Am I cisgender?

IMG_2163NB: You can also read this post in Spanish or in Portuguese.

I am a woman. This is something I have never questioned. It is something I know with almost complete certainty.

A couple of years ago, if you had asked me how I know that I’m a woman, then – after I had stopped looking at you in bewilderment at being asked such a daft question – I am pretty sure that I would have given you an answer that made reference to facts about my physical body, my biology. I would have mentioned my secondary sex characteristics: the fact that I have breasts and a vagina; the fact that I menstruate, and from this can infer that I have ovaries and a uterus; the fact that I tend to carry my body fat on my buttocks, thighs and hips. This would have been an answer that is in part empirical, appealing to a scientific account of what features define females of the human species, and in part linguistic, relying on an assumption that the word “woman” has a widely shared, collectively understood meaning: an adult human female.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read a lot more feminist writing than I had previously, and become much more immersed in contemporary theories of gender. And I now know that for some people, such an answer to the question “how do you know you’re a woman?” would be unacceptable. It would be pointed out that these biological facts are neither necessary nor sufficient for me to conclude that I am a woman, because some women do not have breasts or a vagina, and some people who have breasts and a vagina are not women. So what other answer might I give? The only other response that makes any sense to me is to say that I know that I am a woman because everybody I meet treats me as if I were a woman, and they always have done. When I was born, my parents gave me a name that is only ever given to girls. They referred to me using feminine pronouns, and others followed suit. They dressed me in clothes that our culture deems appropriate for girls, and let my hair grow long. As I grew older, those I met took those markers as evidence that I was a girl – and later, a woman – and treated me accordingly. I was praised and rewarded when I acted in ways deemed typically feminine, and faced social sanction and recrimination when my behaviour was more masculine. This is what feminists call female socialisation, and its manifestations are myriad and ubiquitous. So if I had to explain how I know I’m a woman, without making reference to my female body, I would say “I know I’m a woman, because everyone treats me like one”.

Something I’ve learned from the frontlines of the contemporary gender wars is that I’m not just a woman; I am apparently a “cisgender” woman. Being cisgender, or cis, is considered a form of structural advantage, and therefore I have privilege over those who are not cis. When I first encountered this word, I was informed that it simply means “not-trans”, and performs the same function as the word “heterosexual” does – it serves to give a label to the majority group so that they are not the norm against which others are defined as a deviation. Everybody has a sexual orientation, and so we should all have a label to describe it, not just the people whose orientation makes them a minority. It seems a reasonable and laudable aim to have such a word, and so when I first encountered it, I was happy to call myself cis. But am I really cisgender? Is this a term that can be meaningfully applied to me – or indeed, to anyone?

I was happy to call myself cis, if what this means is not-trans, because I assumed that I wasn’t trans. I assumed that I wasn’t trans because I have no dysphoria about my sexed body – I can live in my female body without discomfort, suffering, or anguish. Actually, that isn’t true, and I suspect it isn’t true for most women. As a woman raised in a culture that constantly bombards women with the message that their bodies are unacceptable, even disgusting, I feel an enormous amount of distress and dis-ease living in my female body, in a way that has shaped my life and continues to do so every day. What I really mean is that I have never felt that the discomfort and unhappiness I feel living in a female body would be eased if that body were male instead. While my female body is a continual source of shame and suffering for me, I’ve never felt the desire to alter it to make it less female, to undergo treatment or surgery to make my body more closely resemble a male body. Therefore, I assumed that I wasn’t trans. And so if I’m not trans, I must be cis.

But for many people, this is not actually what it means to be cis, because this is not what it means to be trans. I had incorrectly assumed that to be trans, one must to some degree experience what is usually called gender dysphoria but would be better called sex dysphoria – a feeling of distress and anguish caused by living in one’s sexed body. However, changing discourse within transgender politics insists that dysphoria should no longer be considered necessary for a person to be trans; you can be trans, even if you are perfectly comfortable and happy in the body you were born in, and have no desire to change it. This came as a surprise to me, and it’s obviously hugely significant, because if cis means not-trans, then we need to know what trans means. And I suspect most people will have shared my assumption that it involves dysphoria about one’s sexed body. So what might it mean to be trans, if not this?

The term “transgender” seems to be used in a variety of different ways and understood by different people to mean different things. One popular definition states that “transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth”. This posits the existence of something called a “gender identity”, which is usually defined as something like “someone’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman”, or “a person’s private sense, and subjective experience, of their own gender”. So then trans people are trans because there is a mismatch between their internal sense of their own gender and the gender norms typically associated with the sex they were born into.

