A feminist critique of “cisgender”

Consistent with common usage of the term “cisgender,” the graphic below explains that “…if you identify with the gender you were assigened [sic] at birth, you are cis.”

Another Trans 101: Cisgender webpage describes cis this way: “For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender.” [i] Likewise, girl-born people who identify as women are also considered cisgender. WBW are cis.

Framing gender as a medically determined assignment may seem like a good start to explaining gendered oppression because it purports to make a distinction between physical sex and gender. Feminism similarly understands masculinity and femininity (e.g., gender) as strictly enforced social constructs neither of which are the “normal” or inevitable result of one’s reproductive sex organs. Feminism and trans theory agree that coercive gender assignments are a significant source of oppression.

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“Cis” is a politically incomprehensible concept.

Cis is often used as a slur against anyone who dares to question the hegemony of trans identities. So accused, the cis person is presumed to be in possession of cis privilege, a condition which actively oppresses “trans” people.

Unfortunately, the meaning of cis is ambiguous and, as a result, belies its proponents’ ignorance of social operations (see also: Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.).

CIS=NON-TRANS?

If cis is a word that simply refers to non-trans people (i.e., all people who have not subjectively adopted the term “trans” to describe themselves), then gender non-conforming butch women and feminine men must be included in the category of individuals who can be described as cis. Using this definition, cis privilege is not distributed according to whether one is gender conforming (or not), but rather, according to one’s internal I-dentity.

Significantly, oppression and privilege are functions of social perception, not reality. 

A non-trans definition of cis erroneously assumes that an external observer can accurately and consistently determine when someone subjectively considers herself to be “trans.”  “Trans” is not a magical word, nor does it appear on your forehead like the Scarlet Letter when you interact with others. Therefore, framing cis privilege as something that automatically inures to all people who do not subjectively identify themselves as “trans,” and never to those who do, is frustratingly simplistic and ignores the gendered oppression of gender non-conforming people. If “non-trans” is the intended definition of the term cis, I reject its usefulness as a concept to describe or to better understand the social dynamics of gender and related oppression.

So maybe…CIS=GENDER CONFORMING?

Alternatively, and this does seem to make somewhat more sense, cis may be used as shorthand for gender conformity (i.e., people who are comfortable with their gender role as assigned at birth). In this case, a person holding radical feminist views about gender could never be considered cis because she is, by definition of these views, uncomfortable with the social gender roles assigned to females at birth. More saliently, butch women and feminine men could not be considered cis under this definition, nor beneficiaries of cis privilege, because they do not benefit from social perceptions of their gender conformity.

Deviation from gender norms will result in the same kind of negative social treatment regardless of whether one considers herself internally “trans” or not. In many cases, a trans person who “passes” as her target sex will be treated by others as if she were not-trans; and a gender non-conforming cis person will be treated as if she were “trans.” Gender non-conformity oppression is not a phenomenon unique to subjectively identifying “trans” people.

A gender-conforming definition of cis further begs the question regarding what qualifies as “gender conformity” and where this cis line can reasonably be drawn. Is it measured by an individual’s appearance? Behavior? Or some of both? Many people express a mixture of masculine and feminine qualities– who decides whether they are cis and/or substantially benefiting from cis privilege? What about a person who changes their appearance, dressing femininely one day and masculine the next– can she be cis or cis privileged on some days but not others? What about a woman who is very aggressive and competitive in her professional life, but emotional and submissive in her personal life– is she cis privileged? And what about trans people who “pass” because they are compliant with the gendered stereotypes associated with their target sex– does being stealth render one functionally cis?

The ambiguity of gendered perception combined with the fluidity of gendered presentation renders the concept of cis confusing and largely incomprehensible when one attempts to apply the term in practice. Neither possible definition of cis brings clarity or new insights to the mechanics of gendered oppression. Just the opposite, by framing oppression as being caused by one’s internal identity, rather than by external social perceptions, a cis/trans binary actually erases the lives and experiences of many gender non-conforming people who refuse the label “trans” for themselves. Further, shoe-horning the concept of cis and cis privilege into conversations about gender as a rhetorical tool to explain how “trans” people’s experiences differ from non-trans people’s experiences, glosses over the complexities of how gender norms operate to create and maintain the still-pervasive system of male supremacy– also known as patriarchy (see: Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.).

I reject cis as a workable political concept.

Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.

Femininity is not a fun game women play because we were born to enjoy dress-up.

The gender binary is a means of organizing social relations and distributing power. Power is gendered. Males and masculinity are systematically privileged over females and femininity. Feminine subordination manifests in wide-ranging social practices from intellectual dismissals of women’s ideas to the pervasive sexualization of female bodies– a phenomenon that begins at shockingly young ages. Being coercively assigned the feminine gender at birth, as all female-born people are, is not a privilege.

The notion of “cis privilege,” however, which is often used as an insult and/or to discredit the speaker, falsely posits a feminine gender assignment as socially equivalent to a masculine gender assignment. The near universal institutional oppression of females– the process by which male authority is ensured– clearly demonstrates that lumping all non-trans individuals into the same group is a gross oversimplification of how the gender binary operates. Non-trans females and non-trans males are not similarly situated persons in regard to gender.

So, for example, when someone says DIE CIS SCUM, they are charging  non-trans females with (at least) 50% of the responsibility for gender-normativity-as-oppression. It arrogantly assumes that all non-trans females are comfortable with, and benefit from, the current gender arrangement. This is simply not true. The concept of “cis privilege” simultaneously denies the experiences of millions of females who ideologically reject femininity as female destiny, and completely erases the reality of butch females as if they never existed.

It is victim-blaming and woman hating to suggest that those in the subordinate position of this powerful gender binary are responsible for withholding self-identified trans* people’s liberation from them. Females are not responsible for this situation. Non-trans feminists have worked very hard to oppose compulsory female femininity by deconstructing and conceptually disentangling sex from gender.

If circumstances were otherwise, I’d find the idea of “cis privilege” amusing when finally viewed from this feminist perspective: males benefit from their coercive gender assignment, females do not.  Anyone who wants to discuss “gender” and oppression should evince a basic understanding how and why the gender binary operates in the first place.