Reifications and Binaries

Posted by – May 19, 2010

By people who don’t know anything about trans, I’m often assumed to be trans myself. I like to joke that is the very rare trans woman who would cut her hair as short as I do. Most trans women with voices as deep as mine would figure out how to raise their pitch. But it’s these signs of my gender variance that cause people to think I’m trans – the signs of my own masculinity.

What surprises me often is when I clarify that I’m not – if and when I do, which isn’t often anymore – is when someone asks me if it bothers me when people assume I’m trans. It’s such an odd thing to ask an advocate: if I thought trans people were less than, why would I be doing this work? I remember being asked a similar question when I was assumed to be/asked if I was a dyke, which I also found baffling. What’s insulting about people thinking you’re a lesbian? What’s insulting about someone assuming you’re trans? Either you believe all our humanities are equal or they aren’t, right? Shoot, I feel more often like I’ve been assumed to be of sterner stuff than I am, because I haven’t struggled with the kind of discrimination lesbians or trans women face (even if my own gender variance has caused some in my own life).

I know I am far from More Radical Than Thou when I say I hate the term cis, but one of the reasons I hate it is because it reifies, in my opinion, that I was declared a gender that is (theoretically) in congruence with my gender presentation and that other women were not. In the same way that MTF reifies a woman’s former maleness, cis disappears my own masculinity in a way I find both insulting and problematic. The thing is, I am still most turned on by Hirschfeld’s Theory of Intermediaries, where he posits that “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman,” are only ideals – not to be aspired to, but ideals more like Plato’s Forms. That is, they’re ideas, which all of us express in different ways, none of us perfectly. He tosses out the idea of dimorphism – the binary – entirely, which, as Kate Bornstein and now Lisa Harney have noted, MTF & FTM reiterate.

That said, I do feel the need to point out that I do think cissexual privilege exists & is a problem. That’s kind of exactly what I’m talking about, really. Do keep in mind that I wound up a feminist when I realized people actually thought I was different/less than because I was a woman, as in: Really? Are you shitting me? Do I really have to prove my humanity? The idea was so entirely unbelievable to me; it never occurred to me that someone could be stupid enough to believe something like that, & I feel the same way about people who can’t see trans people’s obvious equality/humanity.

So I will continue to insist that recognizing difference between types of women is only important when it’s specifically important, and not otherwise. I am done with using “trans” in front of any person’s identity because goddamn if I want anyone putting “woman” or “female” in front of mine.

(I’m dedicating this post to my dad because it’s his 82nd birthday and, who, when we came out to him about Betty’s transness, said “Don’t let anyone treat you like a 2nd class citizen.” And well – yeah. Exactly.)

15 Comments on Reifications and Binaries

  1. Sarah Lake says:

    “What’s insulting about people thinking you’re a lesbian? What’s insulting about someone assuming you’re trans?”

    There’s nothing intrinsically insulting about it. What may be disturbing are your interlocutors’ uninvestigated reasons for feeling such information is of major and immediate importance to them … of such importance as to preclude treating you with the same respect they themselves might expect. After all what is insulting about somebody assuming you’re heterosexual or cis-gender? Yet, as I think you’ve experienced, Helen, sometimes Trans people may have treated you with less respect because of such an assumption. The one useful purpose for the term ‘cis-’ is surely to point up this dichotomy. You know all this. I hope its usefulness in the language will prove temporary.

  2. Julian Morrison says:

    Cis simplifies gender in the same sweeping and wildly incomplete way that straight simplifies sexual attraction. But it’s important to have a word that tells cis people: they don’t get to own “normal”, they get to be an equal footing with trans people. That’s an important and subtle attitude shift.

  3. Véronique says:

    I wrote a serious comment, but your spam protection declared it “a bit spammy.” Since my comment was not spam, I have no idea how to change what I wrote in order to get through the filter. :(

  4. StellaTerra says:

    I don’t know. I think that your presentation does affect your privilege. If people assume you’re trans, then cis-folks will treat you a certain way, if you aren’t passing as trans, then cis-folks will treat you differently, based on your your atypical interpretation of femininity. I wouldn’t downplay that effect so much if I were you.

    While I prey that there can be a day soon when there is no cis-privilege, I know that it won’t come in my lifetime. The use of the the prefix “cis” does, definitely, reinforce a binary, but it’s essential to my life right now. If I can’t define the other as cis, then I am even stranger. The world around me will define me as trans and many will disrespect and denigrate me, but I have no way of even referring to them. They are just *blank* and I am modified. I think the suggestion of not using “cis” would only help to solidify the stranglehold cis folks have on normativity. I need “cis” to know who to fear.

  5. StellaTerra says:

    A second thought: Can you imagine going up to a person of color and telling them that race struggle is not real, so they should stop identifying as latino and I should stop identifying as white? Would you tell a cis-woman that the gender struggle isn’t meaningful, so she should stop calling them men? It’s a privileged position to be normative, and I won’t put down my gun until they put down theirs, because it’s much larger and scarier.

  6. jadecath says:

    You get mistaken for trans? That’s silly. And hilarious. It would be even more hilarious for you to run with it… you’ve heard more than enough trans yammer to imitate it yourself… you could muse on your journey of self-discovery, and hem and haw over Trinidad vs. Thailand…

    No, wait, I suppose you’d get in trouble for that. (sigh) I’d love to hear it, though.

  7. helenboyd says:

    Veronique – did it not let you post it at all? Looking through spam, I don’t see it.

  8. CLMinou says:

    But the thing is, trans does the same thing to trans people as you say cis does to cis people (particularly yourself.) That is: trans erases the differences between people as different as Kate Bornstein and Chloe Prince. But you still use trans as a category, though believe me I get and appreciate what you said about not using “trans” in front of people’s identity.

    As long as trans remains a useful category–and it does, because of, you know, the oppression–then cis is going to remain one too. If you really feel it isn’t a good label for you, well, there are other labels, yanno? (Gender) queer, questioning, andro, etc.

    Trans folks don’t get to opt out of being trans, and I don’t see why the reverse shouldn’t be true.

  9. helenboyd says:

    I know, CL – that’s why I don’t like “trans” either.
    What I ‘m saying is that I want to be a hell of a lot more discerning, & picky, when bringing up any distinction. Perhaps specifically when there is an issue of discrimination or whatnot, of course, but otherwise? feh. I’m tired of it.

    As someone who others would identify as cis, I’m tired of feeling the linguistic chasm between myself & so many others I know, am friends with, am related to, etc.

    Obviously (I hope) this idea is largely rhetorical. While the world is ignorant & hateful, a person’s trans status will be important, & while it is important, cissexual privilege is important to name.

  10. deanna says:

    Happy Bday to your day he sounds like a wise individual

  11. deanna says:

    sorry dad (look then hit enter)

  12. Véronique says:

    @Helen: It didn’t let me post at all. This is the message I got:

    Hmmm, your comment seems a bit spammy. We’re not real big on spam around here.

    Please go back and try again.

    I mean, I had to log in to post it. I am not a bot! :)

    I might try experimenting with removing bits and pieces of the comment to see what is offending the filter.

  13. helenboyd says:

    that’s weird, Veronique. I have no idea why.

  14. helenboyd says:

    oh, except sometimes including a link sets off the spam filter.

  15. Leah B says:

    I’ve gotten the spam filter bit before too. I did repeat a few keywords a lot in the post that got flagged, words probably not recognized as “common” by a run-of-the-mill filter.

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