Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cissexism and Cis Privilege Revisited - Part 2: Reconciling Disparate Uses of the Cis/Trans Distinction

[note added November, 2016: 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.

In the first essay of this two-part series, I discussed how the way in which cis terminology is often used today can sometimes invisibilize certain forms of gender-based oppression, and potentially exclude people who exist at the margins of the transgender umbrella (i.e., people who don’t fit quite so neatly into a cis/trans binary). In this essay, I want to talk about the different ways in which a cis/trans distinction may be employed, as this can greatly shape the nature and ultimate goals of trans activism.

“Decentering the binary” versus “reverse discourse” approaches
One of the more commonly heard complaints about cis terminology is that it supposedly “creates a new binary” (i.e., trans versus cis). I strongly disagree with this argument. After all, people already make a distinction between non-transsexuals and transsexuals, and between gender-conforming and gender-non-conforming individuals. So the cissexual/transsexual and cisgender/transgender binaries already exist in people’s minds. It’s just that now we (trans activists) have explicitly named the unmarked majority as “cis.”

This naming of the unmarked majority can be undertaken toward one of two potential ends. First, it can be used to undermine the binary in question by decentering the dominant group perspective. So, rather than the standard perspective that trans people’s genders are illegitimate and suspect (which presupposes that cis people’s genders are legitimate and “normal”), we can instead argue that there are really two groups at play here: trans and cis people. Both are legitimate things to be. And trans people are not inherently different or distinct from cis people, but rather we are merely perceived, interpreted, and treated differently. Here, the cis/trans distinction and cis privilege serve as conceptual tools in order to make this under-discussed and often invisible set of cissexist double standards appear visible to people. The end goal here is to get people to recognize and relinquish these cissexist double standards, thus reducing the social significance of the cis/trans distinction. Presumably, in a post-cissexist world, there would still be people who are gender variant, or who socially and/or physically transition[1], but their gender identities, expressions, and embodiments would not receive undue scrutiny, nor be viewed as less legitimate than their cis counterparts. This is the approach that I strove to articulate in Whipping Girl.

A second and rather different way in which the naming of the unmarked majority can be employed is as part of a reverse discourse.[2] A reverse discourse occurs when a group takes a designation or distinction that has historically been used to marginalize them (in this case, being “trans”) and uses it as a standpoint from which to prioritize their own beliefs, desires, and perspectives. So instead of the cis majority defining, discussing, and critiquing trans people, trans folks now define ourselves and describe our own identities, lives, issues, communities, and culture. What cis people say about us, our predicament, and perhaps even gender more generally, is rendered irrelevant—we are the only authority on issues that impact our lives. Indeed, in a reverse discourse, cis people and perspectives may even be deemed as inherently suspect, illegitimate, or oppressive.[3]

While the first approach that I described merely decenters the dominant group (thus creating two legitimate groups: cis and trans people), reverse discourses re-center the binary on the marginalized group. Rather than reducing the social significance of the cis/trans binary, a reverse discourse emphasizes it—after all, one only gains the authority to speak about trans people and related matters of gender if one can indisputably claim a trans identity. And in this reverse discourse, discussions of cis privilege are not merely a tool to make unconsciously-held cissexist double standards appear visible, but rather they are used to make cis people accountable for their relative power and the long history of anti-trans oppression. This approach compels cis people to explicitly acknowledge their position of power and privilege as members of the oppressor class—for example, by stepping aside to allow trans people’s voices to be heard, or qualifying anything they say about trans issues or even gender more generally with the admissions like “Well, as a cis person...”

Of course, trans people did not invent this reverse discourse approach. Michel Foucault initially coined the phrase “reverse discourse” to describe the approach taken by gay liberationists who re-appropriated the heterosexual/homosexual distinction in order to forward the narrative of a homosexual class that was oppressed at the hands of the heterosexual majority.[4] Within feminist theory, the phrase “reverse discourse” has been used to describe certain strands of feminism that conceptualize sexism solely in terms of “men are the oppressors, women the oppressed, end of story.” (Note: in some of my previous writings, I have used the term “unilateral feminism” to describe this particular approach to feminism.) Reverse discourses have also arisen in other activist movements, where they are often described under the rubric of “identity politics.”[5] So it is unsurprising that trans activists would adopt a similar approach.

Having come into activism during the heyday of third-wave feminism and queer theory, I was taught to be highly suspicious of reverse discourses for several of reasons. First, they divvy up all people into two mutually-exclusive groups: the oppressors and the oppressed. This move excludes countless “liminal” people who do not fall neatly into one group or another. This is why feminists who forward reverse discourses have such a horrendous track record in dealing with people who fall under the transgender umbrella, and why gay men and lesbians who forward reverse discourses have such a horrendous track record in dealing with people who fall under the asexual and bisexual umbrellas.

Reverse discourses also tend to be highly unilateral, focusing primarily on that one particular axis of oppression, while ignoring other forms of marginalization that intersect with that “primary axis” (as well as with one another).[6] As a result, reverse discourses tend to depict the marginalized group in a homogeneous manner—e.g., by making claims that all members share the same perspectives, beliefs, needs, and desires—when this is typically far from the truth. Reverse discourses also tend to portray the “oppressor class” (who in reality are a heterogeneous mix of people who vary greatly in their experiences, privileges, and forms of marginalization they may face) in a monolithic and stereotyped manner. As Judith Butler once said: “The effort to identify the enemy as singular in form is a reverse-discourse that uncritically mimics the strategy of the oppressor instead of offering a different set of terms.”[7] (Yes, it is true: I really did just cite both Butler and Foucault in the same essay.)

A disdain for reverse discourses and the way they exclude people who do not neatly fit into binary categories is what compelled transgender activists of the 1990’s to try to create an open-ended anti-identity movement for anyone who saw themselves as a “gender outlaw” of one stripe or another (as I discussed in Part 1 of this series). So when writing Whipping Girl, I tried not to fall into the reverse discourse trap, and instead I tried to adhere to the decentering the binary approach that I described earlier. And while I think that I did a pretty decent job to that effect, in retrospect, I have to admit that there were a few passages where I got a bit reverse discourse-y.[8] Frankly, it’s hard not to. When you are a delegitimized minority, members of the dominant majority will often not take you seriously unless you can somehow prove that you have superior knowledge (due to your unique standpoint) and deserve to be listened to (because you have been unfairly oppressed by the dominant group). Reverse discourses provide this. In contrast, the both-identities-are-just-as-legitimate sentiment of the decentering the binary approach often fails to gain much traction at first, especially if the marginalized group is highly stigmatized.

