A feminist critique of “cisgender”

Consistent with common usage of the term “cisgender,” the graphic below explains that “…if you identify with the gender you were assigened [sic] at birth, you are cis.”

Another Trans 101: Cisgender webpage describes cis this way: “For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender.” [i] Likewise, girl-born people who identify as women are also considered cisgender. WBW are cis.

Framing gender as a medically determined assignment may seem like a good start to explaining gendered oppression because it purports to make a distinction between physical sex and gender. Feminism similarly understands masculinity and femininity (e.g., gender) as strictly enforced social constructs neither of which are the “normal” or inevitable result of one’s reproductive sex organs. Feminism and trans theory agree that coercive gender assignments are a significant source of oppression.

On closer inspection of the concept of “cisgender,” however, feminism and trans theory quickly diverge. Feminism does not believe that asking whether an individual identifies with the particular social characteristics and expectations assigned to them at birth is a politically useful way of analyzing or understanding gender. Eliminating gender assignments, by allowing individuals to choose one of two pre-existing gender molds, while continuing to celebrate the existence and naturalism of “gender” itself, is not a progressive social goal that will advance women’s liberation.  Feminism claims that gender is a much more complicated (and sinister) social phenomenon than this popular cis/trans binary has any hope of capturing.

First, “masculinity” and “femininity” are not monolithic, static concepts that are wholly embraced or wholly discarded. Socially assigned gender roles encompass entire lives’ worth of behaviors and expectations, from cradle to grave. Most people’s identification with their “gender” assignment is not a simple Y/N.  One may be aesthetically gender conforming, but at the same time, behaviorally non-conforming. Or vice versa. Or some combination of both. Most of us are not walking, talking stereotypes. It is unusual for a person to both appear and behave in unmodified identification with their assigned gender at birth. For example, a female-born person might wear pink dresses and lots of makeup, but behave in an assertive, detached, and highly intellectual manner. Or a female-born person might appear very androgynous, without any feminine adornment at all, but express herself gently, quietly, and with graceful concern for those around her. What about a female who is aggressive and competitive in her professional life, but submissive and emotional in her personal life? Who decides whether an individual is sufficiently identified with to be considered “cis”? Or sufficiently non-identified with to be “trans”?  “Cis” and “trans” do not describe discrete social classes from which political analysis can be extrapolated.

Additionally, one’s identification with their “gender” may change over time. Gender is not an immutable characteristic. While some people argue that “gender identity” is a deeply felt, unchanging personal quality;[ii] the existence and prominence of late-transitioning[iii] trans people drags this claim into very questionable territory. One may be gender conforming for many years, then slowly or suddenly reject the characteristics of their assigned gender. How an individual identifies in reference to their gender, whether it be masculinity or femininity, is not necessarily stable, nor should it have to be.

The cis/trans binary does not, and cannot, account for the experiences of people with complicated, blended, or changing “gender identities;” nor does it address people with hostile relationships to gender in general. As a woman-born-woman who rejects femininity as females’ destiny, I surely do not identify with my assigned gender in the way that “cis” describes. Indeed, no one holding radical feminist/anti-essentialist views about gender could be considered “cis” because, by definition of these views, we reject gender as a natural social category that every person identifies with. Feminists do not believe that everyone has a “gender identity,” or that we all possess some kind of internal compass directing our identification with “gender.”

Identifying with something is an internal, subjective experience. Self-assessments of gender do not equal self-awareness, nor do they provide insight as to how gendered oppression operates in the broader, external social sphere.

By using cisgender to describe the gender of those who are not trans* we break down structures that posit cis individuals as “normal,” when neither is more “normal” than the other.

See graphic, above. The cis/trans* binary does not break down any structures of normalcy because it doesn’t describe how such systems operate. It doesn’t explain how a person will be treated by society or what kind(s) of power they hold relative to others. External observers cannot reliably determine whether someone considers herself “cis” or “trans;” they simply pass judgment by categorizing superficial expressions of masculinity or femininity as appropriate or inappropriate. In reality, any person who significantly defies the gender norms for their apparent sex will be subject to negative social treatment because of their non-compliance. This will occur regardless of whether the individual applies the label “trans” to herself or not.  Under nearly all circumstances, stealth trans* people will be treated by society as if they were cis; and gender non-conforming cis people who do not disclaim their reproductive sex–including butch lesbians and feminine males–will be treated by society as if they were “trans.*” Framing the politics of gender as a matter of self-perception rather than social perception evades the feminist political inquiry regarding why gender exists in the first place and how these gender dynamics operate, and have operated, for hundreds of years.

“IT’S A GIRL!” (see graphic above) means something in regard to that baby’s life. Assuming she makes it to adulthood, that is.[iv]

For “It’s a girl!” to make sense, it must refer to a long string of gendered words that help the community understand what to expect out of babies called “girls.”

The single utterance, “It’s a girl!” does not a baby girl make. The drama of gender is a repeat performance—it must be reenacted continually to form a pattern. Butler writes, “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time.” 273 She explains, “[t]his repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established…[v]

The pattern of gender, constituted through gender’s repeated performance on the stage of life, demonstrates that males and masculinity are institutionally dominant over females and femininity.  Gender is not just a fun dress up game that individuals merely identify with in isolation from all contextual and historical meaning, but the most powerful tool of structural oppression ever created by humans.

