Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cissexism and Cis Privilege Revisited - Part 1: Who Exactly Does “Cis” Refer To?

[note added January, 2017: This essay now appears as a chapter in my third book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism]

For the record: this essay is intended to clarify misconceptions about, and to encourage more thoughtful usage of, cis terminology. Anyone who references this piece in their attempts to deny or eliminate use of the term "cis" (and its variants) is clearly misinterpreting or misrepresenting my views.

My first book Whipping Girl helped to popularize cis terminology—that is, language that uses the prefix “cis” to name the unmarked dominant majority (i.e., people who are not trans) in order to better articulate the ways in which trans people are marginalized in society. In 2009, I wrote a blog post called Whipping Girl FAQ on cissexual, cisgender, and cis privilege that explained my reasoning in forwarding cis terminology and addressed some of the more common arguments made against such language. That blog post ended with a section discussing some of the limitations of cis terminology and the concept of cis privilege—a topic that I will revisit in this two-part series.

Over the years, I have observed that many people now use cis terminology in a manner that is somewhat different from how I attempted to use it in Whipping Girl, thus leading to potential ambiguity—I will address such matters in this first essay. In the last section of this essay, I will suggest another possible model for describing how people are differentially viewed and treated with regards to gender non-conformity, and which may (in some cases) provide a more effective framework than a cisgender/transgender dichotomy.    

In the second essay, I will describe two differing approaches to activism, each of which leads to very different understandings of cissexism and the cis/trans distinction. Rather than simplistically arguing that one approach is “good” and the other “bad,” I will instead forward a more contextual approach, one that acknowledges both the advantages and limitations of different ways of employing cis terminology, and that encourages us to strategically use whichever approach might be most effective within a given situation.

Cisgender, cissexual, and cissexism in Whipping Girl
Whipping Girl was written from an explicitly transsexual perspective and addressed issues that I felt were overlooked by the open-ended approach taken by the transgender movement in the 1990’s (as that perspective continued to dominate in trans communities in 2005-2006 when I was writing the book). Here is what I mean by “open-ended”: Transgender was a broadly defined umbrella term intended to be inclusive of all people who defy societal gender norms. This includes many of us who nowadays identify as “trans” for one reason or another, but it was also meant to potentially include other people who are unconventionally gendered in some way.[1] This open-ended definition allowed a panoply of individuals to claim a spot under the transgender umbrella if they chose to do so.

This open-ended approach may seem counterintuitive to trans activists today, but there was an intentional logic to it. Trans folks had been largely left behind during the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 1970’s and 1980’s, primarily because these were identity-based movements centered on women and gay people, respectively. When movements are rooted in identity, there will inevitably be turf wars over who counts as a “real” woman or an “authentic” gay person. So despite the fact that trans people often face traditional sexism and heterosexism—the forms of sexism that feminism and gay liberation, respectively, were designed to challenge—we were nevertheless excluded from these movements.

In order to circumvent such problems, transgender activists during the 1990’s purposefully created an anti-identity movement, where one was not required to meet any specific criteria for being transgender in order to participate. Anyone could take part in trans liberation so long as they opposed binary gender norms. Transgender activists of that time often highlighted the countless ways in which *all* people (whether trans or non-trans, queer or straight, female or male or both or neither), to varying degrees, are negatively impacted by the same gender binary system. This strategy was extremely productive in creating alliances between trans activists and other queer activists and feminists.

I still believe that this open-ended approach has its merits—especially with regards to creating a larger and more diverse movement, and enabling the non-trans majority to see the benefits (for both themselves, as well as for us) in challenging binary gender norms. However, in practice, it can lead to the false impression that all gender norms are similarly policed, or that all gender variant people face the same set of obstacles. As I put it in the Introduction to Whipping Girl: “While I do believe that all transgender people have a stake in the same political fight against those who fear and dismiss gender diversity and difference in all of its wondrous forms, I do not believe that we are discriminated against in the same ways and for the exact same reasons.”[2]

Throughout Whipping Girl, I primarily focused on two such differences that are relevant to my own life. One was articulating how folks on the trans female/feminine spectrum face trans-misogyny. The second was highlighting the obstacles that are more specifically faced by transsexuals (i.e., those of us who identify and live as members of the sex other than the one we were assigned at birth). I focused on transsexuality because, at the time, it felt like most of the discussion about transgender issues (especially within feminist and queer circles) placed more interest and concern for those who challenge societal norms with regard to gender expression, while often ignoring or outright dismissing issues faced by transsexuals (who primarily defy norms with regard to gender identity and sex embodiment). Nowhere is this more evident than in the writings of many gender and queer theorists of the time, who often celebrated drag, androgyny, and female masculinity, while simultaneously dismissing transsexuals for supposedly being too conservative, assimilationist, or for “reinforcing” the gender system.[3]

