A transwoman’s critique of the trans/cis social hierarchy.
By: Nella Dour
Consider this an open letter to the trans community.
The intent of this is not to dictate anyone’s speech, only to open discussion of the ethics surrounding cultural adoptions of what we will be calling the trans/cis social hierarchy.
What is meant by the trans/cis social hierarchy is the recognition of (including common usage of the binary linguistic terms and special social considerations) trans and cis to designate two different types of women and two different types of men in society.
First, a bit of history on the term “cis”. In its original coinage by German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch, the full term was “cissexual” not “cisgender” and it was cissexual that was adopted culturally initially to describe not, “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” but simply a person who is not transsexual, meaning someone who has not been diagnosed with transsexualism nor transitioned.
Basically, cis in the “cissexual” sense meant “not transsexual,” and came with no baggage about identity.
Today, with the shift from transsexual to transgender, cissexual has also shifted to cisgender. But with it, something sneaky happened which I’ve already introduced to you. The understanding of what it means to be cis (and what it means to be trans) shifted. It broadened, from simply meaning “not transsexual” to meaning, “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” as transgender came to mean, “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex”.
This is where things started getting queer.
I mean this literally as well as figuratively, as these understandings of cisgender and transgender people came from the academic field of Queer Theory. This definition of cisgender was coined by sociologist Kristen Schilt, who recently published a book called Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology.
Anyone who knows me would tell you I’m not a fan of Queer Theory. It’s a field that gave rise to a dangerous breed of postmodern thinking, in which all of our structures are broken down. I find it useful, as deconstructing our social conceptions is certainly important, but the point to that should be improvement. If we knock down a building in the world, isn’t it usually to build something better in its place? The same is true of our social constructions.
Most postmodernists don’t seem to have much care for the rebuilding process. They’ve always been more interested in knocking everything down. Lovely as it is that they’ve done that for us, we’re now moving into a new period where we must consider how we will rebuild better structures, and the ideas postermodernism is offering, particularly in the case of the trans/cis social hierarchy, are not, in my opinion, useful or sustainable.
Had we maintained the original understanding of trans/cis, I think that very biological dichotomy would have been very useful and very much sustainable, but the queer theorist conceptualization of cisgender simply is not. When put under most any degree of scrutiny in reality, the concept breaks down. See for instance Mimi Marinucci’s work or Hida Viloria of Intersex Campaign for Equality’s critiques.
Or, simply listen to the experiences of people around you. The adverse reactions people have to being forced to use the label are easily justified, as truly not everyone has what we might consider an internal sense of gender identity.
It is my personal belief that gender identity is something that is forged as a survival mechanism by those who need it. It’s how we survive the confusion, bewilderment, detachment, of occupying bodies which, we are told, are supposed to function biologically and socially in ways we are repulsed by, leaving us in a terrifying state of dysfunction, distress, and disassociation. We instead, associate with our survival mechanisms and find some brief moments of function and peace.
Having lived through that, it isn’t hard for me to see how I became my survival mechanism. Transitioning allowed me to actualize it and bring my body and identity in line. The thing is though, most people have this experience to some degree. No one’s identity is perfectly aligned with their birth sex. Most, however can live with that without any radical changes. It’s quite different for trans people, obviously.
Somewhere in that mess of somatic and psychological distress and dysfunction I’ve described above, we might find an arbitrary line to draw between what is “cis” and not cis based on one’s personal ability to cope with being a man/woman, but that line is impossibly difficult to define and/or agree upon. It’s a very slippery concept, as most postmodern ideas are. It doesn’t stick to anything in reality very well.
What does stick in reality, however, is the sense that cis began with, before it evolved to its postmodern form, as simply meaning “not transsexual” but this usage actually functions as a threat to the trans/cis social hierarchy that many social justice activists desire.
And that brings me to one of my biggest concerns with the trans/cis social hierarchy. It empowers a very unstable form of activism.
By building the trans/cis social hierarchy, we build a binary social construct. Historically, binary social constructs have been abused for power, as there is a power relationship inherent to every binary construct. Terms constructed in binaries like up, good, white, cis, man, etc. take on a kind of privileged priority in our thinking, while their opposites, terms like down, bad, black, trans, woman, etc. take on oppressing negatives.
This is how we’re meant to think of the trans/cis social hierarchy, and personally I find it terribly ugly. My life as a trans person has been difficult, but by no means are what might be called cis people my oppressors. Not being trans really doesn’t guarantee you any amazing privileges. The idea of that being true is just as false as any other truth people likely to proclaim about other binary oppositions. Thinking in binary terms isn’t very useful or sustainable in our evermore complex world. This is something that I thought, before they started constructing binary oppositions like the trans/cis social hierarchy, that postmodernists and I had an accord on. Apparently not!
Activists take this concept and set the world ablaze with it, not even realizing what they’re playing with. They simply don’t understand the false power relationship, nor the instability underlying it, and it creates endless chaos in our discourse, with everyone coming in to conversations having a completely different idea of what it means to be either trans or cis and butting heads seeing one another as enemies, privileged and oppressor. What an awful way to see one another, it’s no wonder we started moving away from this dangerous kind of thinking in the 1950s.
Yet here we are in 2019, still playing games with binary oppositions and using them to draw false representations of reality. Most trans people don’t seem to know the history of this, nor how liberating it was for women and people of color when society started to deconstruct the binary oppositions that defined manhood and womanhood, blackness and whiteness, etc.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The most dangerous bit to passing ships, sure, but there’s so much more happening beneath the surface in our discourse.