Notwithstanding variations caused by intersecting factors such as economic class, national jurisdiction, and cultural differences; the collective female social location is consistently less than similarly situated males in terms of: (i) material resources received as an infant and child, (ii) respect, attention, and intellectual encouragement received as an infant and child, (iii) risk of being sexually exploited or victimized, (iv) role within the hetero family unit, (v) representation and power in government, (vi) access to education, jobs, and promotions in the workforce, (vii) property ownership and dominion over space.[vi]

Recognizing this, feminism understands gender as a powerful– but not inevitable– tool of organizing social relations and distributing power, including physical resources, between the sexes. The near-universal quality of life disparities enumerated above are created, enforced, and replicated through the enforcement of gendered difference and the meanings assigned to these differences. Being born with female appearing genitals and, as a direct result, being coercively assigned the feminine gender at birth, is clearly not a (cis) privilege, nor is it socially equivalent to males’ masculine gender assignment. Female-bodied people and male-bodied people are not similarly situated persons in regard to gender based oppression. Gender is not simply a neutral binary. More importantly, it is a hierarchy.

Cis privilege does not exist, man-privilege does.

Feminine gender conformity ala “cis” does not protect women (trans or not) from gendered oppression. While a man’s gender conformity with masculinity—both aesthetic and behavioral— will substantially insulate him from sex and gender motivated oppression and violence, a woman’s appropriate conformity to stereotypical femininity does not. The 2011 SlutWalk campaign (hopefully) served as a grave reminder that victim-blaming, woman-blaming rhetoric is alive and well in mainstream social discourse. The perception that women “bring it on ourselves” or “ask for it” when we dress in certain, undeniably feminine ways is very wrong, but also very real. Some predators are even documented as specifically targeting conventionally “attractive” women.

The first good-looking girl I see tonight is going to die.

Edward Kemper, serial killer.[vii]

As long as stereotypical femininity remains the controlling standard of beauty for women, feminine-appearing women (trans or not) will be eye-catching targets for misogynistic violence because of their perceived “beauty.” In other words, because they are feminine-conforming.

Further, socially defined feminine behaviors such as hospitality, care-taking, and a socially structured desire for male sexual attention contribute to women’s vulnerability to exploitation. When a woman’s social performance (trans or not) is consistent with feminine subordination to male authority, rapists and other abusers may target these women as easy victims on the assumption that they will be less likely to resist unwanted advances.

Rapists often select potential victims using gut feeling.  Subtle attempts to invade our personal space and to force conversation with us are tests of our boundaries used by rapists to confirm their gut feeling.  We send a strong message when we enforce our limits and preferences for touching, revealing personal information and feelings, and having people in the space that surrounds us.[viii]

Feminine socialization conditions women to be accommodating to others, listen politely and attentively, and express emotional concern for those who appear downtrodden. As a result, women still make up the majority of workers in underpaid “caring professions” such as social work, teaching, and nursing. This tendency towards altruism and giving of trust allow feminine-behaving people to be taken advantage of by those who recognize it as an opportunity to leverage their “feminine” generosity for personal gain.

As long as stereotypical femininity remains the controlling standard of appropriate behavior for women (trans or not), we will continue to struggle not only with setting boundaries against others’ predatory and/or exploitative intentions, but we are also doomed to walk uphill against the professional double standard recognized in the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins:

An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not. [ix]

The behavioral characteristics of femininity are economically and intellectually devalued as compared to the traits of masculinity. Power is gendered. As a result, males continue to control almost all of the world’s resources and power, including the positions of institutional authority required to direct social reform.  Within this patriarchal context, women’s compliance with feminine behavioral norms simply does not result in social empowerment. It can’t. And it won’t. Because “gender” isn’t designed to work that way.

Eliminating sex-based gender assignments, while leaving hegemonic masculinity and femininity intact,isn’t going to rectify this imbalance. The cis/trans* binary is a gross oversimplification of the gendered dynamics that structure social relations in favor of male-born people. Gender is a socially constructed power hierarchy that must be destroyed, not reinterpreted as consensual, empowering, individualized “gender identities” that are magically divorced from all contextual and historical meaning. Such a framing invisibilizes female and feminine oppression by falsely situating men-born-men and women-born-women as gendered equals relative to trans-identified people. Though possibly unintentional, “cis” now functions as a significant barrier to feminism’s ability to articulate the oppression caused by the socially constructed gender differentiation that enables male/masculine supremacy. Cis is a politically useless concept because fails to illuminate the mechanics of gendered oppression. In fact, it has only served to make things more confusing.

I call for trans* theorists, activists, and supporters to stop promoting the cis/trans binary, and instead, to incorporate feminist objections regarding gender-as-hierarchy[x] and the misplaced glorification of masculinity and femininity in the context of male supremacy into their explanations of “gender.”


up [ii] Levi, Jennifer L., The Interplay Between Disability and Sexuality: Clothes Don’t Make the Man (or Woman), but Gender Identity Might. 15 Colum. J. Gender & L. 90 (2006).

up [v] Clarke, Jessica A., Adverse Possession of Identity: Radical Theory, Conventional Practice. Oregon Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 2005.

up [vi] Special thanks to Virginia Brown for articulating these disparities.

up [ix] Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (490 U.S. 228, 251).

up [x] [Here is an example of a trans woman listening, understanding, and incorporating feminist critique of gender into her work. It is possible. http://www.transadvocate.com/on-die-cis-scum.htm <<this link is dead.] Update May 2013: Here are links to blogs written by transwomen who listen to women: http://justjenniferblog.blogspot.com/ or http://snowflakeespecial.tumblr.com/ or maybe even http://auntyorthodox.tumblr.com/.

___________________

Download a pdf of this article here.

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94 comments
  1. Kim said:

    It appears that the last note (“[x] Here is an example…”) now has a dead link. At least, I’m getting a “page not found” error. Love the piece, by the way.