I felt that this prioritization of gender expression over gender identity invisibilized some of the most pertinent obstacles faced by transsexuals. After all, while a non-transsexual drag performer, or feminine man, or masculine woman, may experience ridicule or harassment in their day-to-day lives for being visibly gender-non-conforming, their gender identities and sex embodiments are not typically called into question. They do not have any problems obtaining legal documentation (e.g., driver’s licenses, passports) that recognize their lived and identified genders; they do not run the risk of being locked up in the wrong jail cell or forced into some other inappropriate gender-segregated space; they do not have to deal with being mischaracterized as “deceiving” other people or being accused of “impersonation” when they move through the world as members of their self-identified gender.[4]

I wanted to address these issues in Whipping Girl. And as I was writing the book, I stumbled onto cis terminology and found it to be invaluable for articulating such differences in how transsexuals are viewed versus how cissexuals (i.e., people who are not transsexual) are viewed by society. Throughout Whipping Girl, I used the word “cissexism” to describe this particular double standard, and I most thoroughly critique it in Chapter 8, “Dismantling Cissexual Privilege.”[5] I make it clear in that chapter (and elsewhere in the book) that the purpose of using this language is not to reinforce the assumption that transsexuals are inherently different from cissexuals (as I do not believe that we are), but rather to examine the differences in how people are viewed and treated by others depending upon whether they are perceived or known to be transsexual or cissexual—I will return to this particular point in Part 2 of this series.

While the word “cissexual” is used throughout Whipping Girl (according to Google Books, it appears on a whopping seventy-six pages, and often multiple times per page), the word “cisgender” only appears six times in the entire text. I used the word cisgender in the same way that activists today typically do, namely, as a synonym for non-transgender. I also make a distinction between cissexism (i.e., the assumption that transsexual gender identities and sex embodiments are less legitimate than cissexual ones) and cisgenderism (i.e., the assumption that people who defy gender norms are less legitimate than people who conform to them). Cisgenderism only appears once in the book, and my usage of the term to describe the delegitimization of people who defy binary gender norms is consistent with how others have used the word.[6]

So why did I focus almost entirely on cissexual privilege and cissexism while largely ignoring cisgender privilege and cisgenderism? As I’ve already discussed, the main reason is that I felt that transsexual-specific issues had not been adequately addressed by the transgender movement. But in addition to that, it occurred to me as I was working on the book that there was an obvious tension or inconsistency between the broad open-ended approach of the transgender movement and the specificity that is necessary in order to discuss how some people may be privileged in ways that others are not. While transsexuals are a heterogeneous group, there are specific things that we share in common (i.e., we identify and live as members of the sex other than the one we were assigned at birth) that lead us to be viewed and treated in very particular ways by society, and this treatment (particularly with regards to our gender identities and sex embodiments) differs significantly from that typically experienced by cissexuals.[7] In stark contrast, the label transgender is used in an open-ended, all-encompassing way—it could refer to “full-time” transsexuals as well as people who occasionally crossdress; people who strongly identify within the binary as well as people who do not; people who come off as explicitly androgynous, butch, or effeminate, as well as people who superficially seem to be gender-conforming (that is, until others discover that they are transsexual, or genderqueer, or intersex, or two-spirit, etc.).

It was relatively straightforward for me to describe cissexual privilege—the assumptions that drive it and how it (or the lack of it) plays out in transsexuals’ lives. But cisgender privilege seemed more like a nebulous blob to me. There are numerous different cisgender privileges out there, many of which are experienced by certain transgender subgroups but not by others.

For instance, while I may not have cissexual privilege, I do have what might be called binary privilege, in that I identify within the male/female binary. And while my female identity may be viewed as “lesser than” or “not as real as” that of a cissexual woman, the fact that I identify as a woman makes my identity far more legible and understandable to most people than that of a genderqueer person who does not identify within the binary.

Similarly, while I am not especially gender-conforming as a woman (as I am somewhat tomboyish), I am femme enough that my appearance does not stand out as being particularly gender transgressive. As a result, I do not regularly face the specific forms of ridicule or harassment that visibly androgynous and butch women do[8]—this is another way in which one could say that I am privileged with respect to them, despite the fact that they have cissexual privilege whereas I do not.

Given that there are countless gender norms out there, and that many of us defy some of these norms while conforming to others, it did not seem clear to me that we can easily divide up the world up into people who have cisgender privilege and those who do not. The reality is that many of us experience both cisgender privileges and the lack thereof simultaneously in our lives. Furthermore, transgender activists of the 1990’s purposefully intended for “transgender” to be an open-ended label that anyone who defies gender norms could potentially embrace. For one to begin to discuss “cisgender people” as a class unto themselves, it seemed to me that we would necessarily have to precisely define who “transgender people” are. I felt uncomfortable doing this, as it would have defied the explicit intentions of the transgender activists who forwarded the term in the ’90s.

