Don’t like the word ‘cis’? Good*

August 19, 2014 § 5 Comments

I can’t say it’s a particular favourite of mine, anymore than ‘trans’ is – after all, I’m not a fan of labels or dichotomies in general. But, with reservations, and in certain contexts, I do use those words, and find them helpful – and these are the reasons why.

There’s always a place of confusion, of divergence, whenever we begin talking about words that categorize and describe our genders/sexes. Are we talking about identities, or about structural categories? What does ‘identity’ mean in this context – the life lived, personal beliefs, actions, or a category freely chosen? What happens when the structural category one inhabits is at odds with what one feels about the self?


When I first found the word ‘transgender’, and knew that it could be applied to me, I didn’t ‘identify’ as it. That’s a question I get asked all the time: ‘when did you realise that you were trans?’. But it misses the reality of what happened. For years before I knew that there was that word, I knew that my body felt wrong – that I wanted to change it, that I was at odds with my external self, that I was at odds with the category I’d been placed in. It was only gradually, and with a lot of research, that I found that there was a word society gave to people like me – and that that word was ‘transgender’. It was liberating, in a way – but also a trap, and a label that came from outside myself, to try to reclaim.

In addition, it was coming to understand what the world around me meant by gender – how many things it meant by gender – and realising that I despised the enforced, hierarchical gender binary so much of the Western world seemed invested in propping up, and was determined to do my part in undermining it, challenging it.

That second point, that refusal to validate kyriarchal gender standards – is it transgender, or is it just a reasonable position for everyone to adopt? If it is inherently ‘trans’ then does ‘cis’ only apply to people who are happy to go along with sexist, limited ideas of gender? Does that turn ‘cis’ into a slur?

This is always where I feel that our ways of demarcating ‘trans’ fall down. We so often talk about ‘trans’ as though it refers to an essential part of a person – that it’s a noun that means a person (the way some newspapers use it: ‘a transgendered’). I much prefer the way that Leslie Feinberg uses it – that it can be a description of behaviours and ideas that transgress or queer oppressive notions of gender, or it can be a broad umbrella under which people can shelter, should they desire to – and there can be slippage between the two. You don’t have to prove that you’re ‘trans enough’. But neither would you have to use that word to describe yourself, even if what you do and believe challenges and transforms what we mean by sex/gender. Maybe it applies in some situations and not others. It’s a tool to be used.


So what is the point of the word ‘cis’ within this framework? I can see why some people would prefer not to use it, or have it used to describe them – they don’t go along with patriarchal sex/gender rules – but also don’t feel an affinity to the word ‘trans’. Certainly, all of the cis people dear to me could be counted here – emotionally and intellectually we are in the same position when it comes to gender, but they don’t feel comfortable calling themselves ‘trans’. But there is a reason why they do use the word cis to describe themselves, and it’s the reason I think we still need it.


To have the word ‘cis’ in usage is an acknowledgment of the fact that ‘trans’ is as much an oppressive category meted out by a binary society as it is a reclaimed term of pride. There are lines in the sand drawn all around gendered behaviours and bodies – and at different points in the crossing of those lines we are told that we are ‘trans’ for doing so. In an ideal world, my treatment of my body and my expression of myself would be unique and sacred to me – but that’s not even close to the world we live in. My experiences are demarcated from ‘the norm’ with that word – ‘trans’ – I am othered away – and in this structure it is vital that I have a word to describe the other side of this equation. Not to be petty, and not in a desire to label and limit where I am labelled and limited – but to truly illustrate the dichotomy at work.

Having the word ‘cis’ to use stops the situation from being presented as a broad band of ‘normal’ expression, and a small group of extremists who need a particular word to designate them as different. It highlights the absurdity of that system – how on earth can we accurately label everyone’s personal, detailed, changing experiences of sex/gender into two exclusionary boxes? And, yet, that is what society tries so often to do. To use the words ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ in public and political contexts is not to create that system – nor, hopefully, to sustain it – but to know the enemy and to fight it.