Perhaps some people have a gender identity. Perhaps some people do have an internal sense of their own gender, a subjective, personal feeling that they are a man or woman, and perhaps they can describe and make sense of this without reference to either their physical bodies, or the socially constructed norms about how people with those bodies should behave. But I honestly don’t have this. I don’t have an internal sense of my own gender. If you ask me how I know that I’m a woman, I have to make reference either to my female secondary sex characteristics, or to the social implications of being read as a person who has these characteristics. I don’t experience my gender as an internal essence, a deep and unalterable facet of my identity. Maybe some people do, although I am sceptical as to how they could describe and explain that without reference to socially constructed gender roles. But I can concede for the sake of argument that some people might experience a form of subjective mental state that I don’t.

That would all be ok, if I were actually permitted to deny that I have a gender identity. But I am not. The purpose of the label cis is to demonstrate that being trans is not abnormal or deviant, but just one of the many gender identities that all people have. In order to perform the function it is supposed to perform, cis must be a label that refers to the presence of a specific gender identity, not just a lack of one. To be trans is to have a gender identity, one that differs from those typically associated with the sex you were assigned at birth. And if you’re not trans, then you are cis, which is also a gender identity. And so if trans people have a gender identity that differs from the gender norms for their assigned sex, then presumably cis people have an internal sense of their own gender that is largely aligned with the gender norms associated with the sex they were born into.

But I do not have a deep, personal sense of my own gender. I have things I like to do and to wear. And of course, many of the things I like to do and wear are things that are typically aligned with womanhood. But I didn’t come to like those things in a cultural or social vacuum, but against a backdrop of powerful social messages about what kinds of things women ought to like, so it’s no surprise that I should come to like some of these things. And anyway, I don’t feel that these things reflect anything deep, essential or natural about my identity. They are just my tastes and preferences. Had I been raised in a different culture, I might have had different ones, but I would still have been basically the same person.

Furthermore, just like all other persons, a lot of the stuff I like to do and to wear is not stuff that is stereotypically feminine. A lot of the things I like and enjoy are things that are usually regarded as masculine. Just like everybody else, I’m not a one-dimensional gender stereotype, and while there are some aspects of what is traditionally associated with womanhood that I enjoy and participate in, there are many others that I reject as painful, oppressive and limiting. Even on those occasions when I consciously and deliberately participate in performing femininity, by wearing makeup or typically feminine clothes, I don’t see this as me expressing my gender identity; rather, I am conforming to (perhaps even while simultaneously modifying and challenging) a socially constructed ideal of what woman is. And furthermore, once it’s decoupled from traditional, restrictive notions about what it is appropriate for people of different sexes to do, it’s not clear why it makes sense to call any of this stuff “gender”, as opposed to just “stuff I like” or “my personality”.

It’s presumably due to the realisation that many people do not wholeheartedly and unquestioningly identify with the gender norms typically attributed to their sex that a whole range of other gender identities has emerged – if you don’t have a deep internal sense that you are either a man or a woman, you can identify as “non-binary” or “genderqueer” or “pangender”, which allows you to identify with those aspects of both traditional masculinity and femininity that you endorse and enjoy, and to reject the rest. (It’s not clear whether non-binary or genderqueer people are to be considered as coming under the trans umbrella or not: opinions seem to differ on that score). Again, I am sceptical as to how the case could be made that this is a deeply held and unalterable identity, because any description of one’s non-binary gender identity will inevitably make reference to socially constructed gender roles (and it’s notable that most non-binary males express this by experimenting with feminine clothing and appearance, rather than by an insatiable desire to do the domestic chores typically associated with womanhood). But perhaps there really are people who have a deep, personal, internal sense of their gender as an essence that is both masculine and feminine, or neither, in a way that is meaningfully something different from just “not being a one-dimensional gender stereotype”. But I’m not one of them. Despite the fact that I endorse some bits of masculinity and femininity and reject others, I don’t call myself genderqueer or non-binary, because none of this represents a deep, unalterable essence or facet of my identity. So since I’m not trans, and I’m not non-binary or genderqueer, then I am told I must be cis, by default.