Anyway, for all of the aforementioned reasons, I decided not to delve too much into cisgender, cisgenderism, and cisgender privilege(s) in Whipping Girl.

Cis terminology circa 2014
Language evolves. Some words catch on and others do not. And some of the differences in how cis terminology is used today seem to stem from aesthetic and/or political preferences for certain words over others.

One example of this is the failure of “cisgenderism” to really catch on. Perhaps this is because it is a somewhat clunky word. In any case, trans activists these days tend to use the word “cissexism” in its place. In other words, while I used cissexism in a transsexual-specific manner in Whipping Girl, nowadays trans folks generally use the word in a broad way to describe societal double standards wherein transgender bodies, identities, and expressions are deemed less legitimate than their cisgender counterparts. I have since gone with the flow on this, using this latter definition of cissexism in my second book Excluded and in other post-Whipping Girl writings.

Here is another language trend: People of transsexual experience often prefer labels like “trans” and/or “transgender” over “transsexual.” The most commonly heard justification for this preference is that transsexual contains the word “sex” within it, which plays into misconceptions that we transition for sexual reasons rather than to live as members of our identified genders (although I would counter that “sex” in this context is clearly meant to refer to femaleness and maleness, not sexual activity). Now this trend began well before I began working on Whipping Girl—in fact, I was purposefully trying to reclaim the word transsexual by using it in the subtitle and throughout the book. While I still proudly use it, many folks have moved away from it, which is totally fine. But this trend does have a significant unintended consequence: It means that few people these days (other than me) regularly refer to “cissexuals” or “cissexual privilege.” Instead, it is far more common to come across references to “cis” or “cisgender” people, and “cis” or “cisgender” privilege.

As stand alone words, “trans” and “cis” can sometimes refer to transsexuals and cissexuals, respectively—specifically when they precede the words “woman” and “man” (e.g., trans woman, cis man). But many other times, “trans” is used as a broad, open-ended umbrella term that is synonymous with transgender. Indeed, many folks these days put an asterisk on the end of trans (i.e., trans*) in order to emphasize its broad umbrella nature.

Thus, in practice, when someone says “cis people,” it is often unclear whether they are talking about cissexual or cisgender people. And this can lead to significant discrepancies, as there are far more cissexual people than cisgender people, and many cissexual people are in fact transgender!

This slippage in meanings between cis, cisgender, and cissexual is often acutely felt by people who are cissexual but who nevertheless fall under the transgender umbrella. Several friends of mine who identify as crossdressers, genderqueer, and/or intersex have told me that they feel uncomfortable with cis terminology because, on the one hand, they don’t want to deny the “cis privilege” they experience (by which they seem to mean cissexual privilege), but at the same time, they feel erased by the assumption that they are “cis people” (as they fall under the transgender umbrella). Still others who are cissexual and identify within the binary (and acknowledge those privileges), but have a history of being gender variant and participating in gender variant communities, have expressed unease with how the labels “cis” and “cisgender” seem to oversimplify their gendered histories.[9]

Admittedly, there are some people who clearly do not fall under the transgender umbrella (nor do they wish to) yet who reject the labels cis/cisgender and deny having cis/cisgender privileges. Such individuals will often cite definitions in which “cisgender” is described as being synonymous with being “gender conforming” or “gender normative,” and they will then point to various ways in which they are not especially conforming or normatively gendered. Thus, in their minds, they cannot be cis/cisgender, nor can they possibly possess cis/cisgender privilege. Because such claims seem to purposefully ignore how cis privileges play out in everyday life, it is easy to dismiss these arguments as examples of the knee-jerk denial that often accompanies discussions about privilege. However, while these claims may be misguided, it is worth recognizing that they are enabled by the same vagueness in the terms cis/cisgender that has also caused confusion and disillusion within transgender spectrum communities.

So to summarize: The terms “cis” and “cisgender” are often used ambiguously, and this is partly due to the fact they are defined in relation to the broad, open-ended, umbrella terms “trans” and “transgender,” which lack precise definitions or boundaries. This ambiguity has caused some concern within trans communities (regarding potential erasure of non-transsexual transgender identities) and confusion outside of trans communities (specifically, ostensibly cisgender people who misunderstand the purpose of this language and therefore reject it).

