Reflections on the Cis/Trans Binary

This is the third in a series which started by looking at gender, then followed up by looking at sex.  This post looks at the assumptions of a cis/trans binary and its implications, an issue which has had a particular focus in the third wave, as transfeminism brings new challenges to accepted feminist dogma, particularly the essentialism of some second wave theorising.

For all that non-typically sexed and gendered people are found throughout history, and indeed other cultures recognise non-cisnormative manifestations of sex and gender, it is only in the last thirty or so years that intersexed and trans* people have gained a level of visibility in the West, and prejudices started to be challenged.

As the New York LGBT Community Centre notes “The term “transgender” means different things to different people, which can make it rather hard to define.”  and indeed in looking across the definitions and preferred terms vary.  Trans* is usually used to denote both trans-sexuality and trans-genderism, and there are a variety of definitions available, which differ slightly in their usage. The one which I find most helpful and most comprehensive, comes from the Midwest Trans and Queer Wellness Initiative, which I’ve reproduced below.  This pair of definitions, notes the physical transition involved in transsexuality, while concentrating on identification and presentation for transgenderism.

Transgender :

    1. An umbrella term describing a diverse community of people whose gender identity differs from that which they were designated at birth on the basis of physical sex characteristics.
    2. Expressions and identities that challenge the binary male/female gender system in a given culture.
    3. Anyone who transcends the conventional definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and whose self-identification or expression challenges traditional notions of “male” and “female.”


  1. A person whose gender identity is different from their designated sex at birth and has taken any or all steps of physical transition so that their body is congruent to both their gender identity and the conventional concept of sexually male and female bodies. Considered a relative term.

Following on from that, I offer my own definition of trans*and cis*


  1. A person whose perceived gender and assigned sex are not in alignment
  2. A person whose gender identification and assigned sex are not in alignment


  1. A person whose gender identification is in alignment with both their perceived gender identity and biological sex  under a binary system of sex and gender which assigns males to the category of “men”, and females to the category of “woman”.

On the previous post Reflections on Sex,  I suggested that sex was not the binary that is commonly assumed, but operated on a continuum, whereby those who are conventionally regarded as females, and who gather at the female end of the spectrum may – naturally or by medical intervention – deviate from “full femaleness”.  In that respect, medical interventions such as the pill, IUDs and sterilisation can be seen as a form of mild trans-sexuality.  Although it is not seeking to change the gender identity, as per the definition above, it is seeking to medically alter the body to a state which is “less sexed”; to move it along the continuum, from a female body to a more sex-neutral position.  In Reflections on Gender, I noted deviances within the man/woman binary, such as “the camp” and “the butch” which although still falling within the social definitions of wo/man, were sufficiently unconventional to be of note as a deviant manner of gender expression.

Consequently there are the edges of the spectrum but most who identify as women – regardless of their assignation at birth, do not conform to the full cis demand of feminine gender presentation and full female reproductive capacity.  Thus the binary of cis/trans breaks down – its is not a dichotomy, but operates on a scale of “cis-ness” which reflects the extent to which your gender presentation reflects your biological reproductive capacity.

This not only operates across the divide of perceived sex, but also in age – high gendering is acceptable and encouraged in teenage girls and young women, but such high gendering is ridiculed on older women who no longer have the reproductive capacity which such gendering reflects.  In contrast younger women are exhorted to “be pretty” with the popular role models of pop music and popular teen films presented in a very conventional feminine way.  Trans women are put in a particular dilemma under this cisnormativity.  To be accepted as women they must display the gendered attributes of women, but the more that their physical attributes belie a sexed status at the male end of the sex continuum, high gendering will be ridiculed.

Trans sexual people who have physical transitioned through Sex Reassignment Surgery, which seeks to change people with an anatomy associated with the opposite gender identity to have a body which more closely resembles that of the sex typically associated with that of their gender.  This takes a trans gendered person along the cis-trans continuum by moving the sex of the person closer to their gender.  Sandy Stone, in  “The Empire Strikes Back“, notes the way that transsexual women are forced to conform the assumptions of the medical establishment in order to gain the desired medical intervention, and how that very conformity reinforces the assumptions made of them.

Transsexual lives are lived, and are therefore livable

Naomi Scheman, Queering the Centre by Centring the Queer

 This is not to suggest that such a move is invalid, quite apart from increasing the chances of “passing” as a cis woman, thereby decreasing the likely violence which results from having an obvious trans* status, trans sexuals may indeed wish to move their sex position, but questions the extent to which such a desire is born from the desire to actually move along the sex continuum, and how much is a desire to be fully accepted as a woman, including, possibly, the desire not to have to conform to traditional gender roles in order to do so, but to be able to “perform gender” by simply existing: the desire to have “livable life” in a society which conflates sex with gender.  To move away from being trans* towards the cis*.

To encounter the transsexual body, to apprehend a transgendered consciousness articulating itself, is to risk a revelation of the constructedness of the natural order. Confronting the implications of this constructedness can summon up all the violation, loss, and separation inflicted by the gendering process that sustains the illusion of naturalness. My transsexual body literalizes this abstract violence.

Susan Stryker, My Words to Victor Frankenstein

In this respect a female woman who has had a mastectomy and hysterectomy is also trans-sexual in that they have moved their sex-position towards a more neutral status.  Jean Elson in “Am I Still A Woman“, examined women’s responses to hysterectomy, finding that a number of women found them liberating, as they removed “women’s problems”, from a viewpoint which saw a female anatomy as inherently flawed and subject to disease, however the majority of women, particularly older women, saw no gender identity conflict in being a woman without a womb, citing the surgery itself, as an intervention that only a female could undergo, as “proof” of their gender identity of woman.  On the contrary women who had undergone mastectomy were found to have more issues with their gender identity, possibly because of the more visible nature of the surgery meaning that others may perceive them differently.

When we view cis-trans as a spectrum which operates within the spectrums of sex and gender, we can see cis and trans not as stable and unchanging identities, but as a position which may move with age, with medical intervention and with surgery; with cultural norms of “wo/man” and the expectations so assigned.   The assignation of “cis*” as a category meaning “not trans*” , whereby trans* is an self-assumed identity in which an individual declares themself to be at variance with the sex which was given to them at birth is an assumption of sex and gender normativity on the part of the undeclared.

The resistance that some parts of the feminist movement have to the term “cis*” generally centre around discourses of gender.  Some feminists refute their classification as “cis*” because of a butch gender presentation, while acknowledging that the gender of “butch” is indeed subsumed into the gender of “women” which they ascribe to being inescapable through their female sex.  But once we accept that not only transsexual lives are livable, but also transgendered; biology is not destiny, and that not only gender but also sex is a shiftable attribute using modern reproductive and surgical technology then people become positioned on the cis/trans continuum, rather than categorised at its ends, on the basis of how much their perceived presentation conforms to their relationship to the means of reproduction.

Note 1: I am a cis women and have aimed to meets the criteria of the Hale Rules

Note 2: I have searched in vain for a term which covers cis/trans orientation, hence the rather clunky title.  If anyone knows such a term, I would be very grateful if they could leave comment below



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