Back in May I posted about The Great Trans Feminist Blogging Shakeup of 2009. Less ridiculously described, it was a series of posts and discussions in April about how Feminist blogs can/should foster discussion about trans issues. The post was prompted by my own disappointment in a discussion over at Feministing, and I was trying to process my own experiences by going through how others had viewed the conversation in April.
Well, the (queer) blogosphere is (once again) up in arms over trans related discussions, so I thought I’d (once again) try and construct a timeline so that I could better understand what the heck has been going on. Here we go!
General note: I’m realizing, rereading this, that I switch between present and past tense. I’m too lazy to got back through everything, particularly since WordPress is still making me write posts in HTML and not with a WYSIWYG editor. Deal with it. Also, if you don’t care about the specifics and want to know what I think, scroll way to the bottom, past all the bullet points.
- On June 26, Autumn Sandeen posted Aravosis Needs To Issue His Own Apology To Trans People Before Citing TGs Regarding Fed LGBT Issues at Pam’s House Blend. Autumn called out Aravosis for a number of different things, and she said why better than I could:
Mr. Aravosis owes an apology to the transgender subcommunity of the LGBT community for personally approving of kicking transgender people and issues out of the broad lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community for the benefit of ENDA 2007/2008, and now he currently owes a fresh apology to the transgender subcommunity of the LGBT community for using a story about the transgender subcommunity to make a point about the Obama Administration’s treatment of LGBT people.
The comments and conversation in Autumn’s post got rather accusatory, not only at Aravosis, but at cis, gay men in general. From what I can tell, the thread really started to get argumentative around here, and turned from discussing Aravosis to discussing the use of cis as a label/identifier, and whether or not it is/can be/should be offensive. (Note that I’m trying not to say right now which side I think I agree with, just pointing out what I’m seeing. “Argumentative” does not mean “wrong.”) And the meta-argument about the use of cis, which became the main issue in the days to come, really got going slightly further down the thread, here, with someone saying:
I still find it offensive to be described as such [cisgender]. It is no different that for a trans person to say do not refer to me as pre-op or do not define me as the gender I am from. If I were to do it anyway…. that is not acceptable no more than to lump all white gay men into this category. Just admit that you have issues with gwm [gay white men] and leave it at that, but to lump everyone into one category is offensive to me. To call me CIS is offensive when it is a made up name and not an identity that I choose it is offensive. This is done because it is easy for you and rather than to have a dialogue you choose to dump us all into one category as the enemy and that is what I find offensive. Don’t put words into my mouth and do not fucking pretend that you are any more righteous than me, because when you use this language it only serves to distance us from each other and offends me. It is no different than if I started calling you a tranny… I would think that would be offensive.
The comments went from there to a healthy mix of people continuing to try and have a constructive, rational discussion, and a number of people engaging in name-calling, intentionally/unintentionally misunderstanding what other people were saying, and the like.
- On June 28, Autumn posted a followup, Enough Already, in which she said, in part:
To say I’m angry at some of my trans peers for their comments on white, gay men in the diary Aravosis Needs To Issue His Own Apology To Trans People Before Citing TGs Regarding Fed LGBT Issues is an understatement.
How does one take a diary about one famous blogger’s comments on trans people and turn it into a thread where white gay men are attacked with a broad brush? Especially with the diversity focus of Pam’s House Blend? Incredible.
Again, the initial discussion was (mostly) calm and (mostly) reasonable. What seemed to set things off again was turning the discussion toward the use of cis:
For the record, I find cis- to be offensive. In general, I thought our community (I mean the whole LGBT rainbow here) uses terms that are acceptable to those being described. That is, we use the preferred gender of trans people, we call someone bi if they identify as bi, we don’t say tranny, etc.
So why is it okay for (some of) the trans community to call us cis-? If members of the trans community said “stop calling us trans, we find it offensive” would we here at PHB continue to say “trans”? I doubt it very much.
Why the lack of respect in the other direction?
Again, I’m not commenting on whether or not this commenter was right, wrong, inflammatory, conciliatory, whatever. Just noting that bringing cis back into the discussion did turn it away from talking about civility and how to hold discussions on The Blend to a discussion (often ugly) about cis/trans terminology.
Autumn stepped in here to say, “Public warning in this thread — next person who uses this thread to make comment defending “cis” terminology gets a trap door drop.”