So the only option available to me, if I want to reject the label cis, is to pick some other gender identity. I am not permitted to deny that I have a gender identity at all. But this is in itself oppressive. It makes false assertions about the subjective experience of many people – people like me who do not feel as if we have a deep, internal sense of our own gender, and whose primary experience of gender is as a coercive, externally imposed set of constraints, rather than an essential aspect of our personal identity. It forces us to define ourselves in ways we don’t accept (and, as I’m now learning, if we refuse to define ourselves in this way, this is attributed to bigotry and a lack of empathy for trans people, rather than a reasonable rejection of what being cis entails). If “cisgender” were a description of a medical condition, characterised by an absence of sex dysphoria, then I would accept that I am cis. But if cisgender is a gender identity, which it appears to be, then I am not cis, because I do not have a gender identity. I am a woman. But it’s not because deep down, I feel like one. Because deep down, I just feel like a person.

74 thoughts on “Am I cisgender?

  1. Hi Rebecca. Could you possibly cite some sources or examples for “changing discourse within transgender politics insists that dysphoria should no longer be considered necessary for a person to be trans”?


    1. The definition of trans I gave above – someone whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth – is a fairly standard definition. I took it from the GLAAD website, but I think it’s quite commonly held. That definition makes no reference to dysphoria – it only makes reference to “gender identity”, one’s internal sense of one’s gender, not matching the gender norms associated with one’s biological sex.

      If you haven’t come across the word “truscum”, then googling that might be an…. enlightening experience.

      Liked by 5 people

  2. I think right now feminism has a huge problem with too much online visibility, to the point that people feel they can’t participate if they don’t have an opinion on cutting-edge terminological debates or agree with the latest talking point on twitter or tumblr.

    But then, what else is there in current feminism? I get thirty letters a week from worthy causes seeking my time and support, and not a one of them is feminist. If you look around the off-line world, at least my corner of it, feminism is conspicuously absent.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Agree wholeheartedly. I don’t want to be defined as cis. It’s not an identity or label I choose for myself. And, in the same way I wouldn’t use a label or identity to describe someone else that they themselves were not happy with (e.g. if you identify as trans, or anything, then that is what I’ll use, out of respect for you), I don’t expect other people to use a label about me I don’t choose or identify with. More to the point, I think humanity has bigger issues to fight that are oppressing ALL women and girls, and the more we look inwards, the less energy we have to fight the big fights. Those 200 schoolgirls are still missing, while we argue about whether to use words like cis.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Something else we need to remember is that we know nothing about the people involved in these online debates. Folks started complaining about twitter feminism last year; well, that’s about the time the trolls on 4chan began to boast about infiltrating the feminist twitter community, posing as extremists to foment conflict. And people who are more willing to delve into tumblr than I am point out that many of the language police on there are about 15 years old.

      I don’t think anybody has a right to demand that you use a sexual label, or to apply such a label to you. Why not just refuse it, and let people who wonder about your sexuality make up an answer they like? I’ve found that works really well, in that they come up with far more interesting stuff than I would have.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Thanks for this very articulately presented set of ideas on cis and trans.

    I wonder what your comments would be in relation to the Tavistock centre, which runs a service named the Gender Identity Development Service, and which seems to take the stance that everyone develops a gender identity as part of normal development.

    “I had incorrectly assumed that to be trans, one must to some degree experience what is usually called gender dysphoria but would be better called sex dysphoria – a feeling of distress and anguish caused by living in one’s sexed body.”

    My understanding of the “changing discourse within transgender politics” slightly different from yours. Adherents to the nhe new politics, when referring to trans, are describing sex-specific pronoun dysphoria. This is a feeling of distress and anguish caused by being identified as and referred to using the pronoun ([as the politics would have it] traditionally/typically/retrogressively/unnecessarily) associated with one’s sexed body, rather than caused by the sexed body itself. In the new discourse, to be trans, one must experence sex-specific pronoun dysphora. There is room for those who wish to be called ‘woman’ and do not wish to alter their (traditionally viewed as) male sex organs. The personal relationship with the sex-specific pronoun takes precedence over the personal relationship with one’s sexed body, when it comes to the dysphoria that differentiates cis and trans. Regardless of the body itself, if one does not experience distress and anguish at being referred to using the pronoun (traditionally) associated with one’s sexed body, it follows that one must be cis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems that the strategy the NHS is adopting there is a pragmatic one. How can we tell is someone is trans? They have dysphoria about sex-specific pronouns. But presumably, the notion of gender identity is lurking in the background there, unexamined. Why would you feel distress and anguish about having certain linguistic pronouns applied to you? In most cases, because you have sex dysphoria.