Transphobia is real – a daily occurrence for so many trans people. And we need a word to describe the fact that transphobia is not a natural and logical extension of that transness – something terrible, but the kind of thing that happens to minority groups. Bigotry is not natural or excusable. That term, ‘cis privilege’, which so many people seem to take umbrage at – it’s no more than an admission of transphobia, but turned around so as to highlight the injustice of its existence (as so many others writers have already said when talking about the term ‘privilege’ in similar contexts). It asks ‘why are some people spared this bigotry, and not others’? Why is it that you can be recognised by the state, participate in equal marriage, use a public bathroom safely, and I can’t? Why is it that my partner and I, having such a similar understanding of sex and gender, have such different public experiences of prejudice when it comes to gendered expression of ourselves?


These words, ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ – they’re blunt instruments. They can’t illuminate the majority, let alone the totality, of what a person is. But they can help us fight for a place where people are not assumed to be so easy to label – and to punish. If that word, ‘cis’, makes you angry – then please, direct that anger at the system which positioned you so in the first place. Don’t waste that rage at the people who pointed that system out – they’re the ones fighting too.





* Unless, of course, you don’t like the word ‘cis’ because you think that everyone who isn’t trans is just ‘normal’, and why should you have to have a word to describe you? For those people reading this – I don’t think you’re going to get much out of it. But you could try. That would be nice.

This is what dysphoria feels like

August 12, 2014 § 11 Comments

Because so many people who want to know more about trans rights, and be supportive, don’t really know what dysphoria is, or what it can do.

Because so many people who want to derail or dismiss discussions of trans people and our existence believe that they can ignore it, or somehow explain it away.


Have you ever broken a limb and had it in plaster? And when you went to move it you couldn’t – when your brain told it to function it failed? When you looked down and expected something – preemptively felt it – your eyes contradicted you, the limitations of your embodied self clashed against the self that your brain expected to be there?

That’s how dysphoria has always felt to me.

It was stumbling with shock when my arms brushed against my breasts (and I struggle to write the word my next to breasts because they never were mine) – because I couldn’t feel them properly, couldn’t fit them into my body.

It was dreaming of myself in a body that made sense, and waking up utterly confused, and then indigent, and then terrified.

It was crafting my outer self into something far away from what I expected to be there – because it was better to see a strange object in the mirror, and feel like some kind of alien riding in a foreign vessel, than it was to try to reconcile my skin and my mind – because how could I?

It was needing a flat chest and muscles – not because that’s what men should have, or because it’s ‘unfeminine’ – not to prop up my love for real ale and leather and cigars, or to prevent me from baking or wearing makeup – nothing so ridiculous – but so that I could lie in bed and fall asleep without the claustrophobic panic that comes from wanting to rip out through your own skin.

It was something that resisted intellectual and psychological analysis to extinction – I could and did theorize to the best of my ability, but nothing could touch it – though I did learn a lot about myself along the way.

It’s something that stills stays my hand, when I reach up to scratch my cheek and find smooth skin – after half a lifetime as an adult unable to grow facial hair, my hand still expects to feel it.

It was forgetting that my body had ever been different, the minute I came round after top surgery – because it didn’t ‘mutilate’ my body – the surgery uncovered the body my mind had always known to be there, and had been desperately searching for.

It’s the mixture, now, of parts of my body that aren’t right – and parts that are gloriously, beautifully, MINE.

It feels nothing like low self-esteem, or the self-hatred of my appearance I can feel when depressed.


To have someone dismiss dysphoria as ‘all in the mind’, a mental disturbance – it feels as wrong as it does when someone claims that the pain I experience from bipolar disorder isn’t real because ‘it’s just mental’.

My brain is my body as much as my hands, my legs are.

When I respect what my body as an holistic whole needs – that’s when the dysphoria can be solved.


My body needed something of me that is considered transgressive, dangerous, difficult – sometimes disgusting – by too many people. I had to follow that through, or I couldn’t be here now.

I’m happy to talk gender theories, gender structures, hierarchies, dissolution all night long – but I need it understood that I didn’t change my body to fulfill a certain niche gender role. I did it so that I could breathe.


You can’t talk about me being trans without talking about that.


Genderqueer AND trans

June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

That’s a labelling I’ve been seeing an awful lot lately: “trans and genderqueer” – “genderqueer and trans”. Not as a description of a person – but as a way of including two different groups.