  2. Shevvi said:

    I did love the article, very clear and well articulated. I hate the cis/trans binary!
    However, the thing about “no cis privlege” is bullshit.
    Think about: the simple difficulty of checking a box: male or female, medical exams and your doctor being mad because you put down the “wrong sex” on your forms, shopping for clothes that don’t fit your body type but you desperately want (fellow chubby bunnies will also know this pain), flirting with someone…going home with them only to be violently rejected by your date who is disgusted by your gentiles, being a transwoman imprisoned for showing breasts (something only females can be prosecuted for) and then being locked in a male jail cell (something, obviously, only men can have done to them), being a transman and not being able to take off your shirt like all the other boys…this is something we experience too as women but it’s a more accepted standard and not as obviously exclusive. Think about going to the bathroom and agonising over which door to go through,..male or female…because if you want to go into the one you identify with, in many places, you can be prosecuted. Think about losing partners over it, jobs, being called a predator and, like everyone else in the LBGTI crowd, being likened with beastiality and pedophilia. Think about growth hormones, three year waiting periods for sexual reassignment surgery, the costs of both of these things, your parents raising you as a little girl or a little boy and hating the fact that you don’t want to be that kid anymore – some trans are thrown out on to the streets and cut off from their family
    No cis privlege? You haven’t lived trans.

  3. Shevvi, thank you for reading, but I’m afraid you still aren’t getting it.

    Male children are not institutionally oppressed by being born male. Quite the opposite, male children have male privilege handed to them on a silver platter. It’s their birth right. They may not want it, of course, but rejection of status a VERY different matter than being born female in a world that is hostile females. This is what GENDER is: sex-based social roles that are inherently unequal and hierarchical.

    There is no such thing as being born in the “wrong” body; there is only the dangerously misguided notion that certain behaviors, feelings, and characteristics are in/consistent with one’s reproductive capacity (sex). This is sexism. Pure and simple. Separate bodies and behavior; beware of circular logic.

    It is also perfectly consistent to assert that someone is miserable without asserting that they are also oppressed (to paraphrase Marilyn Frye). Oppression operates to serve and divide CLASSES of people. Males are the beneficiaries of gender, regardless of whether they reject those benefits or not.

    Thanks again for reading.

  4. This is a really unpleasant article, basing its ideas on a mythical idea of a “trans theory” that only exists in the minds of trans excluding radfems. The trans* community is a diverse group of people who, like everyone else on the planet, are coming to terms with their own unique relationship with gender and gender oppression. The reality is that feminism needs to embrace and include trans* people because their experiences and varying understandings of the issues affecting them need to be taken into account for our theories to be worthwhile, and equally, trans* people need feminism because they are universally oppressed and marginalised based on gender. Working together is a win/win, this article is divisive.

  5. Sandy Hope, I am a lawyer. The legal reforms being enacted on behalf of trans* people are anything but respectful of women’s needs– they deliberately override and disregard them. That is divisive, not this article.

    “Identifying with something is an internal, subjective experience. Self-assessments of gender do not equal self-awareness, nor do they provide insight as to how gendered oppression operates in the broader, external social sphere.”

    Regardless of self-reported “gender identity,” male-born people are not “universally oppressed and marginalised based on gender.” That’s the point of this article.

    “Gender is a socially constructed power hierarchy that must be destroyed, not reinterpreted as consensual, empowering, individualized “gender identities” that are magically divorced from all contextual and historical meaning. Such a framing invisibilizes female and feminine oppression by falsely situating men-born-men and women-born-women as gendered equals relative to trans-identified people. Though possibly unintentional, “cis” now functions as a significant barrier to feminism’s ability to articulate the oppression caused by the socially constructed gender differentiation that enables male/masculine supremacy.”

  6. Confused said:

    Thank you for writing this. This, makes utter sense and is what I have been looking for in order to make sense of what is happening to me.

    “The pattern of gender, constituted through gender’s repeated performance on the stage of life, demonstrates that males and masculinity are institutionally dominant over females and femininity. Gender is not just a fun dress up game that individuals merely identify with in isolation from all contextual and historical meaning, but the most powerful tool of structural oppression ever created by humans.”

    and

    “Power is gendered. As a result, males continue to control almost all of the world’s resources and power, including the positions of institutional authority required to direct social reform. Within this patriarchal context, women’s compliance with feminine behavioral norms simply does not result in social empowerment. It can’t. And it won’t. Because “gender” isn’t designed to work that way.”

    I have recently come across (in my professional life) a young man who has hinted to me that he is trans*. He hasn’t actually told me, but has strongly hinted. This young man is assertive to the point of aggression. Everything is about him. He talks down to / over others. He corrects those who have institutional power over him in an arrogant fashion. He criticizes feminists (but only if they are while and ‘middle-class’, which seems to mean all of us). He dresses ‘punkish’ – studs, leather, torn clothes, some make-up, sometimes. If he hadn’t hinted re the ‘trans* thing’, I’d have picked him for your common-garden misogynist, or at least hyper-masculine male. Recently he told me that by referring to ‘women’ and ‘men’ I was being offensive and oppressive to him, because there is no binary. I am told I should not refer to myself as a woman. From my perspective cis woman makes no sense. I don’t know what ‘normal femininity’ is – and I am not sure that a rabidly independent, anti-marriage, anti-reproduction, never wears make-up, hasn’t seen a hairdresser in years, is not interested in anything marketed to women and is in a relationship where I avoid gender roles by refusing to co-habit is ‘cis’. Is cis a normative category? Is it self defined (in which case, I’m not ‘cis’ if femininity is normatively defined, so I must be trans*?. I’m not feminine in the normative sense. But I know for sure that I am a woman and I know for sure that I have experienced sexism in multiple ways, shapes and forms, because I was put on this planet with XX chromosomes, breasts and a vagina. About the only thing I know for sure is that my oppression (as a woman) rests on the fact that I have this body, and that I ain’t obscuring relations of power by pretending that this body, and *hence this oppression* don’t exist. The irony too, is that I am being asked to do this by a man who may be ‘trans*’, but who in terms of gender and the way he ‘performs’ is about the most hyper-masculine man (even in make-up) I have the misfortune to have to deal with.

