InCISting on labels

By , August 16, 2009 4:44 pm

Cedar over at Taking Up Too Much Space just weighed in on the whole cis debate, and summed things up pretty well:

I think it’s high time we admitted it: “Cis” IS an insult.

That’s right. Because by calling you cis, we’re calling you no better than a fucking tranny*, and THAT, my friends, is one of the worst insults we’ve got in US culture. We’re calling you no more real than us, and we’re not real. We’re calling you no more a woman than us, that you deserve no more respect than us, and in your eyes, that means tranny-alert.com, that means Ann Coulter jokes, that means it’s fine for the general public to post videos of your genitals all over the internet with big purple arrows and random fetishizing speculations, and fire you unless you show us photos of your genitals. It’s saying you can’t apply makeup. It’s insulting your penis size and your manhood. It’s saying that the only difference between us is that you think you’re better than us.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to have a conversation with Carolyn Ann at CaroLINES about the same topic. (Edit: Carolyn Ann told me to use masculine pronouns, so that’s been changed.)

I noticed a little while back that Carolyn Ann had linked to my summary of the whole cis debate thing, saying:

Rebecca, in what started as an interesting and relatively fair survey that rapidly devolved into a purely partizan piece, makes this point [that the argument in favor of cis boils down to “We’ll call you cis-gendered because <insert some reason here>, except when you specifically request that we don’t call you, specifically, cis-gendered.” – ed.] in the most eloquent manner I’ve seen so far. [Added] But, again – she clearly starts out with her opinion already firmly held; once you realize that, the initial fairness simply comes across as a nothing more than a rhetorical device. She sets you up, and you think you’re going to read an impartial survey and: wham! Any hint of impartiality is tossed out the nearest (very high) window.

I went over in the comments at CaroLINES why I think that characterization of my post is unfair, even though I ultimately agree I did a piss-poor job of being impartial and should have owned up to that at the outset, so I’m not going to get into that here. Likewise, I should have read the four part series of posts he wrote on using cis before I jumped in and tried to start a discussion about it.

Had I done so, I might not have bothered to engage in the first place, as it’s clear he is using a different set of definitions than I am for trans/cis to begin with. From the first post about cis:

The term [cis] indicates that the woman in question was born female; it fully identifies her so. “Trans woman” is not quite as precise: it tells us of a history; the person was born male, but in some way has taken at least some steps to be as physically feminine as it might be possible. The prefix “cis” is used as a qualifier, and as a means of narrowing down an identity.

Trans woman is just as precise as cis woman: they both describe whether or not someone who identifies as a woman was assigned woman at birth. Neither inherently describe physical state, although both come with their own implications. Both are about identity, rather than perception or appearance.

Carolyn Ann continues down a similar path from there, saying later in the post

“cis” is not an attempt to “decentralize the dominant group”. It is an attempt, a blatant attempt, at redefining an entire conversation so that it can’t stray into areas that might be uncomfortable. It’s being able to cry about “cis privilege”; it is not about leveling the linguistic playing field.

From reading other posts, the “areas that might be uncomfortable” seem to be Carolyn Ann’s claim of essential, immutable characteristics of gender (nearer the end) which is also the post where he again references my original timeline.

Yet, here, I would actually almost agree with Carolyn Ann. Yes, the use of cis as a tool for precise language is, in part, about being able to observe, react to, describe, and dismantle cis privilege. You can’t very well push for equal treatment, as Carolyn Ann elsewhere expresses a desire to do, if you can’t describe why treatment is unequal to begin with.

Nonetheless, I responded to Carolyn Ann’s above-linked post, saying that the way pro-cis-usage arguments were being framed seemed inaccurate and that I didn’t appreciate being called a liar.

He responded today, so I’ll use this as an opportunity to respond back (this chunk will be cross-posted as a comment on CaroLINES as well).

I disagree that, when the trans community asked questions about the use of cis, answers were ignored. The fundamental question being asked was, “How should the non-trans population be described?” Cis already exists, but I’m open to alternatives. However, Carolyn Ann has used strawman after strawman while expressing what members of the trans community think, allowing him to claim to have given a full and complete explanation of hiss views and a full and complete refutation of the trans community’s arguments, while ultimately failing to do either.

(For example, Carolyn Ann claim’s “‘I am a woman’ with no explanation or justification is the simplification” of gender. And yet, what’s actually being said is that the definition of woman should revolve around self-identification, not imposed identity. But by setting up an argument that doesn’t exist – that there should be no debate or discussion over what constitutes “woman” – he of course have an easy time knocking it down.)

Ultimately, I’m going to state my disagreement with Carolynn Ann and try to move on. He was totally valid in saying I didn’t do a good enough job exploring why people were against using the term “cis.” But, now that I have done some more exploration and delved more into my own thoughts and attitudes, it seems like he and I simply won’t be able to see eye to eye. It’s become obvious to me that either I’m not making myself clear or Carolyn Ann isn’t willing to listen, and vice versa.