I’ve been here before.

Certainly, some genderqueer people don’t feel themselves to be trans – this isn’t to suggest that that doesn’t hold true.

But, in that desire to simplify and dichotomize that we apparently can’t resist, it seems increasingly common to encounter the idea that genderqueer people cannot also be transgender, or transsexual, or have a trans history, or any other unique engagement with the trans umbrella. Not just online – more and more frequently I’m meeting people on the queer scene who suppose that my being genderqueer is the ‘limit’ on my transness.

As though there’s a slider, with ‘transsexual’ on one end and ‘genderqueer’ on the other, and the ‘more trans’ you are, the further along the spectrum you go.

As though the totality of our lives only gets one word.

As if that word itself cannot contain multitudes.

I see that the use of the phrase ‘trans and genderqueer’ often comes from a place of inclusion, of wanting not to offend and erase.

But this is a reminder – don’t, by including that ‘and’ forget that many of us are the ‘and’.


Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment


A new post is on its way – but, for the moment, something excellent from another writer.

Originally posted on Nuclear Unicorn:

A landscape image of Shodan, a feminine face made up of green digital characters against a black background.

To all new readers: I’ve written a follow up to this article.

Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by severalprominentmembersof the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.

The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have…

View original 3,809 more words

Who I am is more than a talking point

June 13, 2014 § 3 Comments

Another day, another article talking about being genderqueer, or neutrois, or bigender, as though the phenomenon was as recent as the words we currently use, and as though the people who ARE those things aren’t smart enough to know what we’re talking about when we talk about ourselves. I’m not linking to it. I’m sick of giving articles like that traffic.

But I will say, yet again, and will keep saying: my life, and how I understand it, is much, much more than a point of theory to be interpreted according to the whims of an outside commentator.

Don’t you dare claim that that’s a strike against debate, against investigation. God knows how I’d fill my time without research, analysis, constant interrogation – particularly of my own beliefs.

But it’s the way it’s done, in popular op-ed writing – the way it reduces and diminishes, rather than expanding and enlightening. Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite authors, and Granny Weatherwax’s definition of sin – that it’s “when you treat people like things” – is as good a maxim as I can think of for how to live a compassionate life. And this is what these articles do – they treat me, and people like me, as things to be dissected and picked over in the name of being ‘gender critical’ (funny how buzzwords don’t always invalidate your arguments).

These kinds of pieces may seem like small things in themselves – I believe that they are small – but it’s that drip drip drip of ‘these kinds of humans are…less than’. As with any cultural attitude, it’s not that someone will read one op-ed piece and go out and abuse someone like me in the street – it’s that it feeds into and validates the cultural norm that allows people like me to be passed over for job interviews, mocked in ‘polite’ society, be deemed undesirable as romantic partners – and on and bloody on.

It’s not about a ‘politically correct’ approach – it’s not about knowing a secret language, or not being allowed to talk openly, or about clubs or shibboleths.

But it is being tired of being talked at, and not talking with. It’s having my intelligence denied by the entry level arguments leveled against my knowledge of myself. It’s the assumption that, coming from a similar cultural background, I couldn’t possibly have done the same research – more research – than these writers – and yet have reached different conclusions. It’s the fall back to accusations – open or veiled – of self-delusion and fantasy, when my life contradicts a stranger’s 800 word opinion piece.

It’s about reducing a fellow human creature – one with full interiority, a drive towards self-knowledge and discovery, a thirst for both answers and challenges – as a prop with which to set a scene against which to monologue.

Talk about being genderqueer – ask questions – write articles, spread knowledge, stimulate debate.

But remember first and foremost that I am your equal.


Not by how I define myself, but by how others define me

June 10, 2014 § 6 Comments

 or Experiencing misogyny without being a woman

(Descriptions of harassment contained within)


Misogyny is a blunt instrument, but one that can be handled subtly. The way it is woven through our lives, our experiences, doesn’t have to abide by the parameters we ourselves have set for those lives and experiences.

I would call myself androgynous, genderqueer, transgender, transsexual, trans masculine – and yet misogyny aimed at me has been a constant companion since childhood. That might seem like a stunningly bland and obvious statement to make, but one that I thinks needs making, because it seems as though some in the trans and wider social justice communities are forgetting that, in a bid to make a wider point about male privilege.