  7. If you stop using phrases like woman-born-woman I might take you seriously, until then, you need to stop.

  8. LOL! And if you acknowledged the importance of feminine-socialization-from-birth-as-a-form-of-oppression I might take YOU seriously! Have a great day.

  9. Confused, thank you for this excellent comment! It nicely illustrates the need for a feminist analysis of gender.

    CIS misses the point by miles. I’m honored to help break down the concept in a way that helps other people understand the political ignorance it belies.

  10. Confused said:

    Thank you Elizabeth. I have been reading your work elsewhere, and you do so have a gift for clear writing!

    I think lurking in my comment was something I want to express more clearly. In respect to this particular young man I think that his occupation of his particular trans* (queer) space (I think he is edging at being more ‘feminine’ than ‘masculine’) is an appropriation of ‘femininity’ that (he thinks) gives him equal status to those born with corporeal identities that are ‘female’ to occupy feminist spaces and to allow him ‘equal rights’ as a critic. He attacks middle-class feminism in particular, (also describing it as white). I agree that there is room to be critical of many aspects of the feminist movement. As a working class woman I use these critiques too. But I don’t use them to dismiss feminism and as a criticism of ‘uppity women’ (in effect). He does. And he thinks that because he is trans* (queer), he has a ‘free pass’ to do this and that his comments should be treated neutrally, as if they were objective. What he is actually doing is occupying misogynist space, and using his trans* (queer) identity to white-ant, in effect. I actually do think he hates women, to the point where he wants to find a place where it is safe to critique – and that is by claiming inclusion, not from outside, where one is too easy labelled and attacked. I think he is a misogynist in feminist clothes (and they don’t fit that well). Somewhere here I need to add that the irony of this is that his power rests wholly and firmly on a patriarchal base… but I have not figured that bit out yet.

    Sorry if a zillion people have said this before – I’m still learning how it all works!

  11. Confused said:

    Also, (sorry to keep using your blog for my private ramblings) … something else just crystallized for me. This was the feeling of fear, vulnerability, violation and displacement I had when I was informed that ‘the binary’ and hence women, did not exist. This was instinctive. I didn’t understand it at first. It was as if a a beam holding me up had been suddenly sawn away and I was falling. Odd, because I don’t hold femininity dear. But I do understand now. As much as I am angry about women’s oppression, because of their (our) bodies I don’t want to lose in the field of analysis that which I can ‘use’ in order to name this oppression. And that is my body and the meaning this has. Without that I have no voice, no referent, no way of explaining who I am and what relation this has to the oppression I experience on a day-to-day basis as a woman. And I am afraid I see this as a technique of power by the patriarchy to further silence women, in the ultimate way, by robbing us of a subject-position with which to reference our individual and collective identity to speak out. No wonder this queer / trans* thinking has so much power. It segues with what the patriarchy wants – women putting up, back in their boxes, passive, submissive and, most importantly, silenced and gagged. Now they have the ability to render us completely invisible by stealing our very identity from us. Appropriating it, taking it, calling it theirs, and speaking in our voices, for us, like they once had the legislative power to do and which they dream about reclaiming.

  12. Confused, thank you again for your comments, it’s perfectly OK to talk things through as you think about them.

    I am not going to respond in detail, but I agree wholeheartedly with your musing that there are more than a few males leveraging a “trans” identity to do exactly as you have described:

    “I actually do think he hates women, to the point where he wants to find a place where it is safe to critique – and that is by claiming inclusion, not from outside, where one is too easy labelled and attacked.”

    YUP.

    http://rancom.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/die-cis-scum/

  13. Confused said:

    Thank you for replying at all, and the post you sent me too spoke volumes and gave me goosebumps. It is very similar to what I am seeing now …

  14. tnt666 said:

    Hi Confused, I felt the same set of feelings/thoughts about two years ago when I started reading on these matters. I’d just come off from sharing a dorm with a MtT which brought together all the miscellaneous thoughts I’d had over the past two decades on the matter, without ever putting it all together. I too feel that statistically speaking, when it comes to assessing the place of females in society, my biological body is all I have, and if males get to say that penises can be female, then female means nothing. I felt confused too, but the confusion is leaving me, and I’m feeling more certain about my politics than before.
    Thanks again Elizabeth, your article is great, and we need to find ways of getting this message out, we need to find ways to bypass the censorship that exists on this discussion, and using mostly neutral language such as you’ve done I think is most efficient.
    I think the scientific community (biologists, not neuro-pseudoscience) can be our greatest ally as their is simply no good scientific foundation for any of the trans claims. It’s all snake oil and crappy science. Patriarchy/religion/gender are entirely inseparable, and I think the radfem movement would benefit from being more vocal in the atheist community. The females in the atheist community are in dire need of a radfem perspective to counteract the WASPy (-P) attitude that prevails among many of the atheist figureheads.

  15. Non-cis non-trans feminist male said:

    Thank you so much for this! For years I have been arguing (truly more than debating) with otherwise incredibly open-minded and socially just colleagues that identifying as Cisgendered reinforces a binary that in all other aspects we fight against. As a male that carries a lot more feminine qualities, but is comfortable and happy as a male (and fully aware of the privileges this possesses) I was incredibly uncomfortable when asked to identify as Cis. This article fully sums up my feelings, it’s not binary it’s hierarchic, and those that collude with that benefit. Both males and females, trans or otherwise.

  16. transgenderiswrong said:

    Reblogged this on TRANSGENDER is WRONG and commented:
    Awesome critique.

  17. Maiara said:

    I’m just entering the debate of transgenderism in feminism, and I still find a lot of things complicated, in a way I can’t put out clearly. Both my sex and my gender are female/feminin.
    So I’d like to put one question (althought it might be too open, I’d really like some support to understand different sides of it):
    What are your considerations about the situation of a trans* male (born with female apparatus)?