Rethinking gender-non-conformity and social legitimacy
There are a few things that we can do to help alleviate some of the aforementioned problems. For one thing, if we are specifically talking about privileges experienced by non-transsexuals, then perhaps it might be best to explicitly say “cissexual privilege” rather than “cis privilege.” And if we are talking more generally about privileges experienced by cisgender people, then maybe we should refer to them as “cisgender privileges” (plural), and make clear that these privileges can vary somewhat from person to person, both within the transgender umbrella and outside of it. Also, given that we (i.e., trans activists) often tout the diversity that exists within the transgender/trans/trans* umbrella, we should also keep in mind that diversity exists among cisgender/cis/cis* people as well, and that there is no clear-cut line that one can draw in the sand between these two groups.

Most importantly, we need to stress (both within trans communities and to the general public) that the primary purpose of the cis/trans distinction is not to simply describe differences in identity. Rather, its main purpose is to articulate differences in societal legitimacy. By this reasoning, what is significant about me being “trans” is not the fact that I have rejected my birth-assigned gender (as in a perfect world, that might not be particularly noteworthy), but the fact that my gender is deemed to be less socially legitimate than other people’s genders because of that fact. And cis people experience cis privileges, not because they are one hundred percent happy with their gender status or completely free from gender-based oppression, but because they do not face the same obstacles that I do as a trans person (as a result of their genders being deemed socially legitimate in ways that mine is not).[10]

I would argue that the terms transgender/trans/trans* are not especially suited for this task of discussing discrepancies in social legitimacy, as they are meant to be catch-all categories for people who in various ways “defy gender norms” or are “gender non-conforming.” And most people who are ostensibly cisgender can probably point to instances in their lives when they have defied certain gender norms and were criticized for it. I believe that it is in our best interest to encourage the cisgender majority to consider and express outrage over how gender norms negatively impact them, as such discussions are necessary if we want them to join us in a campaign to eliminate binary gender norms. But at the same time, not all gender norms are created equal. A man might wear a pink shirt, or a woman might choose not to shave her legs, and they may both receive negative comments from others. But they probably won’t get fired from their jobs, be accosted in public restrooms, have doctors refuse to treat them, or face transphobic violence on account of those acts. In other words, acts of gender-non-conformity may differ greatly in their social legitimacy (or lack thereof).

Given all this, perhaps a more advantageous way of discussing gender norms with regards to social legitimacy is to consider a three-tiered system rather than a cisgender/transgender dichotomy. These three groupings are not meant to define discreet classes of people, but rather three general tiers of social legitimacy.

Some people in our society are perceived as being gender conventional, in that they generally adhere to the accepted societal norms and expectations that are projected onto boys/men and girls/women in our culture. Because these individuals seemingly fall within those accepted parameters, their gender identities, expressions, and bodies are generally viewed as “normal” and legitimate. To be clear, this is not to say that such individuals are fully “gender privileged.” After all, while they experience certain privileges for being seen as conventionally gendered, they may simultaneously be delegitimized because they are a woman, or feminine, or because of the way their gender intersects with other forms of marginalization.

Other people might be perceived as being somewhat gender unconventional because they defy some of these norms. This group might include people whose body or build is somewhat atypical for their gender, as well as tomboyish women, flamboyant or effeminate men, or people who prefer unisex or androgynous fashions. It might also include people who espouse feminism, or who have interests or professions that are atypical for their gender. Maybe they engage in more extreme acts of gender-non-conformity, but only within certain socially sanctioned settings (e.g., while on a stage as part of an act or performance, or at costume- or role-play-themed events). Others may view such individuals as “odd” or “weird,” and they will certainly catch some flak for this. However, at the same time, these particular traits are also generally seen as being either a part of human variation (i.e., it is commonly accepted that some people will simply be that way) or as having more to do with politics, style, or social roles (which many people recognize as flexible and evolving over time). For this reason, gender unconventional people are generally seen as “outliers,” but are not viewed as constituting a pernicious threat to male and female gender categories or categorization. In other words, while they are not seen as entirely socially legitimate, they are usually considered to be socially acceptable or tolerable.

Still other traits are seen as belonging exclusively to one sex or another, or are considered to be determinative for gender categorization—examples may include primary and certain secondary sex characteristics, one’s gender identity, and the gender that one lives and presents as. When a person defies these norms, they are often viewed as downright gender transgressive.[11] So for instance, a man who wears a single item of feminine clothing may be seen as gender unconventional, whereas if they fully present as a woman with the intention of being read as female, then they will likely be deemed gender transgressive. A woman who wants to be on top during sex may be seen as gender unconventional, but if they always imagine themselves as having a penis during the act, they will likely be viewed as gender transgressive. Unlike gender unconventional traits (which are commonly viewed as “bending” gender norms), gender transgressive traits are often perceived as downright “breaking” the laws of gender. This explains why our society has historically condoned the punishment of gender transgressive people (e.g., via violence and dehumanizing acts, denying of legal rights, or ruining their lives in other ways), and why such individuals are often misconstrued as “deceivers” and “impersonators” (i.e., “criminals” guilty of the gender equivalent of “fraud”). Thus, gender transgressive traits are viewed as completely unacceptable and socially illegitimate.