Does male privilege exist? Fuck yesdo we even have to ask? Do even the queerest of spaces often highlight and praise what is considered masculine over what is considered feminine?  yes yes and yes. Do some trans masculine and other FAAB (female assigned at birth)* trans people engage in misogyny aimed at others? Sadly yes.

But taking those facts and then claiming that all FAAB trans people benefit from male privilege – without qualifiers, without the rest of the story – that’s not only painfully untrue but also a damaging erasure of real suffering endured under a misogynistic system. And that suffering is not an aberration under that system, but a crucial part of it.

What do they see, the people I’ve met throughout my life who’ve abused me in the street, followed me home, threatened to rape me, discriminated against me in education, in the workplace, groped me, insulted me, mocked me? Gender variance, yes – but rarely is that gender variance explicitly parsed as ‘ you are trans masculine, and therefore I object to you’. In some cases, it comes from a place of utter confusion: ‘what ARE you? Are you a man or a woman?’. Rarely, it is a reference to being trans – in the form of the word ‘tranny’. Occasionally, particularly when I’m out with a male partner, it’s for being an effiminate man: ‘batty boy’, ‘faggot’, ‘poof’, ‘YOU’RE GAY’.

But, overwhelmingly, what they see is a woman who is not doing womanhood right. I know this because they tell me. The man who threatened me at a taxi stand for fifteen minutes (no one intervened) because I wouldn’t go home with him: ‘Who’d want you anyway – you’ve got no tits. Why don’t you just go home and wank while you cry because no one wants you.’ The group of older men outside a pub in the afternoon who closed ranks and shouted at me that I was ‘begging for it up the shitter’. The cis men and women, in politer settings, who sneer and mock and tell me that I’d look so much better if I looked more feminine, and who’d hire me as I am? The people who will not hire me/work with me/teach me specifically because I’m obviously a ‘psychodyke’. And, occasionally, none of that even matters – anything vaguely ‘woman’ will do – guy who tried to masturbate on me at the bus stop, this song’s for you.

It is frequently said that the world rewards women who ‘aspire upwards’ to masculinity – and I believe that is true. But it frequently punishes them as well – for usurping male power and privilege, for destablising a system, for being ‘unworthy’ of what they claim to be theirs. And that applies to people assumed to be women as well as actual women.

On average I would say that I ‘pass’ as male around a fifth of the time. Mostly in casual situations – in shops, on public transport. There are plenty of trans masculine people, FAAB genderqueer people, who do not pass as male, and suffer far worse than I do the punishments society metes out to those it considers difficult, wayward women. Who they actually are, who they know themselves to be – do we seriously think that the people who attack them, attack us, take the time to find that out? Or, if they do know it, use it in any other way than as a weapon?

Structural critique and understanding of oppressive systems should never be reasons to turn away from individual and systemic suffering within those systems – it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Highlighting the appalling misogyny directed at trans women, trans feminine people, trans people assigned male at birth, does not have to mean claiming that other people do not suffer under an oppressive system too. Acknowledging that some trans men have male privilege, in different degrees in different situations, does not mean that all FAAB trans people have male privilege in all situations. It is possible to have a degree of male privilege and still be the victim of gross misogyny. Assuming that all trans masculine people pass – that all trans people assigned female at birth ARE masculine, and therefore benefit from masculinity –  is simply untrue.

We shouldn’t compound the damage done by misogynists, by misogynistic systems, by pretending that those abuses don’t exist – or don’t matter. It serves no one but those seeking to keep us down.



*I’m not generally a fan of identifying trans people by the birth gender they were straitlaced into. However, in this context, because it is the criteria widely used, I think it’s useful to discuss.


Our clothed bodies are not yours to strip bare*

June 4, 2014 § 29 Comments

I was eighteen years old and, despite coming out three years earlier, was at my first ever queer club night. The university one, so it wasn’t exactly fancy – organised by the LGB soc – they claimed that there weren’t enough trans students to make it worth adding the ‘T’. It took less than half an hour before a cis lesbian tried to make me ‘admit’ what type of genitals I had. “I’m so freaked out right now,” she said, “I don’t even know what you have in your boxers.” I tried to end the conversation as quickly as possible while she told me how weird I was, and went home that night feeling oddly betrayed.

