A Response To Sunnivie Brydum

I recognize that in some contexts the word 'cis-' is useful, particularly in legal documents. I also understand the alienating nature of 'othering' language, which would include making a binary of 'trans' and 'nontrans'. However, a 'trans'/'cis-' binary is a problem.
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A friend posted a piece by Sunnivie Brydum on Advocate.com that referenced a post I wrote last summer about my relationship to the term 'cisgender'. My initial reaction on seeing the title was defensive, partly because whenever someone says "the true meaning of..." it is usually followed by a highly simplistic sentence that utterly fails to capture the scope of how power is encoded into and distributed through language, or how language impacts individuals. It turned out to be a piece that I found engaging and substantive, which dove into definitive sources and critical thought. While I disagree with some of the author's assertions, it was a piece I can respect and admire.

I recognize that in some contexts the word 'cis-' is useful, particularly in legal documents. I also understand the alienating nature of 'othering' language, which would include making a binary of 'trans' and 'nontrans'. However, a 'trans'/'cis-' binary is a problem. It is a paradox to argue that gender and sex are socially constructed, that these are arbitrarily assigned at birth, and that a gender binary of male/female is a fiction that should be dissolved, and then impose a new binary. No boiling down the definition of 'cis-' into a six-word sentence changes that. Either these things are constructs that are disciplinary in nature and inscribed onto our bodies, or you are essentializing some aspect of gender identity and proposing a term that is absolutely dependent on the traditional heteronormative gender binary of male/female. This may not be the intent, but outside the realm of the abstract, when it is put to practical use, one relies on markers derived from traditional definitions of gender and makes assumptions about a person's lived experience when one calls them 'cis-'. Using it then imposes your assumptions and constructs onto that person, doing a kind of violence similar to that of the male/female binary. No amount of abstraction changes the violence of using that word.

For example, when I read about RuPaul being called a 'cis-' gay man, it was a judgment about his gender identity based on a collection of physiological and social markers - he was born with a penis and he calls himself a gay man. The essential aspect of his 'cis-' identity is his physiology at birth and assumptions about his gender identity based on his presentation of gender in public. Only, there are many ways in which Ru doesn't behave in ways society defines as 'male'. He wears makeup even when out of drag. He is flamboyant and enjoys displaying his body, even if it is while covered in fashionable clothes. The few times I've seen him discussed in the mainstream press commentators have been confused about his gender identity and what to call him. He is an overt example of another paradox: the relationship between gay men and the term 'male'.

The dominant definition of 'male' in our society, and especially in mainstream media, is one of sexual aggression, emotional illiteracy, and heterosexuality. That hasn't gone away. We are constantly bombarded with images of alpha males, of 'manly' activities, and even effeminized men who prove that they're still men through aggressive resistance to alpha-male dominance or by asserting their sexual dominance over their strong female sitcom love interests. This limiting of 'male' and 'masculine' to a heteronormative landscape has resulted in terrible psychological consequences for gay men who, by definition, are at least partially excluded from being 'men,' 'male,' or 'masculine' by virtue of sucking cock or engaging in butt sex with another guy. This is not to say that gay men don't have some privilege for being perceived as 'male', but many gay men aren't perceived that way. Moreover, many gay men have to deal with that exclusion on a daily basis. Among less self-reflective gays, this results in lashing out against effeminate gay men and bottom shaming, which are manifestations of self-loathing through outright misogyny.

And at what point is a person's gender identity so fixed that you can label them 'cis-'? Among the very unsurprising responses to my piece on refusing that label were people telling me "you just are cis." Well, sorry, but if identity is a construct as poststructuralist and gender theorists believe it is, than I just am nothing. I am shaped by narratives of what gender is associated with my anatomy and what behaviors and traits I should possess because of that narrative of a gender. Then I have to resist all of that because the 'male' that is arbitrarily attached to those born with a penis, the 'male' I was socialized to be, doesn't suck cock or take a cock in the ass. So instead of being born with all kinds of privilege because of the word 'male' on my birth certificate, I, like many gay men, was called a sissy and a faggot, something that wasn't a man or a woman, or anything in between. Sissies and faggots were criminals, gender monsters that should be raped and murdered.

Now, I'm big and hairy, yet have always been uncomfortable in my own skin. I went through a long process of discovering what 'male' and 'man' and 'masculinity' meant for me and it was not what society insists it is. So I'm not really male, I can't be because I suck cock and periodically take it in the ass when I feel like it. I can't really be a man because despite the fact that people see a large hairy man walking down the street, inside I am vulnerable and insecure and constantly having to remind myself that I am a divine being and a unique entity. Meanwhile, I know that all of this - even my own internal sense of self - is socially constructed; at best, it is a response to social forces going on around me. And if you don't think this is the case, why not ask the gay man on Staten Island that was recently beaten by police and called a sissy and a faggot.

Using the term 'cis-' in anything but the abstract requires you to make a judgment about someone's anatomy and gender identity based on your own biases, assumptions, and projections of your own insecurities. You rely heavily on traditional markers of gender absolutely dependent on the male/female gender binary, thus reinforcing categories of gender that many of us find restrictive. It is part of a conservative ideology that reifies gender stereotypes and excludes those who do not fit them. This boils down to a lot of essentializing, generalizing, and probably misgendering.

So, while I understand the term and see how someone might find it politically convenient, trans people aren't de-alienated by setting up a new binary. Ultimately, that does nothing to fix the basic problem that our language has not evolved enough to speak about gender and sex without archaic terms and using a binary that essentializes aspects of sex and gender, and then imposes it on people. It doesn't lessen privilege or stop people from being murdered. These are massive systemic issues. Gender is an enormously complicated concept and saying the definition of 'cis-' is simple and summarizing it in six words is no more useful than insisting on the traditional gender binary.

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