At this point, a few crucial points about this model need to be made. First, to reiterate, these three tiers are not intended to represent identities (as I can assure you, I do not identify as “gender transgressive”—frankly, my gender feels rather mundane to me personally, having to live with it everyday). Rather, these tiers simply represent different ways in which gendered traits (and the people who possess them) may be perceived and treated by others. Second, these tiers are not intended to represent fixed and discrete classes. For instance, in certain times or places people might view the fact that I am transsexual as highly gender transgressive and punish me accordingly, whereas people in other times or places (e.g., communities that are largely trans aware, positive, or welcoming) that facet of my person may be seen as merely gender unconventional. Similarly, in more liberal or progressive settings, traits such as being a feminist or being in a same-sex relationship may be seen as ordinary and legitimate, whereas in more conservative settings (where especially rigid or fundamentalist ideas about gender predominate), these same traits might be considered to be transgressive and illegitimate.[12]

This model highlights numerous aspects of marginalization based on gender-non-conformity (and activism designed to challenge it) that are obscured by other models (e.g., a cisgender/transgender dichotomy). First, it accounts for the concerns of people who are viewed as gender unconventional—that is, it acknowledges that people who are ostensibly cis (yet gender unconventional) often face disapproval and penalties for their gender non-conformity—without trivializing the more extreme ramifications and punishments faced by many trans people (on the basis that we are perceived as gender transgressive).

It also helps to explain the slow arc of progression that activism often takes. Specifically, groups that are deemed transgressive (and dehumanized as a result) are not in a logistical position to claim that they are just as legitimate as the dominant majority, as such claims will not be taken seriously. Instead, such groups often have to make the case that they are merely unconventional, rather than a violation of the laws of society, morality, or nature. Upon reaching the status of being seen as merely unconventional (rather than transgressive), they can then more effectively work to completely eliminate the “convention” (in this case, the gender norm) that undermines them. This process involves convincing people that, while certain ways of being (e.g., with regard to gender) may be atypical or uncommon, they are nevertheless just as socially legitimate as more typical or common ways of being. Recognizing this progression may lead to an understanding that trans activism needs to be occurring on both of these “fronts” simultaneously, since individuals within a given population will likely differ in whether they view gender atypical people as transgressive, unconventional, or socially legitimate.[13]

Because gender unconventional people may be perceived as gender transgressive in certain contexts, and because trans people are slowly but increasingly being perceived as gender unconventional rather than gender transgressive, it is in all of our best interests to work together to challenge all binary gender norms, and to argue that all gender atypical traits should be considered socially legitimate. This is a cause that could unite numerous groups in addition to trans people, including many feminists, other LGBTQIA+ activists, other people who consider themselves to be gender unconventional in some way, and even gender conventional people who find gender norms to be restrictive or unfair. Indeed, this coalition is similar to the one that 1990’s era transgender activists attempted to build, although we seem to have gotten away from this strategy a bit in recent years (for understandable reasons that I will address in Part 2 of this series).

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we completely replace the cisgender/transgender dichotomy with the three-tiered system I have just described. Both are simply models that explain certain aspects of marginalization based on gender non-conformity. Each model is limited in its explanatory powers, and may be more useful in certain situations or contexts but not others. While the three-tiered model may be more likely to win over other activists—especially those who are gender unconventional but not transgender-identified—it is perhaps a bit too complicated to resonate with people who do not have an especially nuanced view of gender. And while I personally prefer activist approaches that focus on how individuals are differentially perceived and treated by society, history has repeatedly shown us that identity-based approaches (e.g., I am transgender, and transgender people are oppressed, whereas cisgender people do not face this oppression) invariably seem to garner the most momentum, both within marginalized communities and in persuading the dominant majority.

It should also be pointed out that many of the problems associated with the cisgender/transgender distinction that I detailed earlier stem not from the fact that this model is dichotomous (rather than three-tiered, or some other variation), but rather because of how it is employed. In the second essay in this series, I will discuss two common albeit different ways in which people tend to conceptualize and utilize the cisgender/transgender distinction, each of which arises from differing activist philosophies, and may lead to considerably different potential outcomes.

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]

1. For instance, in the Preface to Transgender Warriors, Leslie Feinberg asked self-identified transgender activists of that era to list who they felt should be included under the transgender umbrella. The list included: “transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, transgenderists, bigenders, drag queens, drag kings, cross-dressers, masculine women, feminine men, intersexuals…, androgynes, cross-genders, shape-shifters, passing women, passing men, gender-benders, gender-blenders, bearded women, and women body builders…” [Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul (Beacon Press: Boston, 1996), p. x]. In Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein suggested that gay men and lesbians are excluded by society more for their breaking of gender codes than for their sexual practices, and for that reason, one could make the case that they are “transgendered” (although she quickly acknowledges that “this will offend everyone”) [Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 135].

