So, cis people – what do you want to know?

January 24, 2013 § 39 Comments

EDIT: Answers up now under the ‘trans questions answered’ tag


I’ve been thinking of doing this post for a while, and the outpouring of support from cis people in the wake of the Moore/Burchill transphobia awfulness made me think that this is as good a time as any. From doing outreach work as an activist, and from the public position of being a performer, I’ve heard from many cis people who want to be as supportive of and knowledgeable about trans issues as they can be, but don’t know where to start – and are worried about asking in case they inadvertently cause distress or hurt. Thank god for an internet full of resources – but those resources can be hard to find when you don’t know where to start.


I’d said this before, as a teacher, and I think it’s worth saying again – we can’t expect people to learn if we’re not willing to teach. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that every trans person should be obliged to be a living, breathing educational talking-point 24/7 – that’s a horrible position to put somebody in – but I do think that those of us with the time and the ability to reach out should do it when we can (again, obviously, many, many trans people already do this).


So, in that vein – cis people, what are your questions? Leave them as comments and I’ll get together a crack team of brainy trans people to answer them, and point you in the direction of further research. Any blatant trolling will be studiously ignored online and mercilessly mocked in private but, with that caveat, have at it.



§ 39 Responses to So, cis people – what do you want to know?

  • Mike says:

    What common mistakes or insensitivities do you encounter from well-intentioned friends who want to be supportive? i.e. not spiteful bigotry, but accidents.

  • Frank says:

    Happy to be on your crack team if you need me. I’m a trans genderqueer person.

  • Mark Egerton says:

    As an ally, and as someone who wants to marry a transwoman (if she will have me) how much of the fight for trans equality is “my” fight and how much is it that I actually am part of a group with a parallel struggle? Erm…you did ask lol 🙂

  • Felix Pearce says:

    Also happy to be on your think tank if you like (no, you’ve never met me, the blog will tell you more!)

  • S.E. says:

    What are currently the common ways to view the nature of being trans? Is there a tendency, for example, to view it as “being an X in a Y’s body”; or as a pragmatic response to living in a very gendered society (i.e. one where there is a great distinction perceived between men and women, where appearance of gender and of acting in a manner appropriate to your perceived gender is important, etc); or as an expression of “radical queerness” (for want of a better phrase – basically I mean saying “fuck you” to heteronormativity). These being just a few examples of possible motives for adopting a trans/genderqueer identity.

    Is this something that trans people discuss amongst themselves, or are aware of in other trans people – the beliefs and the reasons behind their transitions? Do differing opinions on this ever cause friction or division?

    On another note, how common is it for trans people to feel completely comfortable in their body after physically transitioning to the extent to which they want?

    I hope these questions are clear. Might I commend you on your willingness you answer all questions flung at you. I’ve seen trans q&a’s before and they seldom are very interesting, seeming to consist of the same shortlist of questions and quite generic “trans position” responses to them. (This is also obviously the fault of the question askers.)

    If I may also add that not all “cis” people are ignorant of trans issues (I put “cis”
    in quotation marks because I think “cis” as applied to all non-trans people is an overly simplistic division, in the way that you would probably perceive the tags of “man” and “woman” to be – I think the same of homo- and heterosexuality, if you’ll accept that as an analogy. Also, basically all labels of identity). Especially those who will be on your blog, and interested in asking questions – there is a danger of patronising us as “poor little uneducated cis people” into which q&a’s like this can fall. Although not trans myself, I do think that I have a good understanding and I am still attempting to deepen my understanding – particularly of the philosophical views of gender that are associated with trans issues and their relations to individual people trying to live “the good life” and be happy.

    Re. The Moore/Burchill debacle; I have read Burchill’s article and thought it was appalling, and I have no idea why she thought a good defence of her friend would involve hideous ad hominem attacks. Regarding Moore, her reference to women feeling they have to model themselves on “Brazilian transsexuals”, I do not think is in itself transphobic – “Brazilian” is a way of saying male-to-female as Brazil is well-known as the world’s “captial” of sex-change operations for MTFs, and saying all women feel they need to have the bodies of transsexuals is not transphobic – it highlights in just a couple of words the often unreasonable ideals for the shape of a woman’s body – if you believe that comment was transphobic, please elaborate. I do understand that Moore made further comments which may have been transphobic on twitter (I have not seen them), but I do believe that outrage over her original comment was misplaced. So much could have been resolved by rational comment and questioning without everyone ending up hurling abuse at each other!

    So I meant to write a question and I’ve written a short essay. I am interested in a dialogue on this subject though, if you or anyone is willing.

    • cnlester says:

      I hope you don’t mind if I break your post into the individual questions?

      I don’t particularly want this comments thread to turn into a place to debate Moore/Burchill, but this is an excellent article on it if you haven’t read it yet:

      I certainly don’t think that people have to be trans to be knowledgeable about gender/sex/sexuality, including trans issues. However, I get asked A LOT by cis (I’m sure we’ll have a long talk about the insufficiencies of language in the post!) people how they can move on from 101/learn more/be better allies – but they don’t always know where to go to learn more and get support. Hence an attempt to do something.

