Helen Boyd is wrong about ‘Cisgender’

By , September 26, 2009 6:11 pm

I’m a bit late on this, but Helen Boyd recently posted her thoughts on the whole ‘cisgender’ usage debate. From her post (selected quoting)

First, I’m going to claim a difference between cisgender & cissexual. Cisgender, the problem seems to me, is not the easy opposite of transgender. Cisgender implies, or means, or could mean (depending on who you talk to), that someone’s sex and gender are concordant. So your average butch woman, who is not trans, or is, depending on how she feels about it (see Bear Bergman), is now somehow cisgender. So is someone like me. So is a femme-y gay man who maybe performs a more gender normative masculinity for his job. That is, those of us who have variable genders, who maybe are gender fluid or gender neutral but who don’t identify as trans, are now somehow cisgender.

& Honestly, that’s bullshit. There’s a reason I use GVETGI to describe myself = Gender Variant Enough To Get It, is what it stands for.

Telling me, & other partners whose lives are profoundly impacted by the legal rights / cultural perceptions of trans people, that we are “not trans” implies that we are also not part of the trans community. I’ve been saying for years now that we are. When trans people are killed, harassed, not hired, fired due to discrimination, denied health care, etc. etc. etc., their loved ones suffer along with them. Their families, their lovers, their kids especially. We are not just “allies.” We are vested, dammit, & a part of the trans community, so when “cisgender” comes to mean, or is used to mean, “not part of the trans community,” we are once again left out in the dark.

Um, what? She’s made two huge leaps, neither of which I really agree with.

First, to use an analogy, homosexual and heterosexual are still useful and valid terms, even if a third term (bisexual) was needed for more and better specificity. (And, arguably, even more than those three are needed, but those cover the majority of the population.) Likewise, cisgender and transgender are useful and valid terms, even if they don’t cover every single person’s experience.

And I really have a problem with Boyd relating gender performance – butch, femme, etc – with gender identity. Is a femme-y gay man who performs a more gender normative masculinity for his job cisgender? If he identifies as a man and was assigned ‘male’ at birth, then yes, he is. Trans/cisgender, as much as I might wish they were, are not about gender performance or presentation; they’re about self-identification. So I think I see what GVETGI is getting at, because trans/cisgender could completely use a middle term, but it GVETGI seems to add more confusion than it resolves.

But that’s not really my big issue. That last paragraph, quoted above, is my big issue. In fact, I’m going to quote it again, and bold the main point:

Telling me, & other partners whose lives are profoundly impacted by the legal rights / cultural perceptions of trans people, that we are “not trans” implies that we are also not part of the trans community. I’ve been saying for years now that we are. When trans people are killed, harassed, not hired, fired due to discrimination, denied health care, etc. etc. etc., their loved ones suffer along with them. Their families, their lovers, their kids especially. We are not just “allies.” We are vested, dammit, & a part of the trans community, so when “cisgender” comes to mean, or is used to mean, “not part of the trans community,” we are once again left out in the dark

Helen Boyd, you’re not trans. You don’t identify as transgender or transsexual, and thus are not trans. Whether or not you’re a cisgender woman is a whole other argument, but you’re not trans.

And, yes, the result of that is implying you’re not part of the trans community. Because, guess what, most people who aren’t trans are also not part of the trans community. You definitely are part of the trans community, so in your case that implication is false, but it doesn’t make the general implicaiton a problem.

I’ll use some examples to show what I mean. Most of my friends, and (as far as I know) all of my family are not trans. And yet, a good friend called near tears the other day because some coworkers, including her boss, had been saying really transphobic things. Meanwhile, my mom has told me how her relationship with one of my cousins has changed since I came out.

And yet, neither my mom nor this friend are trans, or really part of the trans community, even though they’re “profoundly impacted by the legal rights / cultural perceptions of trans people.” Not trans. Still profoundly impacted.