- Early on June 29, Lisa at Questioning Transphobia responded to all this by posting Cis is hostile terminology? Really? In it she reminded people:
Cis is a neutral term applied to people who aren’t trans. It’s intended to decenter the notion that not being trans is the natural, default state for human beings and that being trans is a deviation, and that trans people are other. Most terminology that cis people use to define themselves as cis generally reifies cissexism and cissupremacy.
(Can you tell I’m doing a bad job staying neutral?)
Lisa continued by saying, “Just to be clear, it’s not [my concern] that Autumn disagrees with “cis” terminology. It’s the tone argument (used at least twice), and the threat to ban anyone who defends “cis” usage.
The comments and discussion are generally supportive of the word/concept cis(gender/sexual). It looks like (as of writing this) discussion has also turned to Pam’s House Blend removing comments without any acknowledgment or discussion, and of how to hold better and more civil discussions in the future.
- Later on June 29, Renee at Transsexual Ferox posted Poison?, with her initial thoughts on what’s been happening:
I was a little surprised really. I see it as an academic term, used mostly to distinguish between tran and non-trans when context is important for such things. I hadn’t considered its negative impact because, really, let’s face it, I wish I was cisgendered. Or natal. Or genetic. Or normal. Or whatever other word means born with a coherent female identity…pick your poison.
Which suggests that perhaps the problem really does lay with me. I can’t speak about others because, well, I’m not them. Among my friends and I, if someone’s using the word trans, it’s usually me. I’m the one who brings it up. I’m the one who talks about it. I’m the one assigning labels.
And if you feel the need to tell someone they’re cisgendered – if you give them that label – are you merely drawing a distinction between the two of you, or are you implicitly suggesting some level of cissexism on their part? And if you are, isn’t that a little bit cisphobic of you?
Does the term cisgender mean a whole lot more than: a person whose biological sex and gender identity are synchronous?
- Keeva also weighed in on June 29 with “cis”, summarizing what had been happening thus far, expressing her disappointment in Autumn and PHB, and finding a choice comment comparing trans people using ‘cis’ to what the Nazis did to the Jews.
- And, lastly for June 29, Jackson at Queer Subversion put in his two cents, as did geopunk.
- On June 30, Mattie at xoros posted Cis. Particularly relevant:
The trans modifier is only there when… relevant. Cis modifiers are even less often relevant, because it’s the unspoken expectation. The only time it needs using is when it would be confusing or othering not to use it. So, it’s not meant to be used as an identifier. It is a descriptor. That’s all. Just a way to avoid saying “woman and trans women”, or “women don’t face some of the issues trans women do” cos that would be like othering. You know? What is wrong with being able to say those with equality and respect for each other in the form “cis women don’t face some of the issues trans women do”?
You don’t have to use it like an identity or use it all the time or use it when it’s not relevant or if there is no need to distinguish between trans and cis people or use it when shopping or use it when you need to pee or anything else? Kthxbai.
Likewise, I appreciate this summation:
Cos, you know, there is little more soul wearying than talking to someone who wants to say “I’m normal, you’re not, no need for a word to describe me! I’m normal! Now stop being an angry, difficult trans person so I can go back to feeling sorry for you and happy about my normalness.”
Mattie followed up on July 1 with And even more cis use and on July 3 with Cis the Third. If your eyes are crossing at this point, go read Cis the Third, if nothing else, to get an idea of what the argument about whether or not to use cis boils down to.
(At this point I realize I’ve dropped any real pretense of neutrality…)
- On June 30, Marti at TransAdvocate posted A Strange Brew – Pams House Blend now serving Privelege.
- July 1 also saw Veronique from TransCanada post Counteroffensive, which reiterates the importance of ‘cis’ in gender dialogue.
- On July 2, Nelson (note: name corrected since original post) at NGblog posted Stop Bleeding Pam, who isn’t happy with out PHB is handling things, but also isn’t actually correct with his take on what’s happening in the first place:
So here we have, Autumn, a transgender, taking issue with people who, for whatever reason identify as cisgender, and who herself has a website/blog thingy with the word “abnormal” in it.
Ignoring the “a transgender” faux pas, the issue was with people not identifying as cis and, indeed, rejecting that as an identity. Just so we’re clear, I agree with Nelson that PHB is in trouble, but wanted to point that out.
- Autumn returned on July 2nd, posting I Have An “Angry Inch”. She points out where she “began seeing the terms cisgender and cissexual as weapons in the Pam’s House Blend threads,” and how it has turned her off to the words in general. This post also began a larger discussion on how discussions should be held on the blend.