    Thanks in advance.

  18. Reblogged this on .

  19. rebel smith said:

    seriously great article :)

  20. Asif said:

    This article is the most awesome thing I’ve seen in a while. It really demonstrates how the creation of so many selfish, myopic interest movements can’t help but result in this: competing interests resulting in the most disconnected meta-language argument I’ve ever seen. The best thing is, this writer seems to me to be exactly right, given the assumptions stemming from education in her movement, but the position she is attacking does too, if you try to imagine a world where trans people being seen as “not normative” is somehow as big a problem as traditional gender role enforcement (I can only imagine this is the world the trans people who came up with “cis” must imagine they live in).

  21. You’re refuting your own point right there in the article.

    HUNGERFORD: NO, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE ARGUMENT. THAT’S THE PROBLEM.

    For example this: ” This will occur regardless of whether the individual applies the label “trans” to herself or not. Under nearly all circumstances, stealth trans* people will be treated by society as if they were cis; and gender non-conforming cis people who do not disclaim their reproductive sex–including butch lesbians and feminine males–will be treated by society as if they were “trans.*” Framing the politics of gender as a matter of self-perception rather than social perception evades the feminist political inquiry regarding why gender exists in the first place and how these gender dynamics operate, and have operated, for hundreds of years.” You use the terms cis and trans in this paragraph in exactly the way they were intended to be used (HUNGERFORD: YEAH, I’M REFERRING TO THE INSUFFICIENCY OF SELF-DEFINITION AS A MEANS OF UNDERSTANDING *WHY* PEOPLE ARE TARGETED FOR DISCRIMINATION: THEY ARE TARGETED *REGARDLESS* OF SELF-I-DENTITY)–to give us more language around gender oppression and therefore a better understanding of how that gendered oppression plays out in the lives of different women. Not to mention, the point you are makin is the exact same point that trans women have been making for a long time– that trans women are targeted by patriarchal violence because they are perceived by society as being women (or as being gender non-conforming).

    HUNGERFORD; NO, TRANS IDEOLOGY STATES THAT TRANSOWMEN ARE *MORE* OPPRESSED THAN FEMALES. INJUSTICE AT EVERY TURN, ETC, ETC. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW OFTEN I HEAR THIS. HELLO, TRANS PEOPLE LACK “CIS PRIVILEGE,” SO THEY ARE INHERENTLY MORE OPPRESSED BY VIRTUE OF THE CONCEPT/DEFINITION OF “CIS” ITSELF. !!

    Cis women absolutely face this violence as well, as you state. It is about how your gender is perceived by others, whether you are cis or trans, that determines how you will be treated. So cis and trans women both face gender violence either for being feminine or for being gender non-conforming. But they experience this violence in different way.

    HUNGERFORD: I’M SORRY, ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT THE SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF THIS VIOLENCE IS DIFFERENT? THIS WILL HAVE NO (LEGAL) RELEVANCE. IT IS THE SAME VIOLENCE AND IT IS MOTIVATED BY THE SAME TYRANNY OF NORMALCY. OR DO YOU MEAN IT IS DIFFERENT BECAUSE MALES (TRANSWOMEN) CANNOT GET PREGNANT SO THE *OBEJCTIVE*DAMAGES* OF THE VIOLENCE ARE DIFFERENT? WELL, I’D AGREE WITH THAT. FEMALES, AS A GROUP, ALWAYS HAVE IT WORSE IN THAT RESPECT. BUT I DOUBT THAT IS WHAT YOU MEANT, SO WHAT DIFFERENCE DO YOU REFER TO?

    And it gives us all a better understanding and therefore better means to fight the oppression that ALL women and ALL gender-nonconforming people face to be able to name the ways that those gendered experiences are the same an different. More specific terms such as male-assigned at birth and female-assigned at birth also allow us to be more specific when talking about specific gendered experiences.

    However trans feminists make the point that both our individual gender identification AND our perceived (by others) gender are important to name and understand. You can’t make the argument that it’s really only how you’re perceived and not how you idnetify that is important, because otherwise butch women who are read as men wouldn’t feel the need to correct other people when they are misgenderef. After all, if self-identified gender is meaningless, why do all women not take testosterone in order to be read as male and gain male privilege. The answer is because they identify as women and it would feel terrible to be misgendered constantly.

    HUNGERFORD: NO, THE ANSWER IS THAT SEX AND GENDER ARE NOT THE SAME THING. SOCIAL ROLES ARE BUILT ON TOP OF IMMUTABLE PHYSICAL TRAITS. FIRSTLY, WE DO NOT *WANT* TO TAKE TESTOSTERONE ($$ AND SIDE EFFECTS) FOR THE PRUPOSE OF PASSING AS MEN. JUST NO. I AM TEMPTED TO SAY GROSS. AND SECONDLY, YOU CANNOT HAVE AN UPPER CLASS WITHOUT A LOWER CLASS! PLEASE READ THIS, FOCUSING ON THE PART ABOUT THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF TRANSCENDING OPPRESSION THROUGH MAKING BETTER “CHOICES.”

    Finally, saying cis in no way puts cis women and cis men on equal footing, just as trans women an trans men are not on equal footing.

    HUNGERFORD: IF “CIS” HAD MORE NUANCE THERE WOULD BE CIS-WOMAN AND CIS-MAN PRIVILEGE. THERE IS NOT. ONLY THE FALLACY OF CIS PRIV. YES, IT MOST CERTAINLY DOES PUT ALL CIS ON EQUAL FOOTING. AND SIMULTANEOUSLY DENIES THE EXISTANCE OF NON-TRANS PEOPLE WHO MAY INADVERTENTLY PASS AS THE OPPOSITE SEX.

    Maleness and masculinity are privileged in patriarchy. Cis privilege does not negate male privilege, they are seperate aspects that work together.