In addition to creating a narrative that gives the marginalized group the authority to speak on its own behalf and compels the dominant group to listen, reverse discourses can also be very cathartic for members of the marginalized group. It provides a justification for them to rightfully vent the anger and hurt that they have been made to feel as a result of the marginalization they have faced. And because reverse discourses “flip” the original hierarchy, members of the marginalized group may suddenly feel a sense of superiority over members of the dominant group, and this can understandably feel empowering. In contrast, the nobody-is-superior-to-anyone sentiment of the decentering the binary approach does not offer this possibility for self-satisfaction.

Finally, while reverse discourses are primarily concerned with identities (in this case, whether people are cis or trans), the decentering approach is primarily concerned with a mindset (in this case, cissexist double standards that influence how we see and interpret the world) that affects both the dominant and marginalized groups. Therefore, according to the decentering approach, members of the dominant group are just as capable of overcoming cissexist beliefs as members of the marginalized group are. As a result, members of the dominant group have the potential of becoming righteous allies who can help us challenge the marginalization we face. In stark contrast, reverse discourses tend to portray members of the dominant group as inherently oppressive and suspect, and thus the very notion that such individuals can become “allies” or “advocates” seems somewhat self-contradictory. Indeed, in reverse discourses, people who position themselves as allies are often accused of asserting their privilege and/or erasing the voices of the marginalized group by attempting to speak on their behalf.[9]

Given all this, it seems obvious why reverse discourses tend to galvanize marginalized groups far more so than decentering the binary approaches. But the problem is that reverse discourses have no endgame: the distinction forever remains important, even if discrimination decreases over time. And as I already discussed, reverse discourses have a host of other problems (e.g., they unilaterally focus on one or a few axes of oppression; they erase and exclude people who do not fit neatly into one of the two mutually-exclusive groups; they view members of the two groups in a uniform, and sometimes essentialist, manner) that are not shared by the decentering the binary approach.

Who faces cissexism?
We can see the profoundly different implications of these two approaches if we ask the simple question: “What is cissexism and who faces it?”

A decentering the binary approach would encourage us to view cissexism as a set of assumptions that people (whether individuals or institutions) hold (either consciously or unconsciously) that lead them to perceive, interpret, and treat gender-variant/gender-non-conforming bodies, identities, and expressions as illegitimate or inferior to their gender-normative/gender-conforming counterparts. Thus, any given person (whether cis or trans) can behave in a cissexist manner. And any given person (whether cis or trans) could potentially experience cissexism (although for obvious reasons, this form of marginalization will be experienced most frequently and intensely by trans people).

In Whipping Girl, I framed cissexism this way:

While often different in practice, cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all rooted in oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. Oppositional sexists attempt to punish or dismiss those of us who fall outside of gender or sexual norms because our existence threatens the idea that women and men are “opposite” sexes. [10]

I go onto say that those of us who defy oppositionally sexist gender and sexual norms:

...blur the boundaries required to maintain the male-centered gender hierarchy that exists in our culture today... Traditional and oppositional sexism work hand in hand to ensure that those who are masculine have power over those who are feminine, and that only those born male will be seen as authentically masculine.[11]

In other words, cissexism is part of an overarching system that (along with other forms of sexism) works to keep all people in their place. Thus, any person can face cissexism.

Take, for instance, an otherwise cisgender man who never had a gender-variant thought in his life. If he were to suddenly, on a whim, decide to wear a dress to work, he would very likely face cissexist ridicule and harassment on his way to his job, and possibly even get fired from his job as a result. If an otherwise cisgender woman who never had a gender-variant thought in her life decided that she was tired of plucking all the hairs on her chin and upper lip (which a considerable number of women experience), she would surely face cissexist reactions and comments once her facial hair grows out. In fact, cissexism (or at least the threat of it) is the force behind both the low level gender anxiety faced by cisgender people who worry that they will be perceived as insufficiently feminine or masculine if they do “the wrong thing,” as well as the more severe forms of gender policing and punishment experienced by those of us who more regularly or blatantly transgress gender norms.

By no means does this decentering the binary perspective suggest that all people are equally hurt by societal cissexism. Clearly, some of us grapple with cissexism on a routine basis, while other people experience it infrequently and/or far less severely. But the decentering approach does encourage us to challenge all expressions of cissexism, regardless of who the perpetrator or target is.

Those who adhere to a more strict reverse discourse approach will likely see things very differently. They may be inclined to see cissexism as a form of marginalization that specifically oppresses trans people, because after all, cis people materially benefit from the systematic oppression of trans folks. Because they are privileged by this system, instances where cis people face cissexism in some form may be dismissed as unimportant or illegitimate.

This latter tendency is most certainly not specific to trans activist reverse discourses. Feminists who are entrenched in a reverse discourse approach often claim that only cis women can face traditional sexism—such claims ignore how traditional sexism sometimes impacts certain men’s lives and how it wreaks havoc on many trans people, especially those of us on the trans female/feminine spectrum.[12] Similarly, gay men and lesbians who are steeped in reverse discourse-thinking often insist that they alone are targets of heterosexism—this ignores how heterosexist ideology is often used as a weapon to police straight individuals’ behaviors, and how it greatly impacts the lives of those of us who fall under the bisexual/pansexual umbrella.