2. Whipping Girl, pages 2-3.

3. I provide numerous examples of such claims, and thoroughly eviscerated this notion that transsexuals are inherently “conservative,” “assimilationist,” or “reinforce the gender system,” in Chapter 7 of Whipping Girl (“Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism,” pages 115-160) and Chapter 12 of Excluded (‘The Perversion of “The Personal is Political”,’ pages 110-137).

4. Here is why this discrepancy in experiences exists: The very notion that people either “defy” or “conform” to gender norms is anchored in the assumption that they belong to one sex (i.e., their assigned sex) while expressing themselves in ways that are more stereotypical of the other sex. Indeed, this is how many (albeit certainly not all) non-transsexual transgender spectrum people understand themselves. In contrast, transsexuals are typically misread as “misrepresenting” ourselves as members of the other sex. While I may understand myself to be a woman, others may interpret me as an “extremely effeminate man” or a “female impersonator.” This is why coming out as transsexual is often more fraught than coming out in other ways. After all, if someone comes out as a gay man, or a crossdresser, or a drag performer, other people will likely see them as they see themselves (i.e., as gay man, a crossdresser, a drag performer, respectively). In contrast, when I come out to people as transsexual, other people may misinterpret that as me confessing that I am “really a man” rather than recognizing that I have simply shared the truth that I am a woman of transsexual experience.

5.Whipping Girl, pp. 161-193. More recently, I discuss how cissexism functions in my second book Excluded, especially pp. 113-132.

6. Whipping Girl, page 20. A similar use of the term “cisgenderism” can be found in Y. Gavriel Ansara and Peter Hegarty, “Cisgenderism in psychology: pathologising and misgendering children from 1999 to 2008,” Psychology & Sexuality, Volume 3, Issue 2 (2012), pages 137-160. [] The term “genderism” is also sometimes used in a similar way.

7. Some might suggest that the cissexual/transsexual distinction is blurred by transsexuals who “pass” as cissexual. But as I argue in Whipping Girl, this is not actually the case: What these transsexuals experience is more accurately described as conditional cissexual privilege. It is conditional because they lose it as soon as they come out as, or are discovered to be, transsexual. Admittedly, the cissexual/transsexual distinction can become muddied when one retroactively views transsexual lives. For example, if someone consciously identifies as a man for many years before eventually coming to identify as a transsexual woman, did they experience cissexual privilege as a man in the past (since that's how they identified at the time)? Similar complications arise with regards to people who identify as transsexual for a period of their lives, but who later de-transition. The distinction can also get murky in those rare instances when people who are ostensibly cissexual live as members of the other sex, not because they identify as members of that sex, but for some other reason (e.g, to gain access to a gender-specific occupation or to write a bestselling book). In such cases, these individuals may face many of the same allegations that transsexuals do (e.g., of being “deceivers” or “impersonators”), although it comes without having their underlying gender identities invalidated in the process. Anyway, these exceptions aside, I believe that the cissexual/transsexual distinction is relatively sharp compared to the vague open-ended nature of transgender (which makes it impossible to precisely define cisgender) and the fact that different transgender subgroups are often perceived, interpreted, and treated quite differently from one another (which results in a multiplicity of cisgender privileges that are differentially experienced within transgender populations).

8. Of course, this can drastically change if people discover that I am transsexual, at which point they are likely to misperceive me as an especially gender transgressive “man” rather than as a relatively gender-conforming woman.

9. This is discussed in Helen Boyd, “Jeez Louise This Whole Cisgender Thing” [], en/Gender September 17, 2009, and A. Finn Enke, “The Education of Little Cis: Binary Gender and the Discipline of Opposing Bodies,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, Volume 2, eds. Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura (Routledge Press: New York, 2012), pp. 234-247.

10. I discuss many of these privileges in Whipping Girl, pp. 161-193 and Excluded, pp. 113-132. I also highly recommend Hazel/Cedar Troost’s Cis Privilege Checklist [] for a thorough elucidation of such privileges as they play out in everyday life.

11. I appropriated this nomenclature from Kate Bornstein’s notion that some people are “transgressively gendered” (Bornstein, Gender Outlaw, p. 135), although I am using it in a somewhat different manner. To be clear, I am not insinuating that gender transgressive people are inherently transgressive or purposefully engaging in transgressions. Frankly, most of us just wake up every day and are being ourselves, just like everyone else. Rather, it is other people who view our genders as transgressive (because they believe that there are “gender laws,” and they perceive us as “breaking” those laws).