    HUNGERFORD: MALE PRIVILEGE AND THE CONCEPT OF “CIS” PRIVILEGE BOTH OPERATE ON THE SAME AXIS OF OPPRESSION: GENDER. YOU CAN’T HAVE TWO FORCES OF OPPRESSION ON THE SAME AXIS WHEREBY WOMEN ARE BOTH OPPRESSED AND PRIVILEGED BY GENDER *AT*THE*SAME*TIME.* THAT MAKES NO SENSE.

    Just like any other oppression or privilege. Having class privilege doesn’t negate racial oppression, having white privilege doesn’t negate gender oppression, having cis privilege doesn’t negate sez-based oppression. The point with these terms is to give women and gender-non conforming people the ability to be more specific about our experiences and identities.
    HUNGERFORD: I HAVE NOT DENIED THAT *OTHER* FORMS OF OPPRESSION EXISTS–FOR EXAMPLE ON THE BASIS OF RACE, CULTURE, OR CLASS. YOU MUST BE CONFUSED BECAUSE I HAVE REJECTED THE CONCEPT OF HAVING TWO FORMS OF OPPRESSION ON THE SAME AXIS.

  22. “The behavioral characteristics of femininity are economically and intellectually devalued as compared to the traits of masculinity. Power is gendered. As a result, males continue to control almost all of the world’s resources and power, including the positions of institutional authority required to direct social reform. Within this patriarchal context, women’s compliance with feminine behavioral norms simply does not result in social empowerment.” Transfeminists AGREE with this statement. And yet, telling individual women (whether cis or trans) that if they conform in any way to femininity they are being regressive or complicit in their own and other women’s oppression is not the answer. Policing each other’s gender identities and expressions is not the answer. It isn’t helpful.

    HUNGERFORD: NO ONE IS POLICING ANYTHING. THERE IS NO IMPLICATION OF COMPLICITY OR REGRESSION IN THIS BLOG POST. YOU DON’T KNOW ME, SO DON’T PROJECT THAT ON ME.

    For what it’s worth, there is nothing wring with women who are gender-non conforming in whatever way to reject the label of cis for themselves. That is part of gender self-identification and I respect every person’s right to define their own experience. Saying “I don’t identify with the word cis because I have been oppressed for not conforming to gender norms” is a very valid thing to say. It doesn’t change the fact that cis is a useful concept to talk about gender oppression. There are many many labels other than cis and trans that you can put as a modifier to your gender. Gender non-conforming is one of those. So if you don’t id as cis, great! Figure out what you do id as.

    HUNGERFORD: NO, I DO NOT NEED A LABEL. KEEP YOUR LABELS OFF OF ME. I DONT NEED OR WANT YOU TO UNDERSTAND MY “GENDER” BECAUSE I DONT HAVE ONE. FROM THE POST: “How an individual identifies in reference to their gender, whether it be masculinity or femininity, is not necessarily stable, nor should it have to be.” IDENTITY BASED ON INTERNAL FEELINGS IS AN EXERCISE IN SELF-HELP AND NARCISSISIM, NOT POLITICAL ANALYSIS OF STRUCTURAL OPPRESSION.

    I will respect that! However, you don’t get to say you’re a “real” woman or a “natural” or “normal” woman or something that derides trans women as less than.
    HUNGERFORD: WHO SAID THAT? WHERE?
    Also, woman-born-woman makes no sense. Women are adults, no one is born a woman. What you mean is female assugned at birth. It’s more precise, less offensive, and more useful. Why insist on using exclusionary language when you can instead say what you really mean?
    HUNGERFORD: GIRL-BORN-WOMAN. AND LMAO WHEN I AM TOLD EVERY SINGLE DAY THAT “TRANSWOMEN ARE WOMEN.” FALSE EQUIVALENCY CITY! USE WORDS MORE ACCURATELY, GREAT IDEA!

    I think as evidenced by the several comments along the lines of “I agree with you about the cis/trans binary being horrible but cis privilege is real” some feminists just have a misunderstanding of wht cis and trans really mean and the fact that they’re not a binary.
    HUNGERFORD: YOU CANT JUST SAY “IT’S NOT A BINARY” WITHOUT SUPPORTING YOUR STATMENT. IT’S NOT BECAUSE I SAID SO. UH…YEAH, IT IS.

  23. Your total argument is basically “cis privilege can’t exist, because male privilege exists.” Which makes about as much sense as saying “Male privilege can’t exists, because white privilege exists.” That is, none.

  24. Jemma, I will tell you something I said elsewhere:

    The concept of a cis/trans binary effectively REVERSES the power dynamics between males and females on the axis of gender.

    It suggests that a male person’s subjective and VOLUNTARY self-identification as a “woman” can nullify his experiences of membership in the class of people who are privileged at women’s expense.

    Further, it suggests that subjective and voluntary self-identification can actually render him (now her) MORE oppressed than the “other” women in the class he alleges to have joined!

    This is NOT how privilege OR oppression operates.

  25. Also said many times, Jemma: Using “cis” as a generic term for anyone who isn’t trans combines male-born people with female-born people into one classification. This HIDES (intentionally, for some users of the term) the factual reality that male-born people are ABOVE female-born people on a universal oppressive hierarchy that leads MATERIALLY to a whole range of horrific harms to female-born people, including the “marriage” (aka the legalized, state-sanctioned rape) of female children to/by male adults, a pervasive rape culture that puts every female at risk, and on and on.

