Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cis Privilege and My Myth of "No Gender Identity"

"gender is like underwear: if it fits ya don’t notice. If it doesn’t you can’t avoid noticing"
–LaughrioTgirl, via Twitter (via Grace Annam's excellent Trans 101 post)
As I read Julia Serano's Whipping Girl several months back, so much of what she says has been percolating in my mind. For one, I'm not sure I will ever be able to understand the full extent of the privileges inherent in being cis and what it means to have a gender identity that is widely considered to be more authentic than the gender identity of a trans* person.

I think, for much of my life, I haven't felt a strong sense of being either male or female. I've always felt somewhat androgynous, feeling that the stereotypes about what constitute both authentic femininity and authentic masculinity have not resonated with me. As a woman, I don't feel that I'm the "opposite" of men. I think I have far more in common with many men (and women), than I have differences.

In fact, reading some descriptions of women from gender traditionalists, gender complementarists, MRAs, and "game""/pick-up-artistry," erm, "theorists," I've often felt very much like some sort of non-gendered being. The women many of these folks describe are so unlike the vast majority of women I've ever met. (And I've met a lot).

Because of these feelings of androgyny, I think early on in my thinking about trans* issues, I therefore didn't fully understand the desire to transition or what it means to be transgender. To reference the title and quote at the top of this post, I've never felt strongly that I've had a gender identity at all. When I was born, people started calling me a girl and so, well, that was that. I am what I am.

But, upon reflection, it seems like a crucially-important aspect of cis privilege for me to unpack is the recognition that that's what being cis... kind of is. If the sex I was assigned at birth "fits" my conception of myself, then I don't really notice the fit. It becomes much more apparent to a person if it doesn't fit.

Secondly, and relatedly, Serano writes:
 "Having only ever had a trans experience, it took me a long time to realize how differently I experience and process gender compared to the way most cissexuals do. For example, a few months after I had begun living full-time as a woman, a male friend of mine asked me if I had ever accidentally gone into a men's restroom by mistake. 
At first, the question struck me as bizarre. When I gave him a perplexed look, he tried to clarify himself. He said that he doesn't ever think about what restroom he is entering, never really notices the little 'man' symbol on the door, but he always ends up in the right place anyway.

.... I laughed and told him that there had never been a single instance in my life when I had walked into a public restroom- women's or men's- by habit; my entire life I have been excruciatingly aware of any gendered space that I enter."
I think that anecdote can also be a revelation for cis people. 

Just as her friend did, I've mistaked my personal experience with gender identity for, well, everyone's experience with gender identity. (Yes, totally egocentric, I know #fauxbjectivity).  I've long been supportive of trans* people's self-determination of their own identities, but my understanding of these experiences and differences between cis experiences was very much on a surface level.

I also like Serano's call to challenge "gender entitlement" that she describes as the "privileging one's own perceptions, interpretations, and evaluations of other people's genders over the way those people understand themselves."  I know that call isn't going to go over well with the "I like clear-cut binary rules about gender" crowd, but I think it's a way to be respectful of other people's autonomy, boundaries, and experiences.


Vixi Dragon said...

Thank you for writing this. My wife started transitioning (mtf) last spring. I think an article like this makes great strides in helping cisgendered friends and family understand.
I've been writing about my wife's transition (including how she came out to me) on my blog.

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