Indeed, there are a series of tropes that people who are inclined toward reverse discourse approaches often trot out in order to dismiss both the dominant group’s, as well as liminal people’s (i.e., those of us who do not neatly fall into the reverse discourse’s binary) experiences with the form of marginalization in question. Here are a few examples of how these tropes (which arise in reverse discourses more generally) are sometimes applied to cisgender people and/or those who exist at the borderlands between cis and trans:
  • The not-the-true-target trope: When cis people are subjected to acts of cissexism (e.g., if they are called a “sissy” or ridiculed for “looking like a tranny”), some trans people will discount that person’s experience by claiming that they were not the true target of cissexism. After all, since such comments insinuate that there is something wrong with, or funny about, being transgender, trans people are the primary intended target of such remarks, whereas the cis person is only indirectly affected.
  • The lack-of-history trope: Trans people have long personal histories grappling with societal cissexism. And over time this can have an accumulative effect, whereby we become highly sensitive to and possibly even triggered by cissexist acts, since they exacerbate the oppression we have already faced. In contrast, a cis person who is subjected to a cissexist act will not nearly be as negatively impacted by the incident, as it represents more of an aberration for them rather than part of a continual systemic experience.[13]
  • The dabbling trope: unlike trans people (whose gender variance/gender non-conformity is real and authentic), other individuals who behave in a gender-non-conforming manner are merely pretending or “playing” with gender. Because their acts of gender-non-conformity are occasional and frivolous in nature, the oppression they face as a result should not be taken too seriously.
  • The tourist trope: people who are not authentically trans may experience instances of cissexism, for instance, related to being partnered to a trans person, or for occasionally dabbling in acts of gender-non-conformity. However, because they are merely “tourists,” they can always stop engaging in such acts (e.g., by leaving their partners, ceasing their “gender play”), thereby escaping cissexism—something that authentic trans people are unable to do.
  • The slumming trope: because trans people are sometimes viewed as fascinating, exciting, or radical in certain circles, some people who are not authentically trans themselves may associate with trans people or engage in acts of gender non-conformity in order to appear “edgy” or to obtain “hipster cred.” Because such individuals are merely “appropriators” (rather than authentic trans people) the cissexism they face should not be taken seriously.[14]
  • The parodying trope: trans individuals may presume that people who they view as outsiders, or “not trans” in the way that they are, must be purposefully mocking or parodying authentic trans people when they engage in acts of gender non-conformity. Because they are merely parodying trans people, such individuals are pretty much asking for any cissexism they face.
  • The infiltrator trope: trans individuals may presume that people who they view as outsiders, or “not trans” in the way that they are, must be purposefully infiltrating their community, most likely for nefarious reasons. Because they are up to no good, such individuals are pretty much asking for any cissexism they may face.[15]

Now of course, there may be some instances or contexts in which some of the above claims may be relevant or bear some truth. But other times they will be flat out wrong. The more important point is that, taken together, these claims serve the purpose of dismissing or denying the reality that some cisgender people, and many folks who inhabit the borderlands between cis and trans, sometimes face cissexism. As a trans and bisexual woman who has been subjected to analogous claims within reverse-discourse-inclined feminist and gay/lesbian circles, I can tell you that these tropes are pervasive and can be highly damaging to people who do not neatly fit the canonical image of a “woman” or a “gay” or “lesbian” person. So I find it distressing when I hear similar claims being made about people who do not fit the canonical image of a “trans person.”

Additionally, the aforementioned claims highlight an important inconsistency in our activism that I touched upon in the previous essay. Namely, trans activists use the term “trans” as an umbrella for all people who are gender non-conforming, or gender variant, or who transgress gender norms. And yet, some people who do these very things may be dismissed as not experiencing cissexism because they are not considered to be “bona fide” trans people, but rather merely dabblers, tourists, appropriators, parodists, infiltrators, and so on. This begs the question: What is it that supposedly makes someone a “bona fide” trans person, one who is capable of experiencing “authentic” cissexism?

Well, many reverse discourse-inclined folks will resort to blatant essentialism to make their case, as evidenced by those trans-exclusive feminists who insist that I can never be a “real woman” (and therefore, can never experience “real sexism”) because I am not “biologically female.” Or Harry Benjamin Syndrome-identified “real transsexual” women who insist that they were born with a specific brain anomaly that drag queens, crossdressers, genderqueers, and queer/transgender-identified trans women are missing, and which supposedly makes the cissexism they experience real and authentic, whereas the rest of us are merely “posers” and “appropriators” in their eyes.[16]

Admittedly, most of us who are trans activists are highly cognizant of the problems associated with essentialist thinking, so we tend to avoid invoking it in our arguments. However, rather than resorting to blatant essentialism, we instead tend to define “bona fide” trans people in a manner reminiscent of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity (which he offered during a 1964 court case regarding pornography): “I know it when I see it...”

Many of us are painfully aware of how this “I know it when I see it” mentality tends to play out within transgender communities:

If you are a post-transition transsexual, you are clearly a “bona fide” trans person. However if you are pre-transition, or not “out” as trans, then we will presume that you are cis, and all the cissexism you face doesn’t count. Until, of course, you *do* transition or come out as trans, then those experiences will become retroactively authentic.

Drag queens do not count as “bona fide” trans people—after all, they are merely cis gay men who have *all the cis privilege*. Unless they eventually transition to female (as some do), then they were really trans people all along, and drag was merely something that they had to do in order to survive in a cis-centric world.

Genderqueer folks are “bona fide” trans people. Although we will likely doubt that they are *really* genderqueer unless they offer us some kind of visible sign of their genderqueerness. So if you are a FAAB genderqueer who happens to be femme, or a MAAB genderqueer who isn’t femme, then screw you—you are merely posers! On the other hand, if you *look* genderqueer (you know, FAAB dressed masculinely or androgynously), then totally, you’re a legitimate genderqueer. Unless you call yourself a “butch,” in which case we’ll have to assume that you’re merely a cis lesbian with *all the cis privilege*.

Oh, and regarding potential MAAB genderqueers: 1) is that even a thing? I thought only FAAB people could be genderqueer? 2) if you *are* genderqueer, then the least you could do is wear a dress, or put on some make up, so that we don’t assume that you’re a cis dude poser, 3) but don’t dress *too femininely*, or else we’ll assume that you’re a drag queen (a.k.a., a cis gay dude) with *all the cis privilege*, 4) also, be sure to dress that way *all the time*, otherwise we’ll assume that you’re merely a crossdresser.

And speaking of crossdressers, sorry, but you cannot be “bona fide” trans people. After all, you live most of your life moving through the world with *all of the cis privilege*. Get back to us if/when you eventually decide to transition, and then we may retroactively authenticate your prior experiences with cissexism.

If you are intersex, then you are definitely a “bona fide” member of our community (if you choose to be, as many intersex folks do not identify as trans). But be sure to explicitly and frequently mention that you are intersex, otherwise we will have no choice but to assume that you are a cis person infiltrating our space. But so you know, if you *do* explicitly and frequently mention that you are intersex, then we will likely take that as a sign that you are totally cool with talking about it, and we will probably ask you all sorts of inappropriate questions about your anatomy or medical history as a result.