12. To be clear, I am not conflating gender and sexual orientation here. While members of a particular gender may vary in their sexual orientations (e.g., heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, asexual), it is also true that there are societal gender norms regarding sexual attraction. According to these gender norms, a woman who partners with a man will be seen as gender conventional, whereas if she partners with a woman she may be viewed as gender unconventional or gender transgressive.

13. This helps explain certain disagreements that regularly occur within activist movements over what strategies will best serve the cause. For instance, the “we can’t help it, we’re just born this way” argument that many LGBTQIA+ people have forwarded can be quite effective in convincing people that our queerness or transness is merely unconventional rather than transgressive. Yet this same argument (which some may take as an admission that we represent biological “mistakes” or “anomalies”) can be a hindrance for those activists who are trying to make the case (often to a different audience) that we should be considered wholly socially legitimate rather than merely socially tolerable or accepted.

Here is another example: Back when I was first getting involved in trans activism in the early ’00s, one of the most common formats for raising awareness about trans people and issues was to conduct “transgender 101” workshops, wherein we discussed our lives, identities, and experiences. In other words, the implicit purpose of these workshops was to humanize trans people, and to convince others that while we may be “gender unconventional,” we are not “transgressive” (i.e., immoral, unnatural, deceptive). In the years since, I have heard many trans activists argue that we should be doing “cissexism 101” workshops rather than “transgender 101” workshops. While I agree in a general sense, I think that it is important to recognize that such campaigns have very different audiences and goals in mind. A “cissexism 101” workshop would encourage people to see trans people as just as socially legitimate as cis people, and while such work is vital, this particular approach might not be so effective on people who view us as downright “transgressive” and therefore unworthy of consideration in the first place.  


  1. An excellent, well-considered article. Thank you and I look forward to Part 2 (both as a person and as an activist)!

  2. I come to this from a position of some limited personal experience, as a cisgendered gay father of a gender nonconforming child, but also a good deal of ignorance. It may take a few reads to understand your positions fully. What jumped out at me on the first read, however, was how you distinguish between "unconventional" and "transgression". Perhaps those are technical meanings for those terms within your field, but my common usage understanding seems at odds with your positions. I embrace the term "transgression" for my family and my child, whereas as for you it seems to carry substantial negative connotations. My child expresses gender with clothes and behavior that our outside of the socially prescribed norms for kids assigned as male, and so he "transgresses". I support him for being true to his identity and try to make him safe from social reactions to his transgression. In so doing, we both change the culture (ever so slightly) and move the norms toward something healthier and more accepting of individual differences. The term "unconventional", on the other hand, seems to imply an acceptance of (and agreement with) social norms, casting individual behavior as "justifiably" outside of the social conventional and "justifiably" worthy of stigma. Transgression challenges, while "unconventionality" accedes - at least that is my relatively untutored perception. I am very interested in learning more and hearing how others experience those terms.

    1. I tried to make it clear in both the essay and footnote #11 that these categories are not meant to be identity labels, and that I don't personally identify as "transgressive." They are meant to describe different ways in which differently gendered people may be perceived by others. We have plenty of labels to choose from already (transgender, trans*, gender non-conforming, gender variant, etc.) - the terms I forward here are not meant to replace those, but rather to help think through different problems that gender non-conforming people face and how to address them.

    2. I re-read the article (a couple of times) and your response, which was very helpful, and now I see more clearly your focus on how individuals can be marginalized. For categories of marginalization, the terms gender conventional, gender unconventional, and transgressive do seem apt. And (whether it was your intention or not) I now understand those terms to describe socially imposed categories rather than individual alignments, because obviously different cultures and even individuals may draw the "social" boundaries in different places. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for an interesting and very helpful discussion.

    I must admit I am getting increasingly worried about the usage of words like "cis" and "cisgender", as they are increasingly used to invalidate the identities of transgender people who do not live up to the ideals of the gender binary.

    And I am not so much thinking about the "gender unconventional" or "gender transgressive" you are referring to. I am mainly talking about gender dysphoric transgender people who find it hard to exclusively identify as men, women or any of the two, and to people who are still on their transgender journey, exploring different identities.

    This terminology slippage has become especially problematic over at the social network tumblr, a meeting place for the young, where a small group of FTM transsexuals are redefining the word transgender to mean transexual.

    This separatist tribe, who call themself "truscum", argue that only gender dysphoric people who intend to transition are transgender or trans. Everyone else is cis, cishet, or cisgender, and therefore part of the machinery of oppression. In their world cis now means the same as cissexual or non-transsexual. It has become a slur.

    Queer and transgender people who do not live up to the truscum standards are now redefined as fake, snowflake, wannabe trans, transtrenders or tucutes, and ridiculed for exploring alternative terms describing their identities (like demigirl, neutrois, genderqueer and girlfag).

