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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Feminism 101: Cisgender

Two happy babies. One is wearing a striped shirt and laying on a blue background, and one is wearing a pink frilly shirt and laying on a pink background. Image source.
Feminism 101 is a series in which I define some of the terms that feminists like to throw around. My goal is to help those who are totally new to feminism understand what it's all about.

Today's entry: cisgender

Gender Wiki defines "cisgender" in this way: "Cisgender is a term for someone who has a gender identity that aligns with what they were assigned at birth. The term was created for referring to "non-transgender" people without alienating transgender people. For example, if the doctor announces a baby as being a girl, and she is fine with being a girl, then she is cisgender."

In other words, cisgender (or just "cis") is the opposite of transgender. (So really, to understand cisgender, you need to know what transgender means. See this post for a list of resouces I gathered on transgender issues.) If you're cis, that means when you were born, the doctor said "it's a girl", and society has always labelled you as a girl, and you believe that yes, you are a girl. (Or, the doctor said "it's a boy" and yes, you are a boy.) The majority of people are cis.

Some people might ask, why do we need a word like "cisgender"? Well, if you don't have a word like that, then what do you call a person who is not transgender? What do you call them? "Normal"? Wow, not okay with that- that makes it sound like trans people are freaks who barely even get included in the category of "people." And also, when you're talking about issues like sex or pregnancy- topics where people's specific configuration of genitals is very important- it's not really right to say things like "men shouldn't be the ones making decisions about abortion, because they can't get pregnant"- that's not true, some men can get pregnant. For example, some transgender men. So this is why we need the term "cis", just say "cis men" instead of "men" and you're good. (Or say "people who can't get pregnant" or something.) Otherwise you're treating trans men as if they don't even exist.

Okay now that we know the definition, let me tell you a little story.

Back when I was a little girl, I didn't really do things "like a girl." I didn't see the point of brushing my hair, I didn't care what kind of clothes I wore or if they "matched"- to me, the whole "matching" thing was an arbitrary set of rules society was forcing on me, and I hated it. When I was in high school, I didn't wear makeup, and I hated shaving my legs. I felt like I had to, otherwise everyone would judge me- but it was just such a huge amount of effort and it didn't matter to me at all. I also used to wear a lot of big t-shirts, and bought jeans from the boys' section because the pockets were ACTUALLY BIG ENOUGH TO BE USEFUL and the sizes made sense. [Y'all. If you've never bought clothes for yourself from the boys'/men's section, you MUST go try sometime. It is MIND-BLOWING how the sizing follows ACTUAL LOGIC. Wow. Completely different from women's clothes.]

When I was little, I had Barbies, but I didn't brush their hair or care what clothes they wore- instead I had them go on all kinds of dangerous adventures. I liked books about science and math and logic problems- stuff that's not really seen as "girly."

I hated when we used to play competitive games at school or at church, and they made the teams "boys vs girls." I felt like I fit in more with the boys. And whatever the result, there would be some people loudly claiming that it proved one gender was superior. I hated if the boys won, because they would say boys are better, they would just lump me in with all the "inferior" girls, even though I hadn't wanted to be on the girls' team anyway. I hated if the girls won, because they would say girls were better, and then the boys would be angry, and I felt like I didn't belong on either side.

In high school I finally realized I was a math nerd. I participated in so many math competitions, both in school and outside of school. Finally I had found people who thought the same way I did. I really fit in with the nerd herd (fun fact: a group of nerds is called a nerd herd). The overwhelming majority of them were boys.

When I was little, sometimes when I played with my sisters, and we pretended to be secret agents or something, we would choose boy names for ourselves. In video games, I often chose the male-looking avatar (usually they didn't have good options for female avatars anyway). Online, I typically picked a gender-neutral-sounding username. But if someone replied to a post I made, and they called me "he", I corrected them. I was not okay with that. Should be "she."

As a nerd, I didn't want to look feminine. Girls who dress more feminine don't "look like" they're good at math. [Wow that is a horribly sexist thing to believe.] But in college I figured, we're all here studying engineering, everyone knows we are all nerds, I can be myself more without worrying about not looking nerdy enough. Then I started wearing more cute stuff, pink stuff, and I really liked it. Still, as a girl I was in the minority in my math and engineering classes. And I felt like I fit in better with boys.

(Some internalized sexism in this story- that's generally a big factor in the whole "I'm not like other girls" thing. But analyzing that would be a whole other post.)

Anyway, I'm cisgender, and I'm writing this story to tell cis people what NOT to do. Don't talk about how you don't fit gender stereotypes, and then conclude your story with "but I never, like, thought I was a MAN or anything." I've heard cis people say things like that, talking about their personal experiences not conforming to society's gender expectations, and then trying to argue that trans people are clearly confused, clearly they just had those same sorts of experiences you had, but they foolishly believe that actually means they're a different gender.

Yeah, not okay.

Guess what? If you're cis, if you're confident that your gender is, in fact, the gender that society assigned you based on your arrangement of genitals, then your experience is NOT the same as that of a trans person. If you've never thought "I wonder if I could be transgender..." then congratulations, you have absolutely no insight on the question of how someone knows they're transgender. (And, having said that, I'll point out that I have no insight into that either. The point of this post is to tell cis people to quit judging trans people, to quit thinking they know a trans person's identity better than the trans person knows themself. If you're in the "I wonder if I could be trans..." camp, I really can't help you at all with that question, you have to go ask someone else. Here is a list of resources.)

What's the difference between being a trans man (or being non-binary) and being a cis woman who doesn't follow a lot of the gender stereotypes? Well... in terms of definitions, it's about how gender identity is a separate thing from gender expression, but... what does that really mean? What does it feel like? How would you know? I guarantee you that there ARE answers to these questions. There IS a difference between being trans and being a cis person who doesn't conform to stereotypes. But because I'm cis, because I've never thought "actually, I'm not a girl", it's impossible for me to really *get* those answers.

But I totally believe trans people are correct about their own identity.

And really, do you think there is any trans person out there who is going to realize "OH!!!! I can just be a GIRL who LIKES SPORTS! I don't have to tell everyone I'm a man! WOW I NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT!"

I always thought I wasn't really "like a girl." But I've always known I am a girl, and I'm happy with that. I'm not transgender, so it doesn't matter how many gender stereotypes I break, I will never know how it feels to be trans. I will never understand why gender identity is so important that it's worth all the risks and costs associated with coming out, transitioning, and existing as a trans person in a society that doesn't understand.

So if you're cis, don't say that trans people are "confused" or that they probably just had the same experiences as you did with not meeting society's expectations of what a boy or girl should be like. Because, no, they didn't. Being trans is something different from that. I'm not sure exactly what it's like or how it's different, but I know it is because I believe trans people know their own identity better than anyone else.

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