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For many of us, being trans is a deeply personal and largely internal experience. I spent years contemplating, struggling with, and privately exploring my inner sense of gender before I ever dared to engage in any kind of public act as a trans person (e.g., presenting as female in public, interacting with trans communities, coming out to people as trans). And as trans activists, we often vociferously challenge the mainstream public’s tendency to constantly invade our privacy (e.g., when they insist that we must always reveal our trans status to them, or answer their inappropriate questions about our anatomy or childhoods). So it seems odd—if not downright contradictory—that we often forward a reverse discourse strategy that compels people to constantly show and/or explicitly state where they fall on the cis/trans continuum, and which may even dismiss their experiences with cissexism if they have not yet come to fully identify as trans, or if they choose not to be out as trans, or if they do not live up to other people’s criteria of what counts as trans.

Embracing a more contextual approach to trans activism
Here is an excellent bell hooks quote:

Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives.[17]

Analogously, I would argue that trans activism should be the struggle to end cissexist oppression.[18] Its aim should not be to benefit any specific group of trans people, any particular race or class of trans people. It should not privilege trans people over cis people. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives.

A decentering the binary approach that challenges all expressions of cissexism (regardless of where the perpetrator and intended targets fall along the cis/trans continuum), and works to lessen the negative impact that gender norms have on *all* of our lives, most closely approaches this lofty goal. In contrast, reverse discourse strategies fail us for numerous reasons that I have detailed over the course of this essay.

It would be fairly easy for me to simply reiterate the same arguments that were made by third-wave feminists and queer activists well over twenty years ago: that reverse discourses (or “identity politics,” as such approaches are sometimes called[19]) tend to deny diversity and intersectionality, are horribly exclusionary, and for these reasons, we should abandon them. But I believe that such a flat-out condemnation would ignore the underlying forces and human tendencies that ultimately compel activists to turn to reverse discourses again and again. Here are a few of these forces and tendencies (some of which I’ve already alluded to during this two-part series):

1) Activist movements tend to get co-opted. Upon learning about a particular form of marginalization, members of the dominant majority often reflexively focus on how that form of marginalization potentially impacts themselves, while largely ignoring how it impacts those most severely targeted. Reverse discourses refute this tendency.

2) We all want to believe that we are right. For members of the dominant majority, this often means that they assume that their opinions about marginalized minorities (and the oppression they face) are informed, objective, and righteous, when often they are anything but. Reverse discourses refute this tendency, while simultaneously enabling members of the marginalized minority (who also want to believe that they are right) to assume the status of “expert” on the situation (even though their opinions may differ significantly from other members of their own group).

3) The existence of “faux allies.” When groups are highly stigmatized, very few people are willing to stand by the group, and the few who do are usually genuine in their sentiments. But as the group becomes more accepted by society, members of the dominant majority will increasingly feel pressure to be on the “right side” of the argument, and may declare themselves “allies” of the group in order to avoid accusations that they are prejudiced. Upon doing so, they may then make highly uninformed or problematic claims on behalf of the marginalized group in question. Reverse discourses directly undermine such efforts.[20]

4) Guilt by association. One of the easiest ways to delegitimize a minority/marginalized group is to conflate them with some other marginalized group, or to highlight a subpopulation within the group who are viewed as especially illegitimate. This is why people who wish to undermine trans women tend to compare us to male crossdressers, female impersonators, and drag queens, and/or emphasize the existence of trans female/feminine folks who engage in sex work, have been incarcerated, have a history of fetishism or practicing BDSM, who are pre- or non-op, who have since de-transitioned, and so on. The insinuation, of course, is that these supposedly inferior or stigmatized qualities are intrinsic to the group as a whole. Reverse discourses—which typically imagine some sort of “ideal” or “canonical” group member—provide a convenient logic for those activists who wish to dissociate themselves from these “less desirable” individuals. However, such an approach inevitably results in other marginalized individuals (especially members of the group who are liminal or multiply marginalized) being thrown under the proverbial bus.

5) Members of the marginalized minority may differ in their ultimate goal. Some members may carry out activism with the hopes of fully integrating into, and being seen as respectable members of, society at large. In contrast, others may no longer trust members of the dominant group, nor want anything to do with them. Individuals in this latter category may prefer to reside primarily within their own marginalized communities with as little interaction with the dominant majority as possible. Reverse discourses offer those in this latter, more separatist, camp the justification to create and uphold such insular communities.[21]

While I generally distrust reverse discourse approaches to activism (having been personally undermined by them as both a bisexual and trans woman), I completely understand why they arise and why many activists embrace them. And I honestly don’t expect them to go away any time soon, given the human tendencies I just outlined. So rather than outright condemning them, I instead encourage trans activists (and activists more generally) to learn to recognize reverse discourses and to understand their limitations and flaws. Perhaps we can learn to use them more judiciously or effectively—for instance, employing them when challenging a member of the dominant majority who arrogantly presumes they have “authority” or “superior knowledge” over us, while refraining from using them simply as a tool to invalidate other people’s expressions or perspectives, or as a method for discounting or excluding other marginalized individuals.

For me, the hardest part about being an activist has not been speaking truth to power. I have become fairly comfortable and adept at expressing my views about gender and trans issues to members of the cis majority. But what I have found to be most difficult, especially early on, was learning to accept the fact that there will always be some trans people who will disagree with me on such matters. Initially, their disparate or dissenting views seemed to somehow undermine the veracity of my opinion, and my knee-jerk reaction to such incidents was to presume that such people were politically naïve, cis apologists who were selling out the movement, or reckless activists whose extreme views would likely set the movement back. These sorts of sentiments abound in all activist movements. But over time, I realized that my reactions were steeped in a cissexist double standard. After all, I certainly do not expect the cis majority to ever all agree about some particular issue. So why is it then that I (or anyone else for that matter) would expect the trans community to all line up and agree with one another all the time?

It is true that some people are politically naïve (e.g., someone who is first coming into the community, and is unfamiliar with our movement’s history or activism more generally). But more often than not, when I come across a trans activist who I disagree with about some particular issue, it is usually because we differ in our vantage points and/or our understanding or beliefs about trans people and activism.

This two-part series has been part of an even larger endeavor that I have embarked upon over the last few years. In my recent book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, I argued that our movements become exclusionary when we embraced fixed models of how gender and sexuality, and sexism and marginalization, work. These fixed models typically lead us to propose one-size-fits-all solutions to challenge the oppression we face, and as a result, we tend to accuse activists who propose alternate opinions or courses of action of “reinforcing” that oppression. In the second half of Excluded, I offered strategies that enable us to challenge all forms of sexism and marginalization without becoming entrenched in any one particular fixed perspective.

