(Brace yourself, this is going to be a long post.)
As usual, Daisy had an interesting post over at Dear Diaspora. (Although I think I found it more interesting than she may have originally intended!) She set the post up as intending to clarify some terms surrounding gender and identity (cissexual, transsexual, cisgender, transgender, etc) so that she could use the terms in later posts. She assumed that her readers were generally familiar with cissexual and transsexual, but used the following to define cisgender:
- cisgender: not transgender, not genderqueer; having a sex that aligns with one’s social gender (i.e. female/feminine/woman or male/masculine/man)
I had to read that definition a few times to make sure I understood, because it’s not the definition I’m familiar with. That definition would look something more like:
- cisgender: not transgender, not genderqueer; having a gender identity that aligns with one’s assigned sex
That is, the definition of cis/transgender I’m familiar with – and what I think is the more commonly accepted definition – is concerned with how one’s gender identity relates to assigned sex. Conversely, Daisy’s definition is concerned with how one’s gender presentation (“social gender”) relates to one’s gender identity (as I think we determined in the comments that she meant by “sex”).
One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other
Right off the bat, her definition has an advantage in that…
…the categories “cissexual” and “cisgender” overlap and interact with each other and with “transsexual” and “transgender” is every possible way.
1. TS & TG: transsexual and genderqueer (a butch MAAB woman)
2. CS & TG: cissexual and genderqueer (a butch FAAB woman)
3. TS & CG: transsexual and cisgender (a feminine MAAB woman)
4. CS & CG: cissexual and cisgender (a feminine FAAB woman)
The parentheticals are just examles; they’re supposed to be illustrative, not limiting.
Whereas with the common definitions, cissexual/gender don’t overlap and interact with transsexual/gender in every possible way. Using Daisy’s chart, and the “classic” definitions of transgender and cisgender:
- TS & TG: transsexual and transgender (anyone transgender individual who transitions or desires to do so)
- CS & TG: cissexual and transgender (someone who doesn’t desire to modify their body away from their assigned sex but also does not identify purely or simply as that gender)
- TS & CG: transsexual and cisgender (this is where the overlapping sort of falls apart. someone whose subconscious sex does not align with their assigned sex and/or someone who desires to modify their body away from their assigned sex but still identifies as their assigned gender.)
- CS & CG: cissexual and cisgender (someone who identifies as their assigned gender and does not find a disconnect with their assigned sex
Number three is the problem child, and it’s an issue I’ve had before. I’ve actually had a half-written post about a chart similar to Daisy’s sitting in my queue for months, simply because I couldn’t figure out what to do with that third box. I went back and forth:
“Trans/cissexual should be able to correspond to trans/cisgender in all permutations, self.”
“I agree. But self, box three smacks of idiocy. The chart is only useful if it describes actual ways people self-identify.”
“Good point, self. But it’s a chart! How can you argue with a chart?”
And so on.
In our discussion in the comments of Daisy’s post, she summed up some of my semantic/linguistic frustrations with the standard definitions by saying…
If transsexual is a subset of transgender, musn’t cissexual be a subset of cisgender…?
But that’s not true with the standard definitions of the terms, while her definitions removes transsexual as being a subset of transgender.
Charts and Graphs and Things
At this point in the discussion with Daisy, I started to get cross-eyed, trying to keep track of all the various definitions we were using. So lets throw out transgender and cisgender for a bit and just talk about concepts and, more importantly, self-identification. Let’s consider the following three spectra, each with various statements of self-identification made by hypothetical individuals. (Disclaimers: I am going to use trans/cissexual, as that seems to be the most clearly-defined concept, or the least contested. I’m also going to say things like “the opposite sex,” even though I know that’s a really problematic phrase.)
Gender Identity as it relates to Self Presentation
<– Aligns Neither Aligns nor Opposes Opposes –>
1A says, “My preferred self-presentation of gender completely aligns with social expectations of my gender identity.” That is, someone who identifies as a woman and presents themselves in a femme/feminine manner.
1B says, “My preferred self-presentation of gender neither completely aligns with social expectations of my gender identity, nor directly opposes them.” That is, Someone who identifies as a man, but prefers self-presentation with equally balanced masculine/butch and feminine/femme aspects.
1C says, “My preferred self-presentation of gender directly opposes social expectations of my gender identity.” That is, someone who identifies as a woman but prefers male gender expression or identifies as a man but prefers female gender expression.
Gender Identity as it relates to Assigned Sex
<– Aligns Neither Aligns nor Opposes Opposes –>
2A says, “My gender identity has always been aligned with my assigned sex.” That is, a woman-born-woman (to borrow a very loaded phrase).
2B says, “My gender identity does not align – or did not at some point in the past – with my assigned sex or with the opposite sex.” That is, someone whose gender identity is neither male nor female.
2C says, “My gender identity is the opposite of my assigned sex.” That is, someone who identifies as a woman but was assigned ‘male’ at birth (regardless of whether she desires to transition).