I’ll continue to try and refine my views, and I’ll definitely try to do a better job in the future of listening to those with whom I have disagreements, but I think my attempts at discussion with Carolyn Ann are really going nowhere.

6 Responses to “InCISting on labels”

  1. Carolyn Ann says:

    Well, I’m glad you are responding! :-)

    One or two points, Rebecca: Your second quote begins incorrectly. I believe the beginning should be “”Cis” is not an attempt to” [etc]. I imagine the “p” is a typo?

    I’m sorry – I can’t find where I make claims re the “essential, immutable characteristics of gender”? I did say this: “If you were born a girl, physically, not figuratively, you’re a woman when you grow up. If you were born a boy, you’re a man when you grow up. If nature gets it wrong, you’re left with a raw deal. But that does not make you what you are not.”

    That’s simple fact. If you’re born a girl – you do grow up to be a woman. If you’re born a boy – you do grow up to be a man. What you feel you are doesn’t enter into those statements. Unless identity and gender match. If they don’t – you got a raw deal. It’s a colloquialism. Besides, you simply cannot be what you are not – where we differ is what we can be.

    I am not denying anyone the right to call themselves whatever they want. But I can, and sometimes do, question the reasoning behind some of claims people make. Especially if that claim neglects, or worse, discards, some essential consideration. If I think it self-serving, and I can be bothered, I will try to figure out why it is so; and then I’m rather happy to refute the claim.

    Anyway, like I said: I’m not usually very articulate after most of a bottle of scotch. (Which is why I complained of a hangover the other day, and also complained (to my wife) about the lack of scotch in the house, not more than a couple of hours ago.

    Anyway, to refute a point you make: I do not consider gender immutable. I never have. I do think that some in the transgender community consider gender to be so plastic it’s better described as Play-Doh. In other words: they render gender meaningless, all the while insisting it isn’t. I don’t have a definition of what, or whom, a woman is – but what I do know is that the self-serving definition many in the transgender community is precisely that: self-serving. It pays no heed to, well, I’d say “experience”, but that seems to be an upsetting term for many.

    You might consider my arguments strawmen arguments, but I assure they’re usually built by simply turning the points I disagree with around. Not always, but often that’s all I do.I also ask rhetorical questions – something I’ve noticed that doesn’t go over too well. (I can’t think why. After all, many arguments and points re gender are rhetorical. Some are even posed rhetorically.)

    Anyway, as I pointed out in one of those cis-related posts, I discovered that simply asking some of my acquaintances how they felt about being called “cisgendered” was more than sufficient. I’ve also made the point that no one can change the world if they insist on insulting the people they’re trying to influence. There’s nothing I’d like to see more than for some Ayn Randian idyll – where everyone respects and accepts everyone else for who they are. Unfortunately we don’t live in that world.

    I simply have some substantive differences with the commonly-accepted wisdom of the transgender community.

    I’m sorry you find my opinions offensive. I’m sorry you think I don’t “listen” – I did take the time to read your post, and your comments, through. I’m also sorry you think a discussion with me is “going nowhere”. We perceive gender differently. I occasionally scribble something about my own gender issues; not too often, however, these days. What those are, specifically, can be easily found. I’m not very interested in iterating them right now.

    For the record: I dislike “CA”, but tolerate it. The pronouns for me are masculine.

    Also – I did enjoy our discussion. It was robust, somewhat vigorous and neither party gave ground. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a debate of similar quality. Well, not so long – my wife and me have a few political differences. I’m sorry you feel unable to continue it.

    Carolyn Ann

    • Rebecca says:

      First, sorry about the typo in the quote and I’ve likewise gone back to correct pronouns.

      I’m not up to responding to every point you’ve made, but I would like to call attention to a few specific things.

      That’s simple fact. If you’re born a girl – you do grow up to be a woman. If you’re born a boy – you do grow up to be a man.

      …and later…

      I don’t have a definition of what, or whom, a woman is – but what I do know is that the self-serving definition many in the transgender community is precisely that: self-serving. It pays no heed to, well, I’d say “experience”, but that seems to be an upsetting term for many.

      I don’t understand how those two ideas can both exist simultaneously. That all boys turn into men and all girls into women, even though you can’t define what “man” or “woman” mean.

      Without speaking for the transgender community, my definition of gender – that it ultimately lies with self-identification, in contrast to biological sex – seems pretty consistent. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t also fit my lived experience, but part of my objection to your definition is that it doesn’t fit my lived experience. And that’s not just for how I define myself as a woman: If you said the definition of women revolved around childbirth I’d object on behalf of my post-menopausal mother just as much as I’d object on behalf of myself. (I realize you’re not doing that, I’m just attempting to show that certain sloppy definitions of “woman” don’t fit the lived experiences of those almost everyone would agree are women.)

      And I’ve enjoyed parts of our discussion. Where I felt like I was listened to, yes. Your above response, although there’s more I disagree with that I may have the energy to address later, is polite and seems to be responding to what I actually wrote. What I became frustrated with, as I said, was when I felt you were misconstruing my words or ideas, or ignoring them outright.