    Your analogy is specious, if not intentionally misleading. “Privilege” describes a power relationship. Both males and white people have material privileges and belong to identifiable classes. Some trans activists have tried very hard to co-opt this concept for their cause and because females as a class can be shit on at will with hardly anyone batting an eye, the idea keeps getting trotted out with zero support. There is no political class called “Trans” (just because you can pile a bunch of people under an umbrella doesn’t mean they are recognized as one “class” in the well-understood form), so it is not possible to construct a meaningful political statement that females as a class can oppress or have privilege over any given group of trans-identified people. As Trans is not a class, “cis” is not a class and the attempt to create a meaningful political argument from those terms therefore fails. Feminism is and should be class-based analysis. Your attempt to use those terms while having no support for them gives your game away.

  26. A few more bite-size nuggets for those too important or lazy to be bothered to read longer analysis:

    1) If “woman” includes both females and MtF trans* people, then an oppression argument is undermined for both groups. “Woman” ceases to have any meaning for females in terms of the specific oppressions by males (which are well-documented if you bother to pay any attention) and ceases to have any meaning for trans women in terms of oppression that is specific to their lived realities. Lump them all together and a whole bunch of ugly things done to each group suddenly get erased. (Think that one through; don’t just keep expecting us to do all the thinking for you.) Putting a finer point on it: If trans women are women (as the popular refrain goes), then their oppression is because they are women, not because they are trans. You can’t have it both ways. And further, as a function of class analysis, women can’t oppress other women.

    2) If “cis” means that one’s “sex” (as understood purely as the secondary sex characteristics of external genitals and sex-marker breast size and shape) matches their gender (self- and other-recognition as “man” or “woman”), then all trans* people who have completed SRS must also be “cis.” This obviously renders the term completely meaningless if it doesn’t even delineate the correct group of people from another group of people so you can meaningfully analyze their orientation to each other on an oppression hierarchy.

  27. Jen G said:

    Thank you for this article. It solidified some issues I’d been having with cis-based conversation. I was having a hard time telling myself I can’t just consider myself female because it’s exclusionary to the trans-community. I’m also a woman who’s friends would not recognized her if she showed up in make-up, stockings, and a dress with heels. I am definitely female, but have decidedly masculine tenancies, and thanks you your article I can finally pinpoint why it was so troubling to be corrected and labeled so definitively just because I call myself female and have a vagina.

  28. The-Lost-Feminine said:

    (I apologize in advance for the length) Firstly, I’d like to thank you Elizabeth very much for this article, I found it incredibly helpful in understanding the whole “cis/trans” dialogue, and more importantly put to words my innate & deeply disturbed feelings towards the implications of the term “cis” which I was having trouble entirely bringing to voice, even in my own mind. For a long time, I didn’t much pay attention to the concept, I found it to be frankly quite ludicrous and expected the exaggerated-political-correctness firestorm to blow over (generally speaking, if political correctness keeps dialogue from happening and truth from being told, I have trouble respecting its validity), however, recently one of my oldest & dearest friends has come out as a trans-woman and consequently I find myself no longer able to ignore the issue.

    After being called cisgendered repetitively, whilst hearing the term alternatively being used derogatorily (by my friend) with unabashed ease on numerous other occasions describing others, I finally decided to break my silence. My initial reaction: Does anyone actually identify with this term? Or is it just in place for a contrast to the trans definition? Really, the purpose lacks rationale, its a construct of needed validation (I find most terms used to describe peoples sexual/gender identities, gay/lesbian/bi/straight/trans/queer/ect., people actually choose to identify with, this is not the case with “cis”). More so, not only do I not identify with the term, but I find it incredibly offensive and disrespectful to be stripped of my own gender & identity for the sole purpose of validating someone else’s and being told to deal with it. I respectfully told them my troubles with this and asked them to stop calling me “cis,” I also pointed out the hypocrisy in expecting respect with their own gender identity if they will not alternatively respect others preferences. Needless to say, I was met with a sea of abuse, accused of being a transmisogynist, “TERFy,” and criticized for not recognizing my “cis privilege.” Also, I was informed that because I appear hyper-feminine (gender-conforming), and not a masculine-female, that I don’t get to have an opinion in the matter and should just come to terms with it.

    I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around it. I spent the day unable to concentrate on anything else, I was so profoundly disturbed. I switched from bewilderment, to rage, to tears…. I’m still baffled by the sea of emotions this issue has brought upon me. Your article was the only thing that brought me any type of clarity. I mean, I have no problem with transwomen taking part in women’s issues and feminist dialogue, provided they are coming from a place of mutual respect and seeking to elevate women and alleviate our struggles with oppression; I do on the other hand have a big problem with individuals born with the tools of rape & male privilege, hijacking a narrative on women’s life-long experience with masculine oppression, institutional & social sexism, and gender inequality – whilst at the same time spouting offensive stereotypes, sexism, and patriarchal derogatory slurs, all the while expecting us to be okay with it AND silently giving up our status as women. AND THEN TELLING ME I’M PRIVILEGED?! The whole “cis-privilege” concept is incredibly infuriating to me.

    People don’t understand what privilege is, if I have privilege for being a feminine woman then fuck, someone must have it REALLY BAD. I imagine that transwomen wouldn’t think “cis” so privileged if they understood what it felt like to grow up feeling sexism, being raped, or sexually harassed every day of their lives to the degree I & other hyper-feminine women have (and women generally speaking, of course). Every man that has ever been alone with me has made a pass at me, I’ve had high school teachers and the dean of my college try to fuck me, even gay men have tried to sleep with me. I was raped for the first time at 11 and have experienced it multiple times since then, fuck, two guys even picked me up off the street and did it at the same time, and THEN tried to put me in the sex-trade, but I’m privileged for being “cis”? I started lying to boys when I was ten, telling them I had a boyfriend to stop sexual advancement, while simultaneously duct tapping my breast for two years trying to prevent that, AND prevent girls calling me pamela anderson vindictively while torturing me out of jealousy and spite, BUT i’m privileged; Then there’s the constant questioning of my intelligence, inferiority, and sluttiness because of my femininity, by both men & women — I’ve been treated as a sex object, sexually harassed, and demeaned every day of my life since I grew breast, but I’m privileged because I have an “affirmed gender,” bathrooms with lady stick figures (which is ridiculous because that is a safety issue for many women), and men will gladly fuck my different orifices and not freak out at me for having a cock. Wow, I didn’t realize I had it so good…. but hey, this isn’t the oppression Olympics – I suppose I really am privileged.

