Thoughts on developing a cis heuristic

Title mostly because I like the word “heuristic”, but also because it’s relevant.

Jemima, of Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar, tweeted with the comment “thought provoking post” the link to an article by London Feminist called What is cis – and does it matter? It certainly is thought provoking, and for me raised a challenge.

LF starts with a principle of accepting the term: “It made perfect sense to me, then, when I learned that the opposite of ‘trans’ in the gender sense was also ‘cis.'” The difficulty starts when she starts to look more closely at what trans covers, and whether she, herself, fits into the “cis” category.

But “trans” does not seem to mean dysphoric, or at least not exclusively. It also includes “genderqueer,” a sense of self which exists outside the gender binary of male / female. Again, perhaps, this doesn’t apply to terribly many of us. I have described myself, back in the dark ages of LiveJournal, as “gendermeh” – indifferent to gender identity. Having tried both, I discovered that I perform masculinity just as badly as I perform femininity, and so I tend to go with the path of least resistance, choosing elements of both as and when they suit me. My hobbies and my mode of dress for work are typically coded masculine; my current hairstyle and my mode of dress outside work are typically coded feminine.

LF then quotes some sources for definition of “transgender”, and that’s where it starts to get troublesome.

But according to some sources, including Practical Androgyny cited on GenderQueerID, that is enough to bring me within the “transgender umbrella.”

‘Transgender’ is an umbrella term that can potentially cover all people who transgress or transcend (go beyond the limits of) society’s rules and concepts of gender. People may be transgender due to their self expression, identity or personal history.

If that is correct, and to transcend or to transgress society’s gender expectations constitutes transgenderism, then that includes me. Yaygender defines gender as tripartite:

gender identity: one’s psychological sense of self; one’s identity; who someone is intrinsically
gender presentation or gender expression: how one presents oneself in society
gender role: the social role someone takes in society

These definitions as applied to transness do not feel quite right to me, and I think it is possible for any group the edges of which are necessarily blurred, to have people defining it in various ways, and some of those ways will be problematic outliers. The question that LF raises is precisely the problem that allows TERFs and their transphobic ilk to reject the label “cis” – I really don’t have the energy to track down an example or links, but there was a whole twitter thing not long ago about someone with the initials CCP making precisely this claim: that because she, as a feminist, rejects societal norms, “don’t call me cis”.

LF’s piece restates the argument as an “outside observer” (not that anyone is an outside observer, of course) in the manner of someone trying to see where the other side is coming from, why they might hold whatever belief they have (regardless of whether it’s an accurate belief). I appreciate this kind of writing and thinking, as I try to achieve it myself from time to time.

The fact remains that the definitions are a dodgy place to start, and they give succour to the transphobic, particularly of the TERF variety, by legitimising the “TERF is a slur”, “don’t call me ‘cis'” responses. They also give weight to those (often men) who seek to police masculinity by defining as a “girl” or a “pussy” any male who does not conform perfectly to their perceptions of macho (it’s usually macho) maleness.

If the definitions are flawed, then it may make sense to have a look and see how they can be narrowed or tightened to be less flawed. As I mentioned, trans is a category whose boundaries are necessarily blurred (it reminds me of my maths degree module on finding error margins, and discovering that in the calculation of an error margin, there is an error margin on the error margin…) You can cast a net so wide that the definition could also catch a lot of people who aren’t trans under the same category (the issue with the quotes used by LF) or you can narrow it and risk not covering people who you think should be covered.

I am broadly in agreement with the Yaygender description of different ways of determining or defining gender – I might feel there are more ways of looking at it than just three, but in principle “identity, presentation/expression, social role” is a good starting point. But are all of these relevant to transness?

Jemima last week wrote a piece inspired by a man who asked whether liking strap-on sex made him gay, and from the question of the curious coding that people put on various sex acts, discussing how performance and sexuality or gender are related:

This goes deeper however, as the kind of rad fems who say sexuality is nothing more than a performance of certain acts also say the same about gender. for them gender is a social construct with no real meaning outside of performance.

The most sexual contact I’ve had with a man is a quick snog (and it wasn’t consensual on my part, but put that to one side) – nevertheless, I find men sexually attractive (David Weston, for example, in recent promos for Pandora Blake’s Dreams of Spanking – phwoar!) as well as women, and therefore am bisexual, regardless of whether I’ve tried sex with a man (somewhere between 1 and 2 on the Kinsey scale, depending on the particular company…). That said, I’m pretty sure I would enjoy sex with a man.

A more telling question is whether drag artists and pantomime dames are typically considered to belong in the trans category. Most people I’ve seen comment on the matter say no, and I am inclined to agree with them. While drag artists in particular may represent an accepted facet of “gender bending” (ugly term, but the best I can think of for this particular context, and the one often used in wider society), the identity of the performer typically remains cis. The performance is not relevant to the identity in these cases. But, we might say, drag is intended as a performance, or even parody, of gender, and nothing else. But if a performance of gender is not in itself enough, the point is already made. Gender cannot be purely performance and to be trans there must be something else at work. It is also possible to be trans without any element of performance.

Trans women who wish to undergo surgery are required by others’ (meaning, people in medical authority) conflation of performance and gender, to create a performance of gender that often is at odds with their preferences and internal desire for presentation. A cis woman can wear manly jeans and t-shirt and not have her gender questioned; a trans woman often can’t. Performance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient quality when it comes to determining transness. There must be something else to go with it.