There’s this idea “trans women are men!” that sparked the retort, “trans women are women!” that echoes forth from the trans/cis social hierarchy and is having deeply damaging effects on the social efficacy of trans rights movements.
The entire above debate is dependent on the existence of the trans/cis social hierarchy, which is used in its linguistic form as a wedge to deny the very difference it sets out to describe in the first place.
In truth, if one is to accept the trans/cis social hierarchy and say “trans women are women,” the implied phrase is actually a bit longer than that, it’s “trans women are women and cis women are women” and the truth, which the hierarchy allows us to falsely deny with linguistic trickery by simply not speaking the full phrase, is that there are massive differences between the two, or at least there’s meant to be. As we’ve discussed, that really depends entirely on your understanding of what is trans and what is cis, some ideas of which make sense in reality, and many of which do not.
I’ve seen “trans women are women” used to deny so many differences, so much nuance, and the attitude among activists appears to be that anyone who disagrees in any capacity is a TERF/bigot, no matter how justified their reasons might be. Many, for instance might believe the truth is a bit more complex than the trans/cis social hierarchy allows for and are critical of it, instead taking a position more like, “trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and there are massive differences between the two.”
Some might go a step further and reject the trans/cis social hierarchy and say what’s meant by the above more concisely, “transwomen are transwomen and women are women” and in all instances, we mean the same thing. All except, of course for the ones still insisting “trans women are women” and hurling around all manner of unjustified accusations, you know, the very same sort who would call any of the above a TERF/bigot.
Another problematic way this social hierarchy manifests is in historicity. If a historian is discussing the persecution of women during the many witch hunts throughout history, should they be called a TERF bigot if they don’t specify “cis women”? I certainly don’t think so, but I have seen this and I have seen trans-inclusive historians taking this exact approach to avoid it. It just seems rather unnecessary to me to rewrite history for the sake trans-inclusion rather than simply acknowledging that in historical terms, women most certainly are simply women, which is the term women have found both persecution and liberation through. It is justifiably important to them in a great many ways it is not to trans people, and those who deny it to them, insisting it all be erased and replaced with “cis women” are wrong to do so and I can easily understand how they’re interpreted as bullies.
Yet another is in our social organizations, consider for instance sports, on the topic of sports inclusion, simply insisting “trans women are women” is simply not a sufficient solution to the problem. The same is true in many ways people seek to socially include us among women. It manifests in so many different ways, from discussions on frisking, medical services, shelter services, aesthetician services, prison services, certain clubs/bars/events/groups, etc. etc. inclusion is a deeply complicated matter in all of these areas and more, and simply shouting “trans women are women” is never going to resolve them. We must take a more nuanced approach.
Those who don’t would do well to look at the trans/cis social hierarchy through a critical lens and consider the unjust impacts their abuses of it are causing. Truly, if they cared about trans people half as much as they proclaim to, I would think that they would, because what they are doing is demonstrably detrimental to advancement of trans rights. I’d bend over backward thanking them if they would simply acknowledge this and move forward with that understanding, but most are too locked up in tribal fantasies and working to score points for their teams to take notice. It’s such a sad state of affairs.
In protest to all of this, I’ve outright rejected the trans/cis social hierarchy. My views align with the idea transwomen are transwomen and women are women. We do not need this useless and unsustainable social hierarchy, and I’ve become convinced that this one is better.
There is no binary relationship between the two. There is, perhaps between transwomen and transmen a binary relationship, but that relationship is only observable in terms of physical essence, as is the relationship between men and women in this framework. I think also that there is room for a fifth category, for those who exist outside the bounds of the other four.
For me, this is a very comfortable way to think about my own existence. As a transwoman, I can orient myself in my complex reality and describe my unique experiences much more easily, making it much more amenable in social situations.
For some reason, may trans people have an adverse reaction to the idea of thinking of themselves as a transwoman/transman. It was the same for me at a point. I had linked myself to a woman’s perception of the world. The idea that I perceived the world as a woman and was perceived to be one by the world was everything to me. When that idea was challenged, it was painful to me, because I had attached so much of my self-worth to that perspective inwardly and outwardly. It had become part of who I am, and I didn’t want to let it go.
Eventually however, I realized that the pain was coming from having chained myself to that perspective in the first place. It was a false idea I’d latched on to that was only bringing me misery. I remember telling people about my womanhood, saying things like “It’s the one thing I’ll never let anyone take away from me,” but once I broke that chain and realized how freeing it was for me, my life drastically improved. No longer was I desperately clinging to a concept that was whipping me along through life, but I could instead step back and re-orient myself in my complex world, armed with a better method of perceiving it, which I can draw on at will. Transwoman is a far more comfortable cognitive link to reality for me, that comes with little to no dissonance.
It’s simply what I am, a male-to-female transsexual rather than what I, as a failed experiment in manhood was desperately trying to be, a woman. There’s an important distinction there. Being a transwoman is a task I feel up to, being either a man or a woman is one I’ve come to recognize is impossible for me. Perhaps, some trans people might argue that simply makes me non-binary, and that’s an idea I’m open to. I’ve been discussing this recently with other trans people, but it doesn’t seem right to me.
I think the truth is simply that I adhere to a different philosophy, one that values, celebrates, and respects difference over similarity, and thus this view of the realities of trans people appeals to me.
I can understand why it might not appeal to other trans people, and that’s why I’ve reiterated again and again that this is just my own personal opinion and all that I intend with this piece is to open a doorway to discussions over what might be better ways to construct our understandings of one another. I’m simply making the case for mine and I welcome everyone to make the case for theirs. I’ll be looking forward to any further discussion this might inspire.
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