Subconscious Sex as it relates to Assigned Sex
<– Aligns Neither Aligns nor Opposes Opposes –>
3A says, “My subconscious sex has always been aligned with my assigned sex.” That is, cissexual.
3B says, “My subconscious sex does not align – or did not at some point in the past – with my assigned sex or with the opposite sex.” That is, someone whose subconscious sex is neither male nor female.
3C says, “My subconscious sex is the opposite of my assigned sex.” That is, a classically defined transsexual.
If you didn’t guess already, Spectrum 1 aligns with Daisy’s definition of cisgender/transgender, Spectrum 2 aligns with the classic/standard definition of cisgender/transgender, and Spectrum 3 aligns with cissexual/transsexual.
Why should I care? (Or, who gets to decide on the yardstick?)
As fun as it is to make ASCII charts, how is that really helpful? Think for a moment about what cis___ and trans___ imply, as prefixes. What is being “cis”ed (that is, staying the same, or matching) and what is being “trans”ed (that is, opposing or crossing)?
In cis/transsexual (or Spectrum 3) the use of cis___ and trans___ relate to whether one’s subconscious sex matches their assigned sex. I’m “trans”ing sex – transgressing, transversing, transsexual – because my subconscious sex is out of whack with my assigned sex. My roommates are “cis”ing sex – matching, staying the same, cissexual – because their subconscious sexes match their assigned sexes.
Meanwhile, in the standard use of cis/transgender (or Spectrum 2) cis___ and trans___ are also being used to relate whether a component of oneself – in this case gender identity – matches their assigned sex. I’m “trans”ing gender because my gender identity is out of what with my assigned sex. My roommates are “cis”ing gender because their gender identities match their assigned sexes.
Phrased that way, cis/transsexual and cis/transgender seem somewhat redundant or overlapping. As Their both using assigned sex as a yardstick, even if their measuring different things (gender identity and subconscious sex). And, as Daisy noted, they run into problems because “transsexual” is a subset of “transgender” (all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares) while “cissexual” is not a subset of “cisgender.” Someone can have their subconscious sex match their assigned sex – that is, not desire to alter their body – while still not experiencing a ‘match’ between their gender identity and their assigned sex.
But with Spectrum 1, a modification of Daisy’s definition of cis/transgender, gender identity becomes the yardstick against which behavior/presentation is measures. Doesn’t this seem like a more powerful concept? Suddenly, instead of having three somewhat fuzzy categories -
- Transsexual and transgender: Gender identity and subconscious sex don’t match expectations of their assigned sex. You know something about their identity, but doesn’t tell you anything about their self-presentation or how they see their gender identity interacting with the world. (Do they seem themselves as butch? Femme? Genderqueer? Androgynous? Something else?)
- Cissexual and transgender: Gender identity doesn’t match expectations of assigned sex, but subconscious and assigned sexes do match. This tells you a little more about how they see their gender identity interacting with the world, but still not a ton of information.
- Cissexual and cisgender: Both gender identity and subconscious sex match expectations of assigned sex. This is probably the most informative or well-defined of the three, simply because it’s the most common.
- you get to have a more nuanced way of describing people’s identities and histories:
- Transsexual and transgender: Subconscious sex doesn’t match their assigned sex, and self-presentation doesn’t match expectations of their gender identity. You know this person sees their gender expression as somehow at odds with the cultural understandings and expectations of their gender identity and their subconscious sex at odds with their assigned sex.
- Transsexual and cisgender: Subconscious sex doesn’t match assigned sex, but self-presentation does match expectations of their gender identity. This is someone who sees their gender expression as matching the cultural understandings of their gender identity.
- Cissexual and transgender: Subconscious sex does match their assigned sex, but self-presentation doesn’t match expectations of their gender identity.
- Cissexual and cisgender: Both self-presentation and subconscious sex match expectations of assigned sex.
It seems like none of the information from the first set of definitions are lost with the second set, but much information is gained.
The End of the Beginning
I’m sort of creating more problems than I’m solving, though, because I’m ignoring the huge history and momentum behind the accepted/understood definitions of cis/transsexual and cis/transgender. (Or, to give credit where credit is due, Daisy is creating more problems than she’s solving. Thanks a lot, Daisy!) Likewise, this post ignores the ramifications of redefining language – one of the first commenters at Dear Diaspora mistook Daisy’s definitions to mean that she was equating the privileges and oppressions of having one identity with those of another. Their are legal/medical/social implications of all of these words, and I’m not trying to pretend those implications don’t exist.
Rather, I’d like to continue the discussion that Daisy began, of how language should label these concepts. Lets table the discussion on what the specific words are, and agree that these are useful and important and powerful concepts that shift the perspective of discussing gender identity and subconscious sex in what I would say are pretty significant ways.
I would love to hear thoughts from the peanut gallery. Please, poke and prod – tell me where I’m overlooking something, where I used an awkward phrase, where something I said doesn’t match your lived experience.
But lets not be satisfied with how these words are defined – and how they define us – simply because that’s what their “understood” to mean.
Lets have the discussion of how we want to think about these ideas, and about ourselves.