      If you have distress and anguish about masculine or feminine pronouns, and yet have no sex dysphoria, presumably that’s because you believe you have a gender identity that is the different from the one those pronouns assign to you. I can understand the NHS approach as a pragmatic account of what it means to be trans, if not to have sex dysphoria; but as far as I can see it still needs to assume gender identity to get off the ground.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree. My point was that not only is the NHS’s approach assuming gender identity, but it is an extrapolation of the new trans politics’: that all children have a gender identity, and that gender dysphoric children’s identity has just not developed in the usual way, much the same way as delayed speech or motor skills. It places having a gender identity in the list of universal childhood milestones (first word, first steps etc.) which all children are measured against by health professionals they come into contact with.

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  5. Thanks for this very lucid explanation. I suspect that it’s probably my fault if I still don’t quite get it

    My main difficulty, as a cis person, is your denial that you have a sense of gender identity. You describe very clearly your feelings about being a woman – how they are bound up with biology and social roles – and then say that you don’t experience this as an “internal essence” separable from those things. But I wonder what a sense of “gender identity” could possibly be, for a “cis person”, if not the things you describe. So I conclude that not only do you have a gender identity, but you have managed to express with great eloquence just what having a “cis identity” actually feels like.

    What else could a “gender identity” consist in? What mysterious quality X could it be if it is unrelated to either biology or the way in which society treats you? Well, you might be Trans. If you were, you would presumably have a distinct sense of gender identity that was different from those things, indeed that existed in contradistinction from those things. My guess is that having a “distinct gender identity” in that sense is what defines a trans person: it is an internal sense that develops or exists (I’m not sure which) in the context of a conflict between the assumptions of nature or society and what the person feels themselves to be “deep down”. But a cis person doesn’t have that tension, even if they have other gender-related discomforts. So of course they lack this third thing, “gender identity” that exists in isolation from the external manifestations of gender, because in their case (in mine and in yours) there is no contradiction. You could say that’s what makes them “cis”.

    So I’m not sure, again, why you would deny having a gender identity. Perhaps the problem is with the word “identity” itself. Would “orientation” be better? Identity suggests that it more significant than it actually is, perhaps. That it somehow central. Whereas if there is no tension, gender is rarely central to a sense of self. Similarly, I can’t really relate to sexual identity as a thing. Heterosexual does not define who I am: it’s just that, predominantly, people I have been sexually attracted to have belonged to the opposite sex. As gay rights have been mainstreamed, it is to be hoped that this sense of normality has been and will be experienced by more and more gay people, until gay “identity” eventually seems as irrelevant a concept as “cis identity” does to almost all cis people.

    Is it necessary to have a full description of “trans” in order to know what “cis” is? I’m not sure it is, actually. I’m happy to take trans people’s dissatisfaction with their assigned sex/gender at face value, and allow them to define themselves. I’m less sure that trans/cis is a true dichotomy: but that is about whether non-binary identity is a form of trans identity or a third (fourth, fifth, nth) thing, not whether “cis” exists.

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    1. I deny that I have a gender identity because I don’t have an “internal, personal” sense of being a woman, which is the definition of gender identity that is invoked in current definitions of what it means to be trans. See here:

      I don’t feel like a woman. I feel like a person, a person who likes certain things and dislikes others. I can’t really make sense of what it might mean to feel like a woman, actually. I don’t know how anyone could give a description of the subjective mental state of feeling like a woman, without falling back on appeal to social norms about the kinds of things that women are expected to do and to be. But I can’t rule out that there is some subjective mental state of “feeling like a woman” that other people experience and I don’t; I don’t have any access to their inner world.

      So on the trans politics view of what gender identity is, I don’t have one. If you want to define it as something else – just the recognition that I fall into the class of persons called women – then of course, in that sense I “identify” as a woman. But that is not what the people who talk about “gender identity” mean when they use that term. Yes, I believe I am a woman, and that’s because I’ve got female biology which means socially I am read and treated as a woman, and so in this sense being a woman is part of my identity; but I don’t have the as you rightly call it “mysterious quality X” which is a gender identity.

      That would be ok if I were permitted not to have one, but I’m not. The word cisgender is intended to universalise the notion of having a gender identity and claims that cis people have one. You suggest that having a gender identity is distinct to trans people, and you might be right, but if that is so, it makes no sense to describe yourself as cisgender, since cisