It’s a sad-but-true fact that, almost without exception, every single online conversation that I have, which includes even one cis person, is invariably dragged back to the same starting point: trans 101.
And while we – trans people – get bogged down in these frankly tedious tutorials, our lives – our real lives, our experiences, our hopes and dreams – our existences – are, as a consequence, marginalised, tokenised and always subject to question (if we’re lucky), or erased and made invisible (if we’re not).
Endlessly having to deal with cis people’s demands to explain and justify ourselves is an energy-suck and a humungous time-waster. Because cis people can wander off thinking how fascinating the insights they’ve gained are, or how they’ve proved to themselves that their pet theories are right – and still don’t make the connection between those things, and how we still have to live our lives in their world. And the first thing we ask ourselves, after you’ve all gone on your merry way is why we always have to give these trans 101 lessons to you.
There’s actually a very convincing and well-established argument for not engaging with you at all: it’s not the job of the oppressed minority to educate our oppressors – and yes, you do oppress us. Sometimes these back-to-basics questions are deliberately thrown into a conversation as a way of derailing or recentering it; the aim being to paralyse discussion and thereby shut it down. Sometimes the oppressions are more subtle, unintentional, even. Either way, the net effect of having to interact with cis people at such a fundamental level is, as one of my friends has perceptively remarked, like death by a thousand papercuts.
Face it, it’s not that difficult to type ‘trans 101’ into your favourite search engine and follow a few of the links that come up. And there are any number of excellent books out there – you could do worse than start with Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Or read some of the posts we make on our blogs, or follow the links in our blogrolls.
At least then, when you do come back to us, your questions might have a focus. “Tell me about transgender” is one of the worst things you could ever ask; I can feel my heart sink just typing it out – and you do it Every. Single. Time.
Then you wonder why we get cross with you, why we always seem angry?
But I’ve also heard your counter-argument: “But Helen, the best way for us to learn is for you to tell us, then we hear it first-hand and we get it right”. And despite the pitfalls in your argument, I do actually have some empathy for it. (The pitfalls are (a) it’s a big, big subject which can’t be summed up in a handy pocket-sized soundbite and (b) I don’t speak for, or represent, all trans people). I also know that you always have “just one more question” – and that’s where it starts to become the will-sapping vortex that is behind your demand that trans people educate you.
Periodically, it seems that one or other trans woman thinks that maybe if she put together a trans 101, then she can just refer the questioning cis person to it. It might stick in our throats that we’re doing your grunt work, but we figure that in the long run, the time and effort we put into writing a dedicated piece will pay off – you get your basic information and we hope that we get to have the conversations about the subjects that are of more interest. It never actually works out like that, of course, but we persist, in the faint hope that one day…
So welcome to Yet another trans 101, in which Helen tells cis people What’s What.
It’s not a definitive piece, by any stretch of the imagination – other trans people may or may not agree with my views and opinions, but that’s okay, we each have our own takes on what it means to be trans in a cis person’s world. Neither is it a very structured piece; things loop back into (and out of) other things, they overlap, they intersect, and it’s the antithesis of my usual, more linear style of writing. It doesn’t reach a particular conclusion: that’s not its purpose.
One point I want to make very clear is this: my identity is not up for negotiation. I’m a trans woman (my current definition of the term is in my recent post of the same name – link here) and it really doesn’t matter whether any cis person can or can’t deal with that, whether you accept me as the person I am or not: it’s who I am. So please, spare me the indignant lectures about why/how I can’t possibly exist, or how being trans is an affront to your cherished academic and theoretical ideals of what gender is, or isn’t. Those things are interesting to discuss, sure – but I’m here, now; I’m a real flesh-and-blood human being, just like you. And, just like you, I don’t have to validate my existence to anyone.
I often use the words trans (short for transsexual) – my definition of the term is in my earlier post trans woman (link here) – and cis, short for cissexual. At its simplest, I use the word ‘cis’ to mean ‘not trans’ – but it’s a little more complex than that. As my transition has progressed, I’ve become very aware of the privileges and oppressions around being a trans woman. And a preoccupation of mine is the privileges that cis people have, that are denied to trans people, apparently by virtue of our mere existence.
Several bloggers have put together very useful and informative cis privilege checklists, and I’d really recommend you go and look at the following links. You do need to understand how cis privilege works; like most privileges, it’s given to you regardless of whether or not you want it, and whether or not you’re even aware of it. And your cis privilege does affect the way you treat trans people, believe me.
I should also add that, while they’re useful as a kind of shorthand, it’s my experience that any privilege checklist is by definition not telling the full story. There are nuances and subtleties which do not easily lend themselves to categorisation. But it’s a start, and you really need to give cis privilege a lot of thought; in particular, you need to watch how your cis privilege affects trans people when you interact with us.
- Cis Privilege Checklist: From the Taking Up Too Much Space blog, this is a very comprehensive checklist.
- The Cisgender Privilege Checklist: This one’s from The Transgender Boards and is also useful, although I’m not especially comfortable with the word ‘cisgender’. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
- Trans Bingo Card: Although not a checklist per se, I think it fits in here very well. It lists many of the common questions and statements thrown at us by cis people who clearly haven’t examined their privilege. A lot of these things are actually deeply hurtful, more so when the cis person using the them neither intends to (nor is aware of) the upset these kind of remarks cause. Hence the apparently snarky tone – but when you’ve heard these things for the millionth time, then snark is often our best, and sometimes only, form of self-protection.
Okay. Cissexual vs cisgender. I need to come at this from a bit of an angle, so bear with me. The literal meaning of ‘trans’ is ‘across’, so it could be said that ‘transsexual’ means ‘crossing from one sex to another’. That definition works for me. Likewise, you might say that ‘transgender’ means ‘crossing from one gender to another’. That definition doesn’t work for me; by which I mean that I have always perceived myself as being female, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed through my transition. My sex may have changed but my gender hasn’t.
This is actually another sticking point in understanding trans people; there is a tendency to use ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ synonymously. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, there’s a world of difference – although it’s kind of hard to explain sometimes. There are a couple of truisms relating to this which, although they don’t tell the full story, are a useful way of getting some small insight. First, it’s sometimes said that ‘sex is what’s between a person’s legs, but gender is what’s between their ears’. Alternatively, you might try ‘sex is who I go to bed with, but gender is who I go to bed as.
Coming back to cissexual vs cisgender, this distinction is why, when I use the term ‘cis’, I mean ‘cissexual’, not ‘cisgender’.
And it should also be pointed out that none of these expressions is a slur on a cis person’s cis-ness. They’re just a useful reminder of a generally overlooked/concealed power imbalance in the relations between us.
I want to talk about the ‘gender is a construct’ meme at this point. This handy-dandy cliche is generally attributed to Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex – this translation is from Wikiquote:
On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.
(One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman)
I believe a more useful view is this, from Stephen Whittle’s essay Where did we go wrong? Feminism and trans theory – two teams on the same side?
…I do not care whether I was ‘born this way’ or ‘became this way’. […] Whatever made me, I am, and I can no longer say who the ‘I’ is, except through a descriptive process…
Unfortunately, de Beauvoir’s idea is one of the usual underpinnings of the common, and too-frequent, attacks made on trans women by some cis women feminists, that as gender is socially constructed, a cis man can never be a ‘real’ woman because he wasn’t born female-bodied.
There are two fundamental flaws in this assertion. First, the conflation of constructivism and essentialism, which seems invariably to be ignored or denied by those who practise transphobic hate speech. Which would be risible if it wasn’t for the vitriolic way it’s thrown at us, without even a hint of awareness of the inherent contradictions of the two opposing views.
The second problem – and it’s a form of oppression that’s as vicious as it’s subtle – is the rejection of the trans woman’s perception of herself as being gendered female, not male, and certainly not cis. I never was male, just male-bodied. This is also where cis privilege starts to play out: the cis women who generally expound the hardline constructivist/essentialist view have the luxury of being of a gender that matches their sexed bodies. Their cis privilege renders it impossible for them to realise or accept the gender dissonance which, to me, is at the heart of the experience of being trans. Which would be bearable if we simply agreed to disagree and go our separate ways. But they are unable or unwilling to do that because their entire belief system is founded on this dogma; to admit otherwise would require a – pardon the pun – radical rethinking of their particular brand of feminism. Which, apparently, they are not prepared to do.
The next stage of their attack – and attack is the time-honoured best form of defence, after all – is generally to repeat a variation of the hate speech of Janice Raymond as iterated in her transphobic screed The Transsexual Empire: the making of the she-male:
I contend that the problem with transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.
The problem with that contention is that – despite her protestation that she was ‘merely’ advocating legal limitations on changing sex – the only possible way to implement it, as I see it, would result in the complete eradication of trans people. Genocide, not to put to fine a point on it.
This might be an appropriate moment to say a little about the language around trans oppression.
Time and again, I have witnessed, and experienced, a variety of verbal attacks by cis women feminists and it has become very easy to fathom the nature of these attacks by considering – from a trans perspective – some of the race-related examples set out by the Unapologetic Mexican in the Wite-Magik Attax section of his Glosario resource pages.
It seems to me that cis privilege and white privilege manifest themselves in very similar ways (this is not to say that one is worse than the other). As an oppressed group, trans women need a language to describe our oppression. UM’s Glosario gives trans women some language that’s based on race, but is applicable to being trans.
For example, it’s illuminating to re-read Nezua’s definition of Wite-Magik Attax through the lens of being trans:
A predictable series of non-arguments that attempt to denigrate, negate, or invalidate ideas, feelings, or experience as related by a [trans] person. These attacks take many forms, and while each person making the attack thinks their (dys)logic to be unerring, they echo timeless and faulty cognitive patterns. These Wite-Magik Attax invariably escalate in intensity, however, the longer the [trans] person attempts to assert their reality.
Somewhere around this point, we usually get sucked into another timeworn argument which states that trans women are reinforcing gender stereotypes by transitioning to a female binary spectrum identity. The short answer is that very few of us, trans or cis, are entirely gender neutral in our existence – as demonstrated by the insistence of some cis women radical feminists on simultaneously denying trans women access to their sacred ‘wymyn-born wymyn only’ spaces, at the same time as they tell us there is either no such thing as gender, or that it can be learned like the lines of a play. As I mentioned earlier, their logic is fatally flawed: if there’s no such thing as gender, or it can be dismantled as easily as it can be constructed, then why is there any need for ‘wymyn-born wymyn only’ spaces?
The fact is that there is a substantial body of medical and scientific evidence which shows quite clearly that gender is not something we make up, either as a result of suffering a ‘mental disorder’ (as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines us), or for sexual gratification (fetishism, autogynephilia), or for any of the other ludicrous and offensive reasons that uninformed people like to believe. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a definite neurological element to the condition of transsexualism. It’s likely to have existed in the human race for a very, very long time, and is unlikely to disappear overnight.
Transsexual people are here, we’re real, and I for one would appreciate it if cis people would show us the same respect, concern and compassion that they expect trans people to show them. And on that note, I think I’ll bring this post to a close. There are questions I’ve not answered, topics I’ve not covered, but it’s such a huge subject it’s as difficult to know where to stop as it is to start.
In closing, for anyone seeking answers that this post hasn’t provided, I’d recommend following some of the links I provide in the sidebar of this blog, under the subheading Trans 101 (Hey Lord, don’t ask me questions)