“Allies” doesn’t have to mean not having a vested interest. I’m not black, nor am I part of the black community, but I would like to think I have a vested interest in eradicating racism. And I fully believe certain people who are not of a racial minority can, by virtue of friends or loved ones, become a member of that community. But that doesn’t mean there’s an inherent problem that “white” implies “not part of the black community,” or that we should do something to change that.

Back to Helen:

Likewise, cisgender seems to get used a lot in place of “ignorant or unsympathetic to trans issues” which is also bullshit. Being cisgender or experiencing cissexual privilege – say by having a doctor assume correctly that I have a uterus – is not the same thing as being ignorant or unsympathetic to trans issues.

Finally, there’s the whole bottom rung of the ladder issue: cis allies, partners, & gender variant LGBs are not just the natural allies to trans people, but they are also the closest to them. So when trans people use the term “cis” like a curse – Calibanesque – the utility of the term for pointing out the privilege those who are non-trans experience becomes instead fighting words.

I actually completely agree with Boyd on this point. But that’s way different than the rest of what Boyd was saying, and that don’t agree with.

13 Responses to “Helen Boyd is wrong about ‘Cisgender’”

  1. Daisy says:

    Great post!

    Cisgender implies, or means, or could mean (depending on who you talk to), that someone’s sex and gender are concordant. So your average butch woman, who is not trans, or is, depending on how she feels about it (see Bear Bergman), is now somehow cisgender.

    This does not make butches cisgender. Last time I checked, “gentleman” (for example) was not socially concordant with “female.”

    Although most FAAB butches are not transsexual, I’m not aware of any definition of “transgender” that makes butches necessarily cisgender. (See, for example, all three definitions in the Wikipedia entry.)

    • Rebecca says:

      Exactly. I can understand Helen Boyd – as someone who has put a significant amount of time, energy, and thought into the trans community – being hurt that people would say she’s not a part of that community. (Which, for the record, is not what I’m saying.) I just really disagree with how she’s responded to that frustration…

  2. Rachel_in_WY says:

    Yeah, that post was problematic in many, many ways. On the one hand, I understand her objection to being limited to the trans/cis binary, but where does that leave genderqueer? I’ve always thought of genderqueer as a third option, although I understand why some people view it as a trans identity. So maybe that means that the shortcut def of cis as “not trans” is problematic, but all the rest of this stuff doesn’t follow.

    I do, however, identify a tiny bit with her complaint that those who have a trans loved one are not viewed as being invested in trans issues. Of course it’s not the first-hand, personal experience that it would be if you yourself were trans, but you do get a much more nuanced sense of the trans experience, and you are invested, you do fear for them, and feel fiercely protective of them, etc. And that’s an experience that is hard to capture using the trans/cis terminology. But I don’t think this terminology has to capture this experience. That’s not really what it was developed for.

    • Rebecca says:

      I do, however, identify a tiny bit with her complaint that those who have a trans loved one are not viewed as being invested in trans issues. Of course it’s not the first-hand, personal experience that it would be if you yourself were trans, but you do get a much more nuanced sense of the trans experience, and you are invested, you do fear for them, and feel fiercely protective of them, etc. And that’s an experience that is hard to capture using the trans/cis terminology.

      I completely agree.

      But I don’t think this terminology has to capture this experience. That’s not really what it was developed for.

      Exactly. I don’t really agree with Boyd’s issues with “allies” or SOFFAs (significant others, friends, family, and allies) as a description. Yes, it doesn’t have the same nuance as “invested individual who has specific emotional attachments to trans issues by blood or close relationships,” but not every nuance can be conveyed with a single word…

  3. sadie ryanne says:

    Hi! I’ve stumbled on your blog a couple times, and have to say, I really like most of what I’ve read. I was thinking the same things when I read Helen Boyd’s post… I think she & I understand the term “cis” very differently… and this sort of gets to the heart of it:

    “Is a femme-y gay man who performs a more gender normative masculinity for his job cisgender? If he identifies as a man and was assigned ‘male’ at birth, then yes, he is.”