I don’t go to predominantly cis queer spaces any longer, and the main reason for that is people like her. Some didn’t stop at questions, figuring that they had the ‘right’ to check. One Pride I was punched in the groin by a cis woman who didn’t like that I had made her ask ‘are you a man or a woman?’

I say that as background to a conversation happening today between several prominent UK feminists, culminating in possibly the worst hashtag of all time – #NoUnexpectedPenises. Because it’s not that they’re transphobic (of course not), or that they think trans women are men (they’ve learnt not to admit that) – but that trans women aren’t female, and if you invite someone who isn’t female into women’s spaces then you might accidentally be inviting a penis into a woman’s space, and then the sky falls down. Not that this isn’t a long-running issue in modern feminisms – but it did get a little shot in the arm today.

I’m not a woman and I don’t seek access to women’s spaces – reason enough not to have commented on the issue. And yet. Of recent, several feminists who don’t want to be called transphobic have tried to draw a distinction between ‘woman’ and ‘female’ that allows them to exclude MAAB trans people and claim FAAB as their own. To these feminists, I am female – no matter how I describe my gender, my ‘sex’ (in their really quite rubbish understanding of biology and sociology) will always and forever entitle me to entry in their club. Except, or course, that it doesn’t – because, for all that they claim it’s not about policing appearance, I have been harassed and assaulted precisely because my appearance puts my ‘sex’ into dispute.

Having elided the categories of ‘trans women’ and ‘women with penises’, they’ve decided that they can tell by looking – and that they have a right to. When pushed, they claim that it’s in order to protect survivors of sexual abuse from something that might trigger them, ignoring:
– The countless cis women who’ve been assaulted who object to having that claim made in their names
– The fact that rape can be and is committed by people of all sexes, genders, and in every imaginable way. ‘Females’ can and do rape others. Rape does not just happen with a penis.
– That a body part does not equal a rapist. It’s just a body part. It can’t make someone innocent or guilty of abusing another person.
– The fact that trans women are one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to risk of suffering sexual violence – but apparently their histories of abuse are not as legitimate as a cis woman’s. Positing a penis as innately ‘rapey’ and pretending that all trans women have penises (or have somehow magically been ‘tainted’ by having a penis) posits trans women as inherently dangerous – a disgusting premise, and laughably untrue – in that ‘laugh while you cry’ way.

It shouldn’t need saying, but we say it every time because of claims to the contrary – no one is arguing that people cannot decide which genitals they’d like to have in their private lives. But how that can be stretched into a right to decide which CLOTHED bodies are allowed in a public forum escapes me.

How is it that anyone would think they have a right to know what’s under a stranger’s clothes? To deny them access to gatherings, to essential services, based on the assumption of the nakedness beneath their clothing? How can they claim that it is feminist to do that?

Gay blogger Andrew Sullivan lambasted Laverne Cox this week for her decision to keep her private parts private. Trans people, apparently, should be willing to answer questions about our genitals if we ever want to garner basic respect – there’s a paradox. In Atlanta, two trans women were violently assaulted on public transport, to the cheers of onlookers, because several cis men decided that they had the right to demand access to the women’s naked bodies. For all that it’s dressed up in the language of concern and personal empowerment, I fail to see how these so-called feminist demands differ from the wider cultural notion that trans people are defined by our genitals – and that the rest of the world has the right to look at them, judge them and abuse us because of them.

I count myself lucky in this situation – I’ve never had to deal with worse than a grope or a punch (not that that was easy). Many, many trans people – particularly trans women, particularly trans women of colour, face far worse. This isn’t a petty dispute, a differing of opinion, a side issue. This idea that it is acceptable, appropriate, for trans people to be policed and abused because of the supposed state of the most private part of our bodies lies right at the heart of anti-trans violence and oppression.

And shame on any feminist who thinks it’s acceptable to prop up that system in the supposed name of liberation and equality.


* Title has been changed to reflect its use in a piece by RadTransFem, who has left some important comments below regarding the wider milieu in which this debate exists. Go forth and read!



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