It comes with a set of boundaries, a set of expectations, a set of pressures, a set of dangers, a set of assumptions. If you’re assigned female at birth, it comes with a second class status, a target on your back to subject you to violence and rape, and a worth almost completely defined by what you could mean to a man. We’re not just assigned a gender identity, we’re also all assigned a gender role in a violently sexist society.
And gender roles never fit. They’re designed not to fit. The ideal male role and the ideal female role are completely unachieable goals that we’re nonetheless pressured to meet. Sometimes, when a man loves cars and beer and the gym and doesn’t cry much, they almost feel comfortable. But on some level, they never truly fit any of us.
So, thing number one: We’re all coercively assigned a highly restrictive and violently policed gender role that does not fit us.
But that’s not all. A little side story: In 2009 I was sterilized against my will because I am trans. It was a very traumatic experience, a violation that turned upside down every right I believed I had and told me I did not have the right to exist.
Incidently, I also never ever ever want children and had at several points in my pre-2009 life considered sterilization. Given enough time, I probably would have eventually chosen the procedure myself. As a result of that, I am not childless against my will and do not suffer the same grief and despair as my trans friends who wanted children and find that that option was taken from them. That is a struggle I don’t have. But that did not make my experience any less traumatizing. I don’t ‘agree’ with what’s happened to me. I’m not ‘fine with it’. It was a deeply violating nonconsentual act on my body that marked this body and this life as ‘not truly mine to control’.
So, thing number two: Being forced to walk a road that you would have walked anyway is still nonconsentual, coercive and potentionally traumatizing.
And finally- I lack the experience and knowledge to explain this last point in depth - quite a few trans POC have already pointed out that what our society defines as ‘man’ and ‘women’ are very specifically white gender identities. Stuck between hypersexualization and desexualization, ‘dangerous’, ‘exotic’ and ‘submissive’, men, women and genderdiverse people of colour all experience that their gender will always be viewed as deviant because it can not comfort to white womanhood or white manhood. For those at the receiving end of genocide, colonisation and westernisation, frameworks for what it means to be a man, a woman or some other gender within their own culture are almost completely inaccessable, erasured, destroyed and replaced with a white western gender binary.
So, thing number 3: Colonialism means people of colour are marked gender deviants by default while being denied to a non-colonialized understanding of their gender identity.
Now, put all those things together and I think we need to radically rethink what it means to be cisgender.
I don’t think we need to get rid of the word cisgender. It’s very valuable to have a word that describes not being transgender and not having to deal with specific trans experiences.
I do think we need to get to an understanding of cis that acknowledges that assigning a gender to a person who turns out to be cis is still restrictive, colonializing, potentially traumatizing and ultimately nonconsentual.
This is not fine. This is not in agreement. This is, in fact, still violence.