Since completing that book, I have given considerable thought to recent debates within trans activism regarding language, appropriation, generational divides, the tendency of activists to coalesce into opposing factions, and of course, cis terminology. Rather than (or sometimes in addition to) simply taking a side in the debate in question, I have tried to understand why people who disagree with me, or disagree with other trans activists, came to their differing views. I attempted to understand their vantage points (inasmuch as possible), and the underlying logic or beliefs that led them to that conclusion. And I gave serious consideration to the possibility that their differing approach might possibly make sense or be the correct course of action in certain times or circumstances, but perhaps not in others. I have carried out this work, not to seem like a “nice person,” nor to find some kind of “compromise” that will make all sides happy. Rather, I have done this because I believe that activism needs to be flexible and contextual if it is going to accommodate a diversity of people.

If we are going to accept heterogeneity and differences of opinion within our community, then it starts with us trying to understand where other trans activists are coming from. I hope that my articulating the “decentering the binary” and “reverse discourse” approaches in this essay, if nothing else, at least helps other activists better understand why they may have come to differing conclusions than their peers.


1. Some feminists and others who take hardline gender artifactualist stances have argued the opposite—that if people’s genders had less social significance than they currently do, there would be no need for transsexuals to transition, and that transsexuality as a phenomenon would cease to exist. I explain why such claims are misguided in my books Whipping Girl (see pages 139-160) and Excluded (see pages 117-168).

2. This idea of a “reverse discourse” originated in Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 101-102.

3. As I discuss in great detail in Chapter 14 of Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, double standards are generally characterized by the unmarked/marked distinction, wherein members of one group (typically the dominant majority) are deemed unmarked—their existence and perspective are taken for granted, and they are viewed as unquestionable, normal, and legitimate. In contrast, the other group (typically a marginalized minority) is marked—they are viewed as inherently remarkable, questionable, abnormal, suspect, and illegitimate. In reverse discourses, this hierarchy becomes flipped: The marginalized minority’s views are suddenly deemed unquestionable and legitimate, whereas the dominant majority perspective is deemed inherently questionable, suspect, and illegitimate (at least within the context of the reverse discourse). It should be noted that marginalized minorities may have very understandable reasons for viewing the dominant majority with suspicion, especially in cases where they are invalidated and injured by members of that group on a regular basis. Such instances will no doubt be cited by the marginalized group to justify their suspicion and delegitimization of the dominant group. My purpose here is *not* to dismiss such understandable reactions to oppression, but rather to point out how reverse discourse hierarchy-flips often impede more intersectional and inclusive approaches to challenging marginalization (as I discuss over the course of this essay and throughout my book Excluded).

4. See note #2.

5. Wikipedia cites Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective as the originators of the term “identity politics,” stating that they used the phrase to refer to “a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women.” Identity politics may be carried out in different ways. For instance, people who share a particular marginalized identity (or identities) may describe the world and the obstacles they face from their particular vantage point, while simultaneously acknowledging that other identities and perspectives are also possible and legitimate (this contextual and intersectional approach is what I advocate for in my book Excluded). Other times, identity politics takes the form of a reverse discourse wherein a person’s perspective and concerns only gain legitimacy if they are indisputably viewed as belonging to that particular identity. When activists talk pejoratively about “identity politics” (as third-wave feminists, and queer and transgender activists of the 1990’s often did), they are usually referring to the negative ramifications of reverse discourses (which I describe throughout the course of this essay) rather than the more general phenomenon of marginalized groups voicing their own unique perspectives (which seems to be an essential element of any activist movement).

6. Sometimes reverse discourses recognize more than one axis of marginalization, yet still manage to dichotomously divide the world into “oppressors” and “oppressed” based on identity. For instance, some activists regularly decry “straight men,” thus designating them as “oppressors” of both women and queer folks. In the activist circles that I run in, I often see complaints about “cis white feminists,” which depicts such individuals as “oppressors” of both trans people and people of color within the movement. There are countless other variations (e.g., understandable complaints about “middle-class able-bodied femmes,” or “white middle-class trans activists,” and so on). On the one hand, these conversations can provide important avenues to discuss relative privilege within movements, and how people who are privileged in certain ways may be viewed as ideal members of the group and/or advocate strategies that do not take into account the additional obstacles faced by multiply marginalized members of the group. Personally, I want to see more of these conversations. But at the same time, the tendency toward identity-based condemnations (e.g., blanket statements about “straight men” or “cis white people”) seems to erase the fact that members of each of these particular dominant groupings, as well their marginalized counterparts (in this case, “queer folks plus women” or “trans folks plus people of color,” respectively) are all heterogeneous, differing with regards to the privileges and marginalization that each individual member faces.

7. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 19.

8. This is especially true for Chapter 7 (“Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism”) and Chapter 9 (“Ungendering in Art and Academia”) of Whipping Girl. Notably, both of these chapters focus on challenging the assumptions and theories about trans people that have been forwarded by certain cissexual doctors, scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and gender and queer studies scholars—that is, those who are deemed by society to be “authorities” on trans people and lives. Their “expert status” ensured that anything that they claim about me will be viewed as having more legitimacy or validity than anything that I say about myself. The only way to effectively disrupt this power dynamic was for me to engage in a reverse discourse—i.e., by forcibly arguing that trans people are the only true authorities on trans identities, experiences, and lives. Toward the end of this essay, I will make the case that this is precisely the type of situation in which reverse discourses can be most effectively employed. However, when taken to the extreme, even this tactic can have negative and/or spurious consequences (e.g., see note #9).

