Cis Privilege and the limits of Self Identification

The term “cis” is a hot potato in feminism.  As an adjective which stands in opposition to “trans”, one might think that it would be well received as an extension of language to describe something which previously had no name, but its use – particularly as a denotation of privilege is controversial.

The term cis, stands in opposition to the term trans – meaning someone whose gender is in line with their sex.  So, in short if you are female and identify as a woman, you are a cis woman; if you are male and identify as a man, you are a cis man.  Its a word, and in my opinion a useful one.  The more words we have the more accurately and precisely we can describe things.  Yeah – words; all the words! Moreover it sets up a neutrality between those who are transgender and those who are not – rather than the alternative of “normal woman” and “freak” which the subtle implication of prefixing trans women, but not cis women. But regardless, some take quite considerable objection to the term cis and its worth looking more closely at why this might be particularly in the ways in which it is used.

The Generation Gap

There is a generation gap in feminism, it is pointless to deny it – most older feminists tend to follow a primarily second wave, radical feminist analysis, while most younger feminists follow a third wave, intersectional analysis.  The cut off between likelihood of ascribing to one or the other, is around 40 years old – those born in early 70s, at the upswing of the second wave.  Those born pre-1970s will have had far more gender normative upbringings; while those born after will have had benefited from the influence of feminism throughout their lives, including the ability to be more gender variant rather than conforming to more rigid sex roles.

Moreover, the older the cis woman, the more time they have lived female, consequently the more likelihood that they will have had of experiencing not just experiencing life as a woman, but of experiencing life as a female.  The more chance there will be that they will have used contraception, become pregnant, had abortions, given birth, nursed a baby and experienced menopause.  Up until 2008, when Thomas Beattie became the first known man to give birth, at least in public consciousness if not in reality, only women had babies.  Consequently “female” and “woman” are etched together in the minds of most older cis women in a way that is perhaps not to for younger cis women who have not had so many specifically female life experiences, and consequently specifically female-sexed forms of oppression, nor see female reproduction only occurring within women.

Furthermore, as trans activism has developed new critiques of gender have emerged from within the trans movement.  Consequently many younger females who have no wish to transition or become men, none the less reject their gendering as women, becoming genderqueer (or a variant thereof).  Within the second wave, other than Whittig’s suggestion that lesbians had transcended the gender of woman by the act of refusing heterosexual relations, gendering was fixed.  So for older females, for all that you may not conform to the social imposition of gender, it was felt that you could not escape gender and self-declarative assertions of non-woman status were  in vain.

Cis and Gender Conformance

It is notable that some of the strongest criticisms of trans discourses coming from within the radical feminist community come  from within the Lesbian Butch community. Butch women have been one of the mainstays of the radical feminist movement and in particular the lesbian separatist movement.  Jeffries is among others who have suggested that the phenomenon of trans men is a form of lesbian erasure, whereby butch lesbians, rather than confronting the gender demands to become more feminine, acquiesce to them, transitioning to men to become more heterosexually normative and less gender variant, while others have criticised the phenomenon of “boi”, as “woman hating with a dyke face”.

For women who have grown up gender variant yet continue to identify as such, the transgression of those who refuse the designation of woman and adopt the persona of “man” instead appears a betrayal, evidence of conformity to gender roles and to the hetero-patriarchy which has seen butch lesbians cop the most flack for their refusal not only of male sexual access, but refusal even to be pleasing for the male gaze.  The label of “cis” for such women, and its assertion that in continuing to identify as women they are  exercising privilege in doing so appears to be a slap in the face for women who seek to expand the definition of “what a woman is”.

Refusing conformance to the gender of “woman” while accepting the identity is a transgressive course of action, but one which is not recognised in the assertions of cis privilege, under a narrative which takes gender self-identification to be the only valid marker of gender.  A trans woman who conforms to the expected gender role and appearance of woman contrasted with a cis woman who deviates in appearance and manner from what is expected, is likely to have less, rather than more ire, aimed at their gender presentation.  This is not to deny that this can change in an instant should a woman’s trans status become disclosed, but in daily life, a conformant trans woman may have less difficulty with acceptance of their gender presentation than a non conformant cis woman.

The Universality of Coercive Gendering

All women are coercively gendered at birth, not just trans women.  The increasing adoption of non-binary gender roles by younger feminists is a strong challenge to the destruction of this gendering, but it is an individual solution to a class problem.  A particular individual, female assigned at birth, may appear to the the world in a similar deviant gender position to another, yet one who identifies and affiliates with women is considered cis, while the other who identifies as genderqueer comes under the umbrella of the trans community and thus deemed not to be imbibed with cis privilege.  The trouble is that you are generally gendered not on the basis of consciously declared gender identity, but on the genderings that others ascribe to you.  Regardless of how you answer the question “What is your gender?”, you will be gendered in a binary fashion by wider society.

Transmisogny, the form of woman hating which is specific to trans women does not exist as a separate entity outwith the ordinary common or garden kind.  Earlier this year a woman was arrested in New York for “indecent exposure”, as – in the opinion of the arresting officer her top was too sheer and displayed her breasts.  When it was discovered that the woman was trans, she was thrown into a cell with men.  This makes absolutely no sense, for if the law considered that she was a man, there was no crime, for exposure of the chest region is only indecent exposure for women.  Despite the fact that women have good reasons to uncover that part of their bodies for breast feeding purposes, and that while natural modesty generally means that women tend to be discrete when doing so, laws  specifically target women, and only women, uncovering this area.

For cis ultimately works differently for women than it does for men.  Being female assigned at birth is a risk factor in and of itself, regardless of any future gender identity.  A baby who is female assigned in some parts of the world is at higher risk of infanticide and risks genital mutilation far beyond that which is imposed on any male assigned child – to the extent that a woman who is male assigned at birth has more chance to have a functioning surgically constructed vagina, than some women who were female assigned do as a result of their mutilation.

The concept of a universal cis privilege which all cis women enjoy over all trans women erases the specific risks of the female.  Better to consider gender, sex and gender/sex conformity as different axes of oppression, under which all women, all females and all trans people are necessarily at an intersections of.  As a concept, cis is both useful and necessary; as a label, it can be as damaging as others which are coercively assigned.





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