    Thank you transwomen for making me understand my own privilege in my femininity, I had no idea how privileged I really was until now. Being naturally hyper-feminine has made me so bless. Even if I am more susceptible, and the largest target of sexual violence, rape culture, social & institutional sexism, and degrading & assumptional stereotyping then arguably all other types of women (I experience it almost as much by other women in fact, minus the sexual violence/rape culture), but I’m the one who is most privileged among women, for the very same reasons that cause me to bare the brunt of sexism. On top of which, my voice is refused in this discussion? (and thats not sexism?) I am the woman that transwomen claim to identify with and aim to be akin to, but if they actually identified with me, they would understand this catch-22, and that really, it’s not a “privilege” in our society to be this way, it’s not a rewarded characteristic; its disrespected, abused & demonized.

    I recognize that I am coming at this from a much different perspective than many people, currently hyper-feminine women are often excluded from these kinds of discussions, and feminist dialogue at large, but perhaps I should stop biting my tongue so often with that too as my demographic is so misconceived. Ironically, feminist discussions (a movement and word rooted in femininity) have become spaces where feminine women are the most underrepresented perspective and voice, a place where often we are not met with welcome (despite discussions on issues we face more harshly); at what point was it a requirement for women to reject their natural femininity & possess masculine attributes in order to take a serious part in women’s issues and for our voice to be respected? I could not be masculine even if I tried, nor should I have to; but that does not mean I am weak of mind, without perspective, voice, or a symbol of patriarchy. Most feminists spaces are devoid of the root that united a fight against masculine oppression: femininity. Where did the logic go….. if we erase femininity, we will achieve equality? There seems to be a genuine confusion in understanding gender equality running rampantly about without checks-and-balances.

    I’m rather disgusted with how femininity has become such a frowned upon & dirty thing in our society, to be rejected and not embraced; it is naturally within us, the same as masculinity. The world will never find equality or balance if the feminine is so consistently ignored, rejected, and silenced (a theory at the basis of feminist history). To the disbelief of many, femininity is not a patriarchal construct – we possess it innately & biologically – (hence the existence of transgendered women, and feminine-males) ESTROGEN! Rejecting it will not change that fact, or the overwhelming need for it within this masculine dominated existence. it is something that should be respected as much as masculine characteristics, and not belittled the way it constantly is, often time subconsciously, subtly, and without recognition or care (though often times, its pretty fucking obvious). As an extremely feminine woman, I notice this hypocrisy within feminist dialogue & within our society at large much deeper than many — I guess I’m missing the point in the feminist movement/philosophy now, I thought “feminists” were aiming to make the feminine equal to the masculine, all I see (in large part) is feminine rejection, the feminine turning into the masculine — not the same thing, and NOT GENDER-EQUALITY. People often question why less and less women identify themselves as feminists, well, this is your answer.

    At any rate, I already feel largely excluded from feminist discussion for these reasons, and now with transwomen entering this rhetoric and bringing with them their perspective, and the opinion that gender-conforming womens perspectives are essentially irrelevant, they expect me to be silent because of my femininity (like many other feminists) my perspective is irrelevant because I do not reject my femininity, an apparent construct of masculine submission (an opinion I am not unfamiliar with as demonstrated, however the notion is not without hypocrisy), where do I fit into these discussions? It seems that trans perspective has more of a place within the feminist dialogue then hyper-feminine womens do in many ways, as it stands, I’m not represented or welcomed to participate by either trans or other women on these issues. Perhaps I should join the mens rights activists as a mascot, since I’m so commonly equated with the patriarchy? I’m starting to feel like that is a more fitting place for me, at least there I know where I stand; perhaps I’m not represented in mens spaces either, but at least I am recognized and welcome to an extent. The idea is really not as ludicrous as so many others I hear within “gender equality” and “women’s rights” dialogue these days.

    On our quest for equality we divide ourselves more and more, and its gone to the extent where up has become down, and down has become up; I’m left spinning, not knowing where my place is in this world and in a dialogue that I am an embodiment of. All I know is that it is not right to place labels & stereotypes on others without their consent, and it is unacceptable to silence anyones perspective within gender equality dialogue; no perspective is without meaning or devoid of relevance. Everyone else is given a choice in how they identify, so why am I negated that privilege? Because of my femininity. Why am I negated the privilege of having a voice and my perspective heard or respected within cis/trans dialogue as well as feminist? Because of my femininity. Well that sounds rather familiar actually…. THAT is the epitome of patriarchy & sexism at its finest. I’ve had far too much in my life, so thanks — but I’ll pass. This ridicule has really gone too far. No, I am not just going to learn to accept being called cisgendered and reject all that I am without a choice, that’s like telling transwomen to learn to accept they are men….. probably not going to happen. No one has to agree with what I have to say, but I am entitles and have the right to choose the roles that I play in my life. Most importantly, you may conceive an individual however you choose, but assumptions are not truth, and framing them into politically-correct-terms does not validate their existence. Stop trying to convince me that I have privilege in this sense, I’m that naive; and frankly, you have no idea what the fuck you are talking about.

    ——– I’d like to thank you again for this article Elizabeth as it was one of the few thing that brought me some peace of mind, I apologize for going so far off topic and for the lengthiness/this whole rant in general. (My anger & frustration is not directed at you, I might add) If you have any more insight on the matter or the other topics I touched on, I would appreciate your guidance. I’m still feeling rather lost in a sea of emotions, and having trouble finding my bearings.

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