9. The potential problems associated with this became especially evident to me during 2009-2013, when revisions to the DSM (and specifically, the trans-specific diagnoses therein) were being contested. Among those who were most directly active in that process—which included a mix of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, trans health providers, trans advocates and activists, some of whom were trans and others who were cis—the debate tended to break down along the lines of whether one believes that gender minorities arise as a result of pathology or natural variation. There were both trans and cis people on either side of this debate. Many of the folks on the natural variation side of the debate who I interacted with were cis professionals who had worked with trans clients for many years, and who were very knowledgeable and respectful of trans people’s experiences and circumstances. And yet, during the DSM debates, I would often read or hear trans people outright dismiss these advocates solely on the basis that they were cis—the presumption being that because they were cis, they could not possibly understand trans people’s circumstances and needs, and therefore, they must be attempting to silence or delegitimize us in some way. Notably, a couple of the trans folks I observed making these claims had only recently come out into trans communities, and based on their comments, they did not seem nearly as aware of the diversity of gender variant people and experiences as some of the cis professionals who they were condemning.
I offer this as an example of how simply being a member of a marginalized group does not automatically make one’s perspective more righteous, nor does it automatically enable one to better empathize with or understand other members of their own group.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit to having occasionally met a particular queer-positive straight person who happens to be more knowledgeable about LGBTQIA+ issues than certain queer folks, or a particular male feminist who happens to be more aware and critical of sexism and gender inequities than certain women, and so on. As activists, we may find such instances troubling. After all, if we openly admit that some cis people may be more knowledgeable about trans issues than certain trans people, it seems to open the door for any cis person (e.g., a cissexist bigot) to claim that they have superior knowledge over us. Alternatively, a more positive interpretation of such instances is that we (the minority/marginalized group) are sometimes successful in convincing and evangelizing members of the dominant group to relinquish that form of marginalization and fight on our behalf. In other words, such instances may offer us hope that a post-cissexist world might someday be achievable (a possibility that appears unobtainable in perpetuity from a strict reverse discourse perspective).

10. Whipping Girl, page 13.

11. Whipping Girl, page 13-14. Traditional sexism refers to the assumption that femaleness and femininity are less legitimate than, and inferior to, their male and masculine counterparts.

12. I discuss this throughout Whipping Girl.

13. While this can be true, sometimes the opposite holds true. I often find that comments directed toward cisgender people that imply that they are insufficiently feminine or masculine, or that they do not live up to female or male ideals or standards, seem to upset them far more than how similar comments would affect me. I’d like to believe that this is because I am an out and proud gender-variant person who no longer buys into cissexist double standards. Or perhaps I have simply become desensitized to such comments, as I have had to deal with them far more than cisgender people typically do. To be clear, I am by no means claiming that trans people who are desensitized to cissexist comments are “more evolved than” trans people who are highly sensitive to such comments. I am merely pointing out that a foundational premise upon which the lack-of-history trope is based is not always true.

14. Accusations of appropriation often lie at the heart of the “slumming,” “tourist,” “dabbling,” and “parodying” tropes. I have unpacked many of the underlying assumptions that fuel such claims in my essay Considering Trans and Queer Appropriation.

15. Historically, the infiltrator trope has been used by cis feminists who oppose the existence of trans women in their communities, and by gay men and lesbians who oppose bisexual folks in their communities. Within trans communities, the infiltrator trope is most commonly invoked via accusations that the person in question is a “chaser” or “fetishist.” Admittedly, these labels are sometimes used to condemn people who sexually objectify, or are nonconsensually sexually aggressive in their interactions with, trans people. But other times, these labels are used to dismiss legitimate and respectful partners of trans folks (as I discuss here). I have also been in trans spaces where people who I know to be crossdresser-identified (but who were not “dressed” on that particular occasion) were accused of being “chasers” (i.e., infiltrators) simply because their transness was not visible to others.

16. The “real transsexual” movement is discussed more in depth in my essay A“Transsexual Versus Transgender” Intervention. An analogous movement has more recently arisen among certain trans men—see Jack Molay, Truscum and the Transgender War of Words.

17. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), p.26.

18. For the record, I believe that trans activism should not solely be concerned with “cissexist oppression,” but rather challenge all forms of sexism and marginalization (I discuss the reasons for this throughout my book Excluded). And I believe that this broader intersectional approach to trans activism is consistent with the bell hooks quote that I am analogizing here.

19. Not all forms of “identity politics” constitute reverse discourses, as I discuss in note #5.

20. I discuss this more in depth in the “stigma versus acceptance” section of my Considering Trans and Queer Appropriation essay. 

21. I discuss this more in depth in the “integration versus separatism” section of my Considering Trans and Queer Appropriation essay. 


  1. All of this definitely needs to be said and discussed. Thanks a lot, Julia, for the incredibly valuable thinking and writing. Both parts of this essay -plus the one on appropriation- deal with some important problems of current trans activism and of the LGBTIQA+ communities at large. I've written a larger reply to all three pieces, but I'm posting just some questions around the reverse discourse topic here, so that it may be easier to get to the point and perhaps get a reply.

    I couldn't agree more to all you've written about identitarian politics and the undesirable secondary effects of reverse discourses. However, here is my question:

    Reverse language and discourses are forms of communication. And communication takes place within given social settings and spaces that are structured by traditions and unwritten rules concerning legitimacy of the speakers, topics and positions.

    According to my experience, even those few spaces where trans people and trans activism have been discussed within LGBTIQA+ settings were strictly framed and policed to conform to the following characteristics: 1) not go Trans 101, centering on transitions and trans identities; 2) ignore the phenomena of cissexism and trans-misogyny at large; 3) not challenge specific forms of cissexism within the LGBTIQA+ communities and the historical record of it; 4) not challenge cis language at large. True, one may still speak out, and not precisely using reverse language, but I've seen even some cis partners of trans people being met with silence and ostracism just for challenging the most ostensibly cissexist statements.

    Now it can be argued that reverse discourses wouldn't work within such communication settings either, but that's precisely my point. Whether or not we decide for ourselves to always play truly intersectional and to sparingly resort to reverse discourses (or never at all), there's always the question of the communication space: who owns it, who's allowed to be loud and be heard, who's framing the debates, who's making their privileges go unchecked there, who remains unnamed, who's got the centre of the physical space and the majority of voices, etc.

    So the dichotomy of non-reverse vs. reverse discourses, while critical to any form of activism, may prove of very limited use to trans activism if we don't address the conditions for setting up true intersectional, open, accountable and non-identitarian spaces where cis privilege is checked and the debate is not framed to meet cissexist needs in advance.

    I believe the above task must be first addressed thoroughly within trans communities. Not for achieving uniformity, but for profiting from the different insights and approaches that may allow us to design such an open space. Afterwards, we should repeat the process with receptive cis LGBTIQA+ people. Trying to design an all-inclusive, all-trans, all-cis queer communication space with a majority of cis people from the start may predictably result in the same framed and lacking communication settings as described above.

    Bottom line: reverse or non-reverse is not the only communication dynamic we must address. The communication space itself and how it is frame are even more important. What do you think about this?

