Nobody’s « Cis »

By Clytemnestre


As certain propositions about transgenderism have solidified into received truth there’s one that needs hard pushback: the non-transgender identity called “cis.”

“Cis” supposedly exists in nature as the opposite of trans identity; Folks who are not trans are supposed to embody and profess this identity.

Underpinning this is the assumption that there’s a thing called gender identity – an inner sense of being male, female or some other sex—that we all have, that is separate from our biological sex, and that can align with it (“cis”) or differ from it (“trans”). None of these ideas correspond to any objective or scientific fact.

No one used to be cis. We were just female or male, if sometimes uncomfortable or confused about it. It is only in the contemporary gender discourse that a binarism needed to be constructed to demarcate and legitimize trans identity.

There are problems with reverse-engineering an identity label and then slapping it on those you hope to constitute as The Other. The first is you end up with a self-serving invention that doesn’t correspond to anything real. Second, you must impose it by fiat on those expected to represent it. Cis, after all, is a term of opprobrium, synonymous with oppression and unearned privilege. No one who is supposed to be cis would voluntarily adopt it.

More importantly, the concept of cis exposes the contradictions at the heart of the trans narrative.

First, it assumes that gender can be identified with biological sex and the gender-normative attributes that society assigns to that sex. Cis is often defined as aligned with one’s birth sex. Although rarely stated outright in simple definitions, critiques of “cis privilege” make it clear that this conformity implies comfort with conventional gender expression associated with one’s birth sex. – for women, presumably a nurturing, empathic disposition and a love of skirts, high heels and false eyelashes.

However elsewhere in its social critique, the trans community would have us believe that gender is fluid and mutable. It has nothing to do with biological sex, and being trans can include, in some cases, no discomfort with one’s given genitals. Furthermore, they’d say, the gender identities of male and female are certainly not reducible to externally “readable” gender norms. But if not, whither “cis”? Or maybe we are all trans…or no one is?

A terrific 2014 essay by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper does the best job I’ve seen of describing the logical train wreck that results when we insist on an idea of gender identity that has nothing to do with either bodies or social roles. I urge you to read it.

To complicate things further, many trans people’s identities do seem to inhere in adopting stereotypical roles and preferences associated with conventional masculinity or femininity. One transgender child in a recent YouTube video says he knew he was a girl because he liked pink and wearing dresses.  And trans celebrities like Caitlin Jenner and Chaz Bono reproduce misogynistic gender stereotypes to project what they must imagine it “feels like” to be a woman or a man.

If being “cis” is about feeling “aligned with” my body, please find me one woman on the planet who fits that description. News flash, trans activists: All women have body issues. Every teenage girl feels like a mutant. At age 14, I even told people I was a boy. Perhaps fortunately, this was before multiple industries were all ready to assure me I’d be happier if I altered my body with hormones and surgery to try and become one.

If it’s about embodying feminine character or personality, what about women who are strong or assertive or dominant? To paraphrase Sojourner Truth, a woman of epic courage and physical strength, and by her own estimation, not possessed of much conventional femininity, aren’t they women?

At this point, the trans discourse falls back on the idea that people have female or male brains which are sometimes lodged in a body of the wrong sex. The science on this has a few different strands that lead in a couple of directions, none of them supportive of this idea, and as result, none of them supportive of a “cis” identity category.

Science has identified differences in certain brain structures of men and women. And some of those differences extend to the brains of trans people, some, but not all, of whom have brains more like the gender they wish to transition to than the one they were born to.

However, many issues remain. The biggest is that ten or so years ago these same findings were trumpeted as proof that that brains could be gay!  Meanwhile, those structural differences are not clearly associated with specific behaviors, feelings or attitudes. Men are a bit more likely to be competitive and good at systems. Women are a bit more likely to be collaborative and better at language-based skills. But it’s not clear how these traits are connected to the structural features, or whether the differences are inborn or shaped by socialization. And nowhere has brain structure been found to predict someone’s subjective sense of gender.

Anyway, how is essentializing gender in the brain better than essentializing it in gonads? Both make gender a physical fact, observable and testable. Should the day come when young people in a gender clinic are subjected to brain scans to determine if they are “really” trans, I doubt trans activists will be so thrilled with the brain/body mismatch argument.

The other problem is that if gender identity is determined by brain structure, we are back in the realm of cultural stereotypes. Because unless the differences in brain structure mean nothing in terms of traits and behaviors we’ve come to associate with males or females (and if not, then why would we be talking about them at all), then we must be suggesting they “cause” people to “feel” masculine or feminine in the ways that those terms are conventionally understood. We’re back to saying that when brains and bodies are aligned (cis), the person acts according to the expected gender stereotype. But in reality, most are fine with their birth sex and yet have a mix of masculine and feminine qualities. So much for gendered brains and “alignment.”

The whole cis project collapses at this point, and so does the trans project. It’s not popular to say so, but where this leaves us is a place where trans people are folks who just really want to be the opposite sex and be perceived by others as the opposite sex. Or if not the opposite sex, then some hybrid or imaginary sex other than the one they were born to. No universal inner truth. No mystical essence. Just a heartfelt wish, one that requires our sympathy, if not our agreement that it can be realized.

But the idea of cis as a gender identity is a non-starter: It’s both false and logically incoherent. As a society, we need to lose it, now. Don’t call me cis.

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