      • S.E. says:

        Of course not, break it up all you like. Also, agree should not discuss Moore/Burchill anymore – have been reading the article you linked and other things linked from that (you know when browser tabs spiral out of control…) and I think further discussion here would be surplus to requirements – and of course distract from the point of your post.

    • I agree that we don’t want this turning into another Moore/Burchil debate, but I just wanted to say that I’ve never heard of anyone using the term “brazilian” to qualify “transsexual” as MTF, and I’ve seen no evidence that this was what Moore intended.

      • S.E. says:

        No I think this is a case of the personal nature of understanding the sense of language, and subsequent communicating at cross-purposes. The connection I made between Brazil and transsexuals is one that I specifically garnered from a piece of pop-culture – namely the programme Lewis, there’s an episode with a gay man who gets a sex change to be “heterosexual” and the clue is he goes to Brazil, so I took it that Brazil was commonly understood as being specifically associated with male-to-female sex-change operations. However from further reading I think this may not be what Moore, and indeed everyone (anyone?) else, associates with that phrase…

      • diane says:

        Moore’s own tweets made it clear she was talking about MTF transgender people:

    • Cel says:

      I definitely think “cis” is a quite fuzzy term and, like all aspects of privilege, not all people have all aspects of privilege in all times and settings.

      This cis privilege list is quite comprehensive, and while I don’t agree with every point it does open up a lot of territory for discussion:

      • Frank says:

        I don’t think cis (cisgender) is a fuzzy term at all. It has a very clear and unambiguous meaning that is used consistently as far as I’ve seen. It’s simply someone whose gender is that same as that assigned at birth. If I’m wrong, please explain.

        • Frank says:

          Unless you mean that gender is a continuum, and people are forced to choose which rigid binary label best suits, meaning few people are truly as cisgender as they may appear in the same way as sexuality is seldom as gay-or-straight as people assume?

          • cnlester says:

            I suspect we’ll be talking a fair amount about how language often is, at best, a clumsy tool, the usage of which is a step towards its own redundancy.

  • S.E. says:

    P.S. I have just read your article on So-So Gay and appreciate your comments on the insensitivity of Moore’s original comment. Only thing I wouldn’t agree on is the “demarcation of transsexuals from women” – if you were to say that all women were expected to look like Naomi Campbell, that wouldn’t demarcate Naomi Campbell from women. Also, I hear “transsexual” and variations on it used as a noun within the transsexual community, perhaps more commonly in terms like FTM, where “I’m FTM” seems to be interchangeable with “I’m an FTM” in how FTMs (noun – offensive?) describe themselves. Cf. “lesbian”.

    Re. “sophistry that all transwomen have a certain body shape” – may be unintentional hypocrisy on Moore’s part in that she is implicitly assuming a typical “ideal male” body shape – broad shoulders, straight hips etc – that all men and MTFs will have, and using it to criticise others’ imposition of ideal female body shapes.

  • E. Steven says:

    Are there any good histories of Trans peoples’ struggle for civil rights or any good social histories one can recommend? I’ve read ‘How Sex Changed’ by Joanne Meyerowitz, but I would love to read more.

  • I’m a trans person, but I’ve got a question for the panel if that’s ok? I was talking with a friend the other day and we were wondering if anyone’s published anything about trans women’s involvement in the feminist movement. We thought it would be an interesting topic. Feel free to ignore this if I don’t qualify!

  • diane says:

    I feel a little silly asking this but I’m wondering if trans* (with asterisk) is becoming the preferred term, or if there’s a specific framework for using it?

  • Emily says:

    I suspect this is largely up to the individual so there’s nothing resembling a definitive answer to this question but I’m very curious to hear the crack team’s opinions on this one.
    If a well-intentioned person slips, say with pronoun for example, what’s the best thing to do next? Apologize immediately, let it go at the time and hope no one noticed, but say something privately to the person later? or? What difference does it make if the person involved is a friend, acquaintance, or a person you didn’t even know was trans?

  • Emily says:

    When should trans* people disclose? When they sleep with someone, if they take part in BDSM play, on a first date? I think sleeping with someone who didn’t tell me would really disturb me.

    • emergentlifeform says:

      When should trans people disclose?

      Never. Trans people never have a duty to disclose. They might choose to disclose, but that is up to them – they have no duty to. Whenever you sleep with someone, you take the risk that they might be trans. Your risk. It’s not the same as having an STD, you can’t catch anything from someone just by virtue of them being trans. The desire not to sleep with trans people comes either from the idea that trans people are ‘really’ the gender they were assigned at birth, or just plain ol’ disgust for trans people.

      If you fancy someone enough to fuck them then fuck them. Them being trans shouldn’t make a blind bit of a difference unless you are a bigot.