    1. Thanks for your comment. And yes, I 100% agree that there are a multitude of different ways to communicate the obstacles faced by trans people, and that all of these approaches will likely be more effective in certain cases rather than others. I tried to articulate that here and also in Part 1 (particularly the final section wherein I discuss a "three-tiered" model). They all may have some positive uses & work well convincing certain people, but they all also have limitations.

      I believe that your comment highlights a conundrum that activist movements often face. In a perfect world, people would be open to hearing about cissexism (and other forms of marginalization) and rooting it out of their communities and personal attitudes. But most people's knee-jerk reaction is to be refractory and to ignore or dismiss "isms" that they are unfamiliar with. This practically forces the marginalized group (in this case, trans people) to forward a reverse discourse, even though it will ultimately lead to some negative consequences.

      In a perfect world, people would be open and amenable to learning about and challenging forms of marginalization that seem new to them, thus allowing marginalized groups to simply point out these double standards (e.g., de-centering the binary) without having to resort to reverse discourses. In the 2nd half of Excluded, I forward strategies that can help make us more open to and aware of double standards more generally. But unfortunately, most people currently are not attuned to this problem.

  2. Thanks a lot for your reply. I've gone back to EXCLUDED and found some very useful insights in the capter "Recognizing invalidations". Describing forms of discrimination “from the bottom” is probably the main reason why trans perspectives have managed the breakthrough when articulated as personal experiences in books like Janet Mock's and others', including writings of yours like the Camp Trans account in Excluded.

    Though not being specifically trans, or precisely for that, I feel many a chapter in the second part of Excluded should become part of a handbook for LGTBIQA+ activists. However, I'm still concerned about the conditions for setting non-identitarian, intersectional and accountable queer communication spaces. In addition to reply above, here's why:

    Firstly, when trying to break through misconceptions, stereotypes and tropes, we are often pushed into the defense position. For instance, the "socialized as man" and “reinforcing binary" tropes are never explained or proved. They're spells, they just need be said and we are automatically forced to prove them wrong, exempting our accusers of grounding their allegations. As we are usually in the minority and such tropes have had an accumulating effect over time, such defamatory allegations are more directed at disrupting communication (at invalidating us) than at enabling it.

    Thus, the communication space is the key: How open and receptive? Is it beyond the common tropes or are they still latent there? If so, have we got time and support to deal with them? I was once faced with the "reinforcing binary" trope at a talk. I tried to refute it with a recourse to trans agencies, but could see the accusers were delighted, framing my reply to mean "trans people use medicine to comply to normative gendered body phenotypes". I turned to flipping the script and asked the accusers whether their bodies were normative and in what forms they disrupt the gender binary themselves. The listeners felt implicated and the accusers switched to another topic.

    Perhaps we need to flip the script sometimes without the recourse to identities, but to how all people deal with the problems we face, including (cis)sexism. It's not so much about "we vs. they", but about bottom-down cis involvement for overcoming toxic settings. Other times we just need Trans 201 spaces, where the basic toxic tropes have been cleared.

    Secondly, some communication spaces are simply really toxic, perhaps including many a trans support group. It's more than not wanting to go beyond the tropes or ignoring lateral oppression. They just want one or two of us to play the silent token, the ventriloquy doll or the punching bag. This is form of exclusion isn't spatial, but precisely enacted within communication alone.

    I once talked to a feminist group, nominally trans-inclusive, about giving a talk on strategies to support the inclusion of queer trans women within queer women's and feminist spaces. They replied they wanted to stage a discussion with people "representing different positions" instead. Suddenly, their nominal inclusion policies were subjected to revision and discussion! No accountability, no reasons alleged. Reverse or non-reverse, bottom-up or top-down articulation, I believe no discourse would have made a difference there, and I didn't take part in that.

    The above is one of the reasons why I addressed the very constitution of communication spaces in my first reply. We need not only reject identitarian politics (the very ones causing exclusion), not relying on reverse discourses alone, but we need to speak out more often in fair conditions.

    Some spaces are simply too loaded with a tradition of exclusion, hierarchies and tropes. No matter what we say and how, they cannot be significantly changed from within. In such cases, we need new ones, for example for trans’n’cis feminist talk or for trans and queer gender-nonconforming people facing exclusion, subversivism and (cis)sexism.

    1. Thanks for the kind words about Excluded!

      And you bring up a lot of good points, including ones that I tried to grapple with in writing Excluded, as well as in this essay and the other recent blog-posts I cited toward the end of this one.

      Basically, we have developed all of this activist language and these theories/strategies in an attempt to make the world a better place & to encourage people to treat others with respect. Yet some people will inevitably choose to use them selectively (e.g., activists who are concerned with challenging traditional sexism or heterosexism, but who blatantly ignore or dismiss instances of cissexism even when made aware of it). And others will inevitably misuse such language/theories/strategies, as when people employ reverse discourses in order to simply invalidate a person because they are cis, or hetero, or male, etc.

      Some of this may simply fall into the "human tendencies" camp: We all want to believe that we are right, and we may reflexively tend to dismiss people and perspectives that seem unusual to us, or that do not easily mesh with our own particular worldview.

      But I think a lot of it is how we teach activism (i.e., in a top-down way, as I discuss in the Invalidations chapter of Excluded that you cited). Most activist spaces are centered on challenging one or a few isms, and mostly disregard the rest. This ultimately leads to hierarchies where certain voices and issues count in the space, while others do not. And once that mindset gets entrenched, it is very difficult to change from within (as you discuss in your anecdotes).

      There is a reason why I called the collection of methods & ideas I forwarded in Excluded "holistic feminism." Partly is because people often think of me as a "trans feminist," which is fine, but I felt that what I was forwarding went well beyond just trans issues. But also because I imagined that it could potentially foster a very different (albeit complementary) way to organize activism, one that wasn't centered on specific isms or identities, but rather challenging double standards more generally.

      For instance, rather than creating a women's or trans-focused space or group, we could (from scratch) create a "no body is inferior" movement that seeks to root out all double standards regarding bodies. So instead of specifically challenging traditional sexism and/or cissexism and/or ableism and/or fatphobia, and so on, we challenge all assumptions/expectations/norms/laws that presume that some bodies are less legitimate or autonomous than others. Such work would challenge the aforementioned isms, but also possibly others that we have not thought of yet. But more to your point, such a space would (hopefully) avoid many of the communication problems you mentioned, as no individual's identity, body, or issues would be preordained as more legitimate or central to the movement.