TF describes herself thus:

Personally I don’t see why I shouldn’t wear a three piece suit and brogues, wear my hair in a number 2 men’s cut and drink real ale (all things I do) whilst also being cis.

Perhaps a more important thing would be to argue that there’s no reason why a trans woman shouldn’t do all that, and still be trans (see above point re: medical authorities).

There is a distinction, and a clear one, between “dressing like a man” and “dressing as a man”, which is to say, one person dresses and acts the way TF describes just because it feels good and it’s their personal style. Another person dresses the same way in order to be perceived a certain way or to match their perception with their identity. Both those people could be trans or cis, or anywhere in the trans umbrella. But someone who dresses as a man is either a trans man or a cis man (or conceivably, genderqueer/genderfluid) whereas someone who dresses like a man can be man, woman, cis, trans, in any combination.

A similar point: trans folk tend to describe the act of dressing, and presenting themselves, as being taking off a mask rather than putting one on: they remove the disguise of their assigned-at-birth gender to reveal themselves. One person wearing the three piece suit etc thinks it’s a disguise; another thinks it’s the only time they aren’t disguised. So, again, there’s a distinction between “I dress as a man would dress” (disguise) and “As a man, I dress like this” (shedding the disguise).

Of course, “As a man, I dress like this” can be taken as permanent or temporary – either “I am a man. I dress like this,” or, “When I am a man, I dress like this” (i.e. at other times I dress differently) but both those cases fall under various trans identities, whereas “I dress as a man would dress” would generally not. And that goes for the male friend I have who wears skirts (and sometimes a kilt) just as much: “I am a man. I wear a skirt” is still a statement of his cis masculinity (and if a trans man made the same statement, it would be a statement of his trans masculinity).

Jemima, again (from the same “Does it make me gay?” post):

Other cis women have performed the same thought experiment I did, to imagine having a penis, being male, in detail, and reported the same feelings of distress and even nausea. This is not to say that everyone who identifies as cis needs to have such a strong, almost dysphoric reaction, gender is no doubt a spectrum rather than a zero sum game.

I’m genderfluid, always never quite one or the other, outside the binary. I’ve tried the thought experiment. Sometimes I have fantasised about having a cunt, and even from my mid-teens have always said that if I was a woman, I would want to have het, PiV sex (I’d also want to have lots of lesbian sex too), and tried to imagine how that feels. Suffice to say, I don’t get the dysphoric reaction that Jemima reports. Or, rather, sometimes the reason I have these fantasies is because I sometimes feel dysphoric about my male genitalia, but not consistently (and certainly not consistently enough to make surgery an attractive option) – and sometimes I fantasise about having both a cunt and a cock at the same time. I’ve written before about some of the ways I would like my body to be different and more ambiguous – less hairy, slightly bigger boobs, etc.

While a sense of body-wrongness isn’t necessary as a part of the trans umbrella terms (for instance, genderqueer/genderfluidity need not include any strong sense of dysphoria; there are also many trans men and women who feel no need to have genital surgery) it is a strong indicator.

When you’re at home, alone or with a (long-term) lover, who are you? When whatever you wore out into the world comes off (whether masculine work clothes or feminine relaxation clothes, to use LF’s example) what is left? When you put them on again, what do they mean to you about identity? How much do you have to do in order to feel like you?

These questions, I think, are where transness occurs (at least, where there’s no dysphoria – and I think they would show up dysphoria where it occurs as well), and therefore where cisness occurs. Whatever the biological realities (and that’s a lot more complicated than people like to admit) and the doctor’s declaration at birth, how you relate to that is at the core of cisness. If you’re FAAB, and when you’re at home with your lover, you’re a woman; when you shed whatever clothes you wore out into the world and put on your joggers and t-shirt, or pyjamas, or whatever you wear when it doesn’t matter what you wear, and you’re a woman; when you put the outside clothes on again (regardless of what those clothes are) and you’re still a woman; when in order to feel like you, you don’t need to adjust anything (or you make your FAAB body more feminine, not less); then you’re a cis woman.

But me, MAAB, when I’m home alone or with a lover, I’m somewhere in between; when I shed my clothes and put on my joggers and t-shirt, I’m most often a tomboy-ish girl; when I put on my costumes for the world I can be (in my mind anyway; passing so others see me as female seems a long way off, and may be impossible, in the actual outside world) a woman or a man; in order to feel like me, I have to shave my body hair (and I still can’t reach all of it by myself) and sometimes wear a corset to get the right body shape, and it’s still not quite enough to feel like me.

Maybe this approach, this definition, this heuristic, will leave out people whom we might want to include under the trans umbrella. Maybe some people we want to call cis can also belong under the trans umbrella through some form of identity that is “cis-ish”, or have concerns that are related to those of trans and genderqueer/fluid folks such that we have common cause, even if they are not trans themselves. (As, for instance, the whole LGBT conflation.) I don’t know about that. As best I can manage, these questions seem to me to capture the elements any of which are sufficient to identifying transness in various forms.

Thoughts/improvements/additions welcome.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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2 Responses to Thoughts on developing a cis heuristic

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: Some highlights of my 2014 blogging | Valery North - Writer

  2. Pingback: The curse of seeing the other side | Valery North - Writer

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