  2. Cedar says:

    What a troll. While accurately representing one’s opposition is definitely still required, this isn’t something where impartiality is possible.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Cedar. I think what’s ultimately frustrating me is that I’d like to believe it’s possible for two sides of an issue – no matter how acrimonious they may be – to sit down and understand where the other side is coming from. But maybe that’s just naive of me.

      At the risk of drifting off-topic, I’ll provide an example: I’m against the death penalty. All the evidence I’ve seen shows that it’s expensive and not a good deterrent, and that’s above and beyond the moral issue I have with the government saying it’s acceptable to kill prisoners in some circumstances.

      But, even though I think they’re wrong, I understand that some people are saying, “No. In certain situations, a crime can be so heinous as to make death the appropriate punishment.”

      Getting back to Carolyn Ann and the whole cis hullabaloo, I feel like I was pretty clear about my position: It is necessary to have a single adjective descriptor for those whose gender identity matches their assigned gender to A) allow for discussion about identity, behavior, discrimination, and more and to B) normalize the idea of trans people as part of a spectrum and not simply weird when compared with “normal” people (in the same way heterosexual is a necessary counterpart to homosexual).

      Even if he thinks I’m full of shit, Carolyn Ann needs to understand that if there’s any hope of an honest debate. Instead, he “summarized” my position as, “You feel that you need to label people who are not transgendered because, erm, well because.” (Emphasis included in the original.)

      I just don’t know how to have a conversation if that’s how it’s being held, and that’s what those who disagree with me think of my position.

      • Carolyn Ann says:

        As far as I can tell – that is what you said, Rebecca. I’m sorry you don’t like the summarization, but it is an honest and accurate reflection of what I read in your words. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t think you made any effort to really understand why “cis” is not a welcome term. Your words in your original survey reflect that lack of effort.

        I disagree on the linguistic need for an adjective to describe people who are not-transgender. If we accept that a substantially dominant group sets the basic definition of “normal”, there is only a need to describe those who do not fit into that category.

        In the spirit of off-topic analogies, I do not describe our other cats as “not disabled cats”, simply because we have one cat who has at least 4 significant disabilities. Heck, I don’t describe Maxine as “disabled”, unless it is needed for a discussion. According the logic of the cis debate, I need an adjective to describe all the other cats, not just Max! (We have a lot of cats, by the way.)

        I do not think you are “full of shit”. For one thing, I don’t use such disgusting terminology, and I thought our discussion was quite interesting. Anyway, as you seem to be in some sort of agreement that I’m a “troll” – it does seem to be a favored way for the transgender community to describe those who disagree with its “common wisdom” – I will let you get on with debating my words and point sans my contribution. I must admit that is the biggest disappointment of our discussion. I had come to respect you.

        Carolyn Ann

        • Rebecca says:

          Thank you, at last, for responding to my question. I’d like to highlight this point (emphasis added):

          I disagree on the linguistic need for an adjective to describe people who are not-transgender. If we accept that a substantially dominant group sets the basic definition of “normal”, there is only a need to describe those who do not fit into that category.

          In the spirit of off-topic analogies, I do not describe our other cats as “not disabled cats”, simply because we have one cat who has at least 4 significant disabilities. Heck, I don’t describe Maxine as “disabled”, unless it is needed for a discussion. According the logic of the cis debate, I need an adjective to describe all the other cats, not just Max! (We have a lot of cats, by the way.)

          Then we may just need to agree to disagree.

          When talking about my friends, or coworkers, or roommates (or cats) in casual conversation, you’re right: I don’t say, “I was talking with my cis roommate the other day and…” If it’s not strictly relevant to the conversation, I don’t bother mentioning it. (And my roommates do the same for me. They aren’t going around saying, “I was cooking dinner with my trans roommate last night.”)

          But yes, when attempting to have a conversation about gender, I’ll say “My experience as a trans woman is XYZ. I’ve talked with my cis roommate, who said she had felt ABC.” In that way, I’m able to establish something about both of our respective histories as they relate to gender and to express those histories on an equal plane.

          I say “equal plane” for a reason. If “normal” wasn’t a value judgmental, and simply meant “average” or “mean,” I might not care about having an adjective to define non-trans individuals. But “normal” is ultimately associated with “right” or “good.” The antonym to normal is “abnormal,” a word with negative connotations.

          As such, while there might only be a logical or linguistic need to express those concepts which don’t fit into “normal,” I’m arguing that, socially and within the power structures of society, we do need to be able to describe the “normal” group in such a way as to remove that inherent value judgment placed on the abnormal.

          Concerning Cedar’s comment and whether or not you’ve been trolling. I specifically didn’t agree with that accusation because I honestly haven’t been sure if that’s what you’ve been doing. Likewise, you’re right: I didn’t exactly object to it for that same reason. For your personal edification, the moments I thought you were trolling stemmed out of places (like I mentioned above) where it felt like you were going out of your way to misrepresent in a single sentence the argument I spent a good amount of time putting forth in the comments of your blog. The two comments you’ve made here, conversely, seem more like someone who has an honest disagreement and is willing to discuss it.

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