      I'd like to think that such double-standards-focused approaches would avoid many of the communication problems that you have mentioned. But admittedly they could also have unforeseen problems of their own. But I agree that some kind of new approach regarding communication within activist settings could be promising in avoiding the pitfalls of the past.

    2. also, for those of you who have not yet read Excluded, here is a blog most where I discuss "holistic feminism" further:

  3. Thanks, Julia, for taking the time and caring to reply. With your books, speeches and blog you're making an invaluable contribution to the maturation of trans activism and the LGBTIQA+ communities at large, as well as to conceiving cross-identity communities, activism and alliances in a new way, centered on forms of oppression (instead of on identities) and free of double-standards for everyone, and much needed in this backlash age we live in, especially for facing major social transformations that might be underway.

    While I think that specific trans activism and discourses must become stronger and have its nerve centres (as any other oppressed subgroup), the “identity trenches” model within the LGBTIQA+ communities has very obvious limitations, both at the top and bottom levels. And not only in the communication department, as discussed above, but in relation to exclusion, political goals and to people themselves. Whatever will be, I believe your ideas are pointing in the right direction. Thanks again for sharing them. Please keep us inspiring us all.

  4. You win feminism forever. This is a great post. I especially like the explicit statement that anyone can be a potential target of cissexism, even if they're cis, that's something I never realized before. You've opened doors in my mind to new sorts of thoughts.

    I wish more activists were as willing to reach out as you are. The majority approach in seems to be dogma and intolerance for anyone with moderate views, at least in recent times. Really tough to face insults from multiple different sides whenever voicing my opinion on things. Seeing other people do it successfully helps make it easier for myself though, so thank you.

  5. Although I have an all-male body and consider myself cis and hetero, I have always felt that traditional man-to-man discourse doesn't make sense, and that my being a man is not quite predestined. (I was also guessed to be a woman by a "mental gender" spambot quiz, if that counts for anything.)

    I also have autism, and one of its manifestations in me is an instinctive disdain for anything ambiguous. It's possible this is the reason why I'm cis.

    The recent establishment of the "fifty genders" on Facebook, and the "personal gender pronouns" chart allegedly distributed at the University of Vermont, have grated against this tendency, and perhaps some self-fear. I felt politically opposed to them, and expressed such a view in some blog comments. However, after reading your essay, I realize I may be misunderstanding the purpose of these innovations.

    What is your opinion? And in general, do you think proliferation of new words is good or bad for developing egalitarian attitudes?

    1. In general, we create words to better describe the world and all it's nuances. In some instances, it is sufficient to say "I was listening to rock music." Maybe in a more specific conversation about rock music, it is relevant or useful to distinguish between "classic rock," "indie rock," "punk rock," or "heavy metal." And if you're trying to describe your new metal band to other metal-heads, you may be even more specific and say that you're a "speed metal," or "death metal," or "glam metal" band.

      Gender, sexuality, and bodies are quite diverse in the population, so it is no surprise that people will come up with countless words to describe these nuances. The problem (as I see it) is not so much the number of labels we have to describe gender (e.g., too little, too many), but rather the *way we use those labels*.

      For example, if I view the word "woman" as a broad category that includes all sorts of people who differ in their backgrounds, bodies, and behaviors, but share the fact that they socially move through the word as women, that can be relatively nonjudgemental and inclusive of differences. But if I assume that, in order to be considered a "real woman," you had to be very feminine, or exclusively attracted to men, or be the "opposite" of a man, or not be "gender ambiguous" in any way, or have to perform certain roles in society but not others, well, then that's where labels can become oppressive and constraining.

      Similarly, having 50 gender labels may sound liberating. But if each label came with its own set of rigid criteria regarding who counts as a "real" member of that identity and how members of that group should behave, well, then I would say that system is not much (if at all) better than a rigid binary-gendered society.

      This is why I am fine with people identifying however they want, provided that their identities do not require other people to identify or perform their genders in particular ways, or that their identification does not insinuate that their gender/sexuality is better than those of other people.

  6. Blind adherence to dogma requires mental gymnastics which always leads to a broken chin from the balance beam. These two pieces really break that all down. Lots of us have been characters in that satire above, and it hurt us.
    Reclaiming transexual really helps make the transgender umbrella big enough for the rest of us others, so thanks.
    It wasn't long ago that monosexual stopped being useful to explain Bi phobia/erasure & became what we put in petrol bombs. Cis is going there now too, so it is good to re-re-define it. I've been using "trans ignorance" instead of transphobia sometimes to separate people's lack of experience over hate & fear. Writing off potential allies instead of educating them on bad language doesn't move gender freedom forward. The teachable moment also gives space to others in the group with GD to feel safe and less "wrong".
    I've been an activist going on four decades. I used to be one of those know it all kids myself. All movements have the same internal crap. I've come to see it as cycles. Learning our history (quistory) is so important coming in. It was movement veterans who taught me so much I didn't know.

  7. Re: cis people experiencing cis sexism --

    I think it should be noted in your two examples that for the man to experience cissexism, he must take action to put on a particular kind of clothing that signifies femininity. In the case of the woman, all she must do to experience cissexism is to 'let herself go.'

    Even in these examples, the asymmetry of cissexism is apparent -- men are punished for accessing femininty (deserting masculinity?) while women are punished for their very being.

    In which case, I think sexism is still a better term in describing the phenomenon.

    1. Thanks for the comment, but I don't think you can infer that from just the two examples I offer here, as there are countless other examples in which people's genders are policed. And men can face cissexism without actively putting on clothing symbolic of femininity - for instance, if he happens to have a high-pitched or lilting or lispy voice (to name but one example).

      In my book Whipping Girl, I make the case that most forms of sexism arise from either traditional sexism (the delegitimization of femaleness and femininity) and/or oppositional sexism (the delegitimization of people who fail to conform to binary gender norms - this includes cissexism and heterosexism).

      Traditional sexism is what leads women's bodies and appearances to be judged more harshly than men's, but it also leads to harsher policing of non-masculine behaviors in men (compared to non-feminine behaviors in women).

      Anyway, I explain all this more in depth in my book Whipping Girl, so I encourage you to check that out if you wish.

    2. Thank you! It sounds as though you bring far more nuance to this discussion than what is typically thrown out there. I'll be sure to check it out.