  • Dickon Edwards says:

    Hullo, CN! As ever, my query is book shaped… Which books would you most like to press into the hand of cis people for further reading on the issues? eg Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues? They can be as academic or as not as you like: theory, memoir, fiction, biography, poetry, whatever. Thanks. x

  • jrg says:

    OK. I guess I am a CIS male. And I have a question. I don’t mean this to sound prejudice or bigoted so please take it in the spirit it is intended.
    So I have suffered from schizophrenia and psychosis. At various times I have had an absolute cast iron conviction that:
    a) that I was a messianic prophet figure, an example to mankind of how they could cast aside their differences and live life in peace. That my life was showing mankind the way to universal harmony
    b) that everybody else in the world had a small glass bowl in which they could observe me and hear my thoughts.
    So obviously if I had come to you with either of the two scenarios above you would have (hopefully) said: ‘I think you have a mental health problem. You should see a psychiatrist.’
    But if I had come to you and said that I believed I was a woman, would your response be different?
    So my question is, how do distinguish between the kind of delusions I have described and being trans? Is there some sort of empirical test?

  • Cathryn says:

    Is there much of a generational divide in the trans community? Is there much crossover or not between people who identify as ‘transsexual’ and those who identify as ‘transgender’ or do people use these more as descriptive terms than anything?

    I ask partly out of curiosity, and partly because in a work context it helps me to know what are the most appropriate words to use. Most of the trans people I’m acquainted with are young as well as politically active and I’m interested to know whether older and/or less politically engaged trans people tend to have different perspectives and prefer different terminology.

  • Jj says:

    I really appreciate this post, because i want to be the best trans ally I can be. I’ve always understood that as a cis woman, it was my responsibility to read & educate myself on trans issues & not expect the trans people around me to educate me. And I think this does have some merit, because cis people should treat trans people just like anyone else, & ask them the usual “what do you do” questions, not intrusive “what surgery have you had” or “how do you have sex” intrusive questions, which some of my straight cis-friends have actually asked my trans friends.

    My question is, does it undermine the gender identity of a trans person if for example, a lesbian says “I like butches & trans men”. Or are we all just queers who feel attracted to human beings?? Hope that makes sense, thanks xx

    • emergentlifeform says:

      Some trans men are into being fetishised as uber-butch women, decaf men, men lite, whatever. Many if not most of us are not. I would not ever date anyone who professed to only like women & trans men because I would not be able to believe that they really saw me as a man. If that’s how people feel about their sexuality, fine (although they can not touch me with a barge pole, kthx). But asserting that sexuality (either directly, or by asking someone if such and such cute guy is trans etc) perpetuates a culture where trans men are fetishisised & seen as fake men and trans women’s bodies are stigmatised and are excluded from the queer women’s community.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I’d like to hear some different opinions on the meanings of the terms “transgender” and “transsexual”. With an awareness of them being cultural labels as well as linguistic ones, I still find it difficult to pin them down. I *thought* gender was in the head, and sex was in the body, and “trans” meant changing that. However, if one was born with a sex (body) that didn’t match gender (head) how is the gender changing at all? Does transgender rather mean * perceived* gender is changing/has changed? Are the terms in fact synonymous and I am looking too etymologically at them rather than semantically? If a person wears the label transgender or transsexual, is there something specific that they are trying to tell me about themselves that I am missing, because I have difficulty distinguishing the meanings of the words? I have discussed this with my partner (who wears the label transsexual herself) and we both just get more and more confused the more we discuss it. Some more opinions would be very helpful. Also, I have recently heard the term “of trans history” a few times, and wondered if this has yet another meaning. Is it all just a matter of preference?

  • Mike says:

    As always, this will be dependent on individual circumstances, but I’d really like to hear some opinions on this scenario:
    If I, as an ally, am with a trans friend, and another person misgenders my trans friend, should I correct the other person, or should I wait for my trans friend to do it? Is it presumptuous or supportive for me to speak up?

  • This is such a helpful thing to be doing…I’ve been an lgbtq* officer and I still worry that what I say is going to offend!
    When cis people engage in debate on Trans issues, eg. on Burchill or on the Gender Recognition Act, do most Trans people feel that we’re supporting or would they rather we shut up and promote Trans people themselves doing the talking? I often feel, when speaking up, some people may be irritated a cis-person is doing the talking.

  • bisexualftw says:

    This is a question about the importance of using language that doesn’t erase nonbinary people. The idea that orientation labels like straight, gay and (especially) bi are problematic in this regard comes up in queer conversation a lot. (It’s probably important to note here that these conversations often erase the existence of nonbinary straights, gays and bis.) What do nonbinary people want from their allies on this topic? Is there a nonbinary manifesto?

  • […] back in January I asked my cis readers if they had any questions about trans issues they’d like answering – I’ve collected the responses into just over 20 questions, which will be answered at length […]

  • cnlester says:

    Hey everyone – answers are now going up, one question per day. All tagged under ‘trans questions answered’ – and the first is here. Thanks!

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