Note: throughout this piece I refer to transsexuality, transsexual persons, cissexuality, and cissexual persons. This is for reason of uniformity & brevity only and does not indicate a different analysis of transgender and cisgender.
“There must be a binary, or there is nothing to distinguish the subjugated group from the non-subjugated group. Unless we define the groups which are intersecting we cannot gain clear insight into their position.”
In this sense the class of persons has to be created in order to allow transsexual persons to identify and begin to resist their oppressions. This class of persons could be defined in any number of ways, but the chosen paradigm seems to be one of a lack of personal identity that trans persons possess. This is, as stated above, a necessary step in the illuminating of the intersection of gender identity and patriarchal oppression, but it has some consequences that need to be examined.
First, there has been a process reification of the cis identity; it has changed in our understanding from a lack of agreement between social gender, physical sex and the internal state of the subject to a positive identity that entails an oppositional state: an active convergence between body, social gender and internal state in cissexual persons. That the majority of such persons do not experience their gender identity in these terms (while experiencing a gender identity nonetheless) is either elided or criticised as the product of unexamined privilege.
Second, in the absence of widespread acceptance of the concept of cissexuality from cissexual persons, the term itself has stalled in its definition, and has gradually come to mean “those who are not transsexual”. There is an understanding that while transsexaulity is a phenomenon characterised by a lack of agreement between biological and personal sex, the corresponding identity is “that which is not transsexual” – the absence of an absence.
That is a lot of work for a concept that was born of an analytical need to do, and it often comes short of adequately bearing the burden of politics that are hung upon it. It might be added that a legitimate resistance to structured, dominant ways of thought has complicated the internal analysis of these contradictions within transsexual thought.
The language of cissexuality is based on the central fact that trans individuals have to go through a process of becoming their gender, in other words reconciling their inner state to their social identity and in many cases their body: a transition. It is however the case that in a gender hierarchy all people have to go through a process of gendering. For women in particular this process is externally imposed, underpinned by threatened and actual violence, mandatory, and identity-destroying. It is not chosen, nor is it undertaken for the sake of psychological wellbeing or out of an understanding of identity.
Transsexual persons sometimes describe their desired identity as “normal”, or “boring”. The latter in particular is telling: this outsider’s view of the transition into womanhood as a placid pool of undisturbed normativity. In the main it is baffling, frightening and traumatic, and nearly every adult woman can be considered a walking casualty of this forced transformation from a human being into a member of an oppressed class. This is also, though to a different and potentially lesser degree, true of men.
“Identification with the gender behaviours that society insists are proper to one’s biological sex […] is a curse, a humiliating and degrading undergoing of ideological torture.”
The language of cissexuality erases the transition that girls are forced through on their way to womanhood, and in doing that obscures or denies a central locus of oppression. It therefore does actual harm where it sincerely aims to do good.
A claim often made for the language of cissexuality is that it seeks to de-normalise and un-obscure the state of not being transsexual, in order to make non-transsexuals aware that they carry the privilege of having that “absence of an absence” discussed above. The most frequent example given is that cis is to trans as heterosexual is to homosexual.
A look at the history of the latter terms does not encourage optimism: in the main, the people still using “heterosexual” and “homosexual” unironically are those most concerned with controlling language (leftists thinkers and academics) and those most concerned with misusing it (right-wing politicians). Most rights campaigners and the general public now use “gay” and “straight” – language that hides within itself some of the most hideous prejudices against homosexuals.
A better example of the use of language to create a social reality comes from the disability rights movement. In recent years thinkers & campaigners have increasingly rejected the division into “disabled” and “able-bodied” people, and what is in currency now is mostly “disabled” and “non-disabled”. This is an improvement in many ways, not least of which is eliminating the suggestion that disabled bodies are lesser than “able” bodies.
It is possible (indeed likely) that this, too, will be succeeded by colloquial terms accepted and embraced by the disability rights community. In the meantime however it avoids creating either a stigmatisation of the marginalised group or an oppositional antagonism towards the non-marginalised group.
It can be similarly understood that non-transsexual people
a) have an authentic gender identity that is not the absence of a transsexual identity
b) have a relationship with that identity that is fraught, complicated and contingent
c) are struggling for liberation from the violence of gender norms
Such language will additionally better acknowledge the additional burden placed on transsexual people by a society that refuses to recognise their gender identity without subjecting them to humiliating and unnecessary tests, requirements and medical procedures. By de-reifying the cissexual identity it would be possible to expose the egregious and socially imposed nature of the transition itself (or aspects of it), which in turn can help move towards eliminating the oppressions visited on trans people undergoing it.
Marina Strinkovsky is an Israeli feminist of Soviet origin living in the UK. Her interests revolve around the autonomy and agency of women over their bodies, which naturally includes questions of reproductive justice, sexual exploitation, rape and harassment. This doesn’t make her much fun at parties. Marina is the comics & graphic art editor at the F-Word magazine, and has written for the E-Feminist collective and the 40 Days of Life blog. She was also published in the feminist anthology The Lightbulb Moment. Marina lives in Swindon and works in HR to help finance her political activism. She blogs sporadically at http://notazerosumgame.blogspot.com/.