    I understand transsexual, transgender and gender-variant people to be part of the same or similar communities, as we’re all dealing with many of the same problems, like Helen says… but, I still think it’s important not to confuse gender variance with having a trans identity. It’s not (necessarily) the same thing!

    So, just wanted to say hi, I agree with you, and thanks for saying that. 🙂
    -Sadie Ryanne

    • Rebecca says:

      Welcome, Sadie!

      It sounds like we’re definitely on the same page – anyone who expresses or identifies their gender as anything other than the norm are natural allies and should stick together. (And I’d say this includes include cisgender and cissexual gay and lesbian people, too!) But that doesn’t mean any sort of non-normative gender behavior needs to fit within transgender.

      I do think the ‘trans umbrella’ complicates things, and I’ve tried to shy away from using trans as an umbrella term to describe other people. I still like it and use it to describe myself, but I think trans (and cis, to a greater extent) can become problematic when used vaguely.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by, and for the comment! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the post, and hope to see you around again.

  4. queen emily says:

    Yeah. This is why I tend not to use “cisgender” very much, I think it’s too individualising, too easily dependent on gender expression–something which as you point out includes pretty much anyone who isn’t a hetgendered person.

    Tend to use cissexual, since for me it describes the institutional dimensions of transphobia–which to me seems like a more urgent task…

    • Rebecca says:

      I hadn’t thought about the possibility of cutting (or, partially cutting) cisgender from my vocab, but that seems like a less stressful task than redefining it in such a way that it pleases everyone… I’ll definitely have to consider it.

  5. Sophia says:

    Maybe it might be possible to approach this the other way with an overtly negative term added. After all, ‘white’ is often neutral but ‘vanilla’ is generally some sort of put down. Anyone for ciggy ?

  6. […] thoughts down here. Particularly with all of the discussion that’s been happening lately in blogs and on Twitter about the topic. (links so not in chronological order, even when responding to each […]

  7. helen boyd says:

    happened upon this & really appreciate your criticisms. you call butch a gender performance, & i think of it as a gender (or a gender identity). so maybe that’s where we’re parsing differently.

    i will say, as a partner, there are a boatload of us who have gender stuff going on – not trans per se, but often oddly gendered. that is, when i describe my own gender, expression or experience or identity, i often have others tell me i’m trans, even if i don’t identify that way myself.

    what i’m saying, i suppose, is that these clear distinctions aren’t always very clear. for now i’m settling with using cis ONLY as an adjective for attitudes & behaviors, as in cis privilege, or cis-centrism, & not using it to describe people.

    anyway, thanks for the interesting & useful discussion.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Helen!

      Since writing this post, I’ve expanded my understanding of butch and femme as gender and/or gender identity. (In large part due to Bond’s writing over at Dear Diaspora, so I think I have a better understanding of where you were coming from in your original post. Likewise, I’m backing off from what I originally said…

      And I really have a problem with Boyd relating gender performance – butch, femme, etc – with gender identity. Is a femme-y gay man who performs a more gender normative masculinity for his job cisgender? If he identifies as a man and was assigned ‘male’ at birth, then yes, he is. Trans/cisgender, as much as I might wish they were, are not about gender performance or presentation; they’re about self-identification.

      …because you’re right, butch/femme can be more than simply gender presentation.

      As for how and when to use cis, I do agree that erring on the side of caution is a good thing. Using cis to describe solely attitudes and behaviors, rather than individuals, makes sense to me. On the same line of thought, I agree that using cis(gender/sexual) as a derogatory label for those who aren’t trans, or implying they can’t care about trans issues, isn’t really helping anyone.

      I still feel like that’s a somewhat separate issue, though, from how to label people – like yourself – who are very much a part of the trans community even though they don’t identify as trans. In that sense, I’m still not sure expanding the definition of ‘trans’ to be more inclusive is the right way to go. I’d rather focus on redefining ‘allies,’ personally. (And, if I’m mistaken and you do identify as trans, please accept my apologies for mis-labeling you. But I think the point still stands.)

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