- July 2 also saw Keeva post The post Autumn Sandeen does not want me to make. In it, she posts an email from Autumn about her previous post (see above) “I have an ‘Angry Inch’”. Keeva follows up on it soon thereafter, with more information about her communication with Pam and Autumn.
- On July 4, Lisa posted A Point about Cis, reiterating that
Cis is not an insult, it’s not a slur. It is, however, as much of an identity as trans is, even if most cis people never stop to think about the fact that they’re cis, that they just assume that being what they are (”I’m just a person, I’m not cis/white/het/able-bodied!”) is the normal way to be.
Being cis doesn’t make anyone a bad person. Having privilege doesn’t make anyone a bad person. When you sit back and you think “that person who’s calling me cis is saying I have privilege and thus I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON” consider that the trans person who says that may be white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied, or otherwise privileged. That trans person who says that may even have come to terms with hir own privileges, and does not take it personally when her privilege is pointed out to her.
- Also on July 4, Autum posted What, In The Grand Scheme Of Things, Is Important?. In it, she says that the meta-discussion has distracted and is distracting people from more important issues, such as ongoing trials and legislation affecting trans men and women.
- Keeva responded, calling Pam out for connecting Keeva’s online and offline personas. Keeva has continued to post since then, and it seems like she and Pam/Autumn are now sniping back and forth every so often…
So, after all that, what do I think??
How kind of you to ask.
Ultimately, I think Mattie sums it up with Cis the Third. As I said before, you should go read it. She’s sarcastic and sharp (both plusses, in my book) so if you agree that cis is offensive, you probably won’t find Mattie’s post particularly enlightening. That said, she’s still right.
However, more broadly, I find myself continuing to go back to my recent post about thinking before speaking. It does seem like Aravosis (remember him? from the first post way back in June?) should apologize, and is transphobic. (Or, at least, a jerk.) But, rereading the initial comments that sparked things, I find a lot of people making accusations and assumptions that I simply can’t imagine them saying face-to-face. From there, everything kind of snowballed, with few people wanting to A) admit they were rude, even if they were right, B) appolgoize for being rude in the first place.
I don’t want to oversimplify the situation, or to say, “Had everyone been nicer, this never would have happened.” It does seem like there is a substantive disagreement over whether or not to use cis(sexual/gender) to describe people. I happen to agree with the pro-cis-usage camp, as I think it’s an important word and concept for discussing gender, identity, privilege, and their intersections. But that doesn’t mean it should be impossible to hold a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with me.
Ultimately, I’m disappointed with both ‘sides’ of the issue – those agreeing with PHB and those thinking PHB handled things poorly. I do think Autumn did a poor job attempting to get the discussion back on track, as did Pam, and ultimately much (but not all!) of the origins of this blowing into a multi-blog storm lie with their actions. Taking a stern tone can work well in a face-to-face argument, but rarely seems to in online discussion. I’d wager this is because the perceived cost of matching the other in tone and “volume,” so to speak, is minimal. That is, if I literally get into a screaming match with someone, it’s much more emotionally and physically dangerous than getting into a figurative screaming match online.
Likewise, there were members of the trans community – in blog posts and discussions – who assumed Autumn, Pam, and others were acting with ill-will or attempting to be overly conciliatory to their (cis) readers, and acted rudely as a result.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not attempting to absolve either side of blame, to try and avoid taking sides, or to pretend that I can float above the fray. I agree with those who said ‘cis’ is an entirely appropriate and acceptable word. People who dislike it’s use have every right to request it not be used to apply to them specifically, as an identity, but don’t get to bow out of their cis privilege simply because it makes them feel icky. (I don’t get to bow out of my white privilege either, even though I don’t have a strong “white identity.”) And Autumn, in my opinion, unintentionally fueled the flames by attempting to cut off conversation rather than further it.
But life (like gender!) is rarely black-and-white. I’m also not thrilled with the level of discourse by some of the trans men and women in the comments through the above links, and while saying “You’re being hostile” is often simply used as a derailing technique, that doesn’t mean it’s never true, or that it’s impossible to both be right and rude.
That doesn’t mean I’ve never flown off the handle in an online discussion, or that I won’t ever again. And it doesn’t mean people should continue to call out obnoxious and X-phobic privilege when they see it. But I hope everyone will take a deep breath and count to ten before posting in the (inevitable) next round of controversy.