    It is clear to me that the driving force behind their strategy is fear of social contamination from crossdressers, drag queens, and non-conformative transgender people. They fear that any association with these groups will undermine their social standing as "normal", binary, individuals. By redefining transgender people as cis, they hope to avoid this contamination.

    The truscum make a lot of noise, but have very little support. We recently carried out an online survey of gender variant people. Out of 1199 respondents, 481 were recruited over at tumblr.

    We found an overwhelming support for a broad transgender alliance including all types of gender variant people (from 89 to 97%). This strong support for collaboration was also found among the younger the tumblr-cohort, as well as among transsexual respondents.

    Still, a smaller proportion of the tumblr respondents call themselves transgender, compared with the older non-tumblr sample. I suspect this may be partly caused by the aggressiveness of the truscum-campaign, and partly by the the changing use of the term transgender.

    This means that even if the separatists have little support in the broad transgender community, they may nevertheless achieve their objective of undermining the transgender alliance. They may do so by redefining the very words that hold us together.

    Terms like gender non-conforming, gender variant, non-binary or gender unconventional, won't help us, as they will be understood as referring to "the other", "those not us" by the separatist and -- I fear -- by many other transsexual men and women as well.

    This is not only a problem for non-transsexual transgender people. It has become a huge problem for gender dysphoric transgender people who are still exploring their own identity. By forcing them in under "the cisgender umbrella", their attackers reinforce the social conditioning that stops them from finding themselves. With no broad transgender alliance, there will be no safe rooms where they can grow with the support of other transgender people, transsexual or non-transsexual.

    This is why we must communicate strongly to the younger generation that the transgender umbrella is alive and well, and that they are allowed to describe themselves as transgender, even if they do not live up to the stereotypes.

    1. Thanks for adding this. And I've read your piece about similarities (as well as some differences) between "truscum" and the HBS/"true transsexuals" separatism that has occurred in some trans women's circles. I agree that such quests for "purity" (usually by purging certain people from the umbrella) is a huge recurring problem. I also agree that we shouldn't surrender the word "transgender" to such groups, which is why I continue to use it in a broad umbrella way. This is also why I've had some reservations about the latest all-inclusive umbrella term "trans*". While I have absolutely nothing against trans* (and the people who use it) per se, I do sometimes worry that its existence implies that transgender is somehow no longer inclusive enough, or that if one uses "transgender" they are leaving some gender-variant people behind - which is *not* how I use the term at all...

  4. Thank you for an excellent and insightful article.  I have a slight quibble with your use of the word "tiers" to describe the clusters of perception that result in oppressive behavior.  I've seen that it has fixed in some reader's minds a more durable sense of hierarchy to the clusters than I think you intended, especially those readers whose attention span flagged before the end of the article. 

    From my perspective, the beauty of what you have proposed is that it focuses on the potentially oppressive observer and the perceptions that drive their behavior.  These perceptions can shift from cluster to cluster over the course of a single interaction.  Specific knowledge about the identity of the observed individual has hard to predict effects on the perceptions of the observer.  The perceived relative legitimacy of cross dresser can be greater or less than transsexual, for example.

    Because of this shifty ground and the tendency of people to treat hierarchies as fixed truth (e.g. drosophila melanogaster), I think the less deterministic term cluster is more descriptive than tier. 

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that "clusters" is well-suited for what I am describing. I used "tier" because their is a bit of a hierarchy in many people's minds (i.e., they see gender conventional people as more legitimate than gender unconventional people, who they see as more acceptable than people who they perceive as gender transgressive). But as I (and you) said, they are not "tiers" in a fixed sense, as it depends on the perceptions/reactions of the observer. So if "cluster" gets that idea across to people better than "tier," I am happy to go along with that.

  5. Hi Julia,
    first of all thank you for your insightful articles and books which are immensely helpful. Your focus on activism and alliances instead of identities is refreshing. Also, it opens up the discussion again, especially for people who get thrown under the bus (!) by the recent developments in trans activism, namely legitimizing transsexuality by devaluing all other types of transgender.
    I want to remind of people who might seem cis/not trans enough, but who are gender transgressive in your definition, and are cast out by both the mainstream and the LGBT communities.
    They somehow get trapped between the front lines of this struggle, something which is probably normal for such historical moments of activism, but nonetheless not very healthy for those involved (see history of bisexuality etc). They often have little to no support system.

  6. What are "norms with regards to sex embodiment"? Did they exist before Harry Benjamin invented transsexuality in 1949?

    I don't think there's a problem with cisgender and transgender any more than there is a problem with heterosexual and homosexual. The problem is, once again, like everything, turning everything into a binary hierarchy instead of seeing it as a spectrum. I propose that we need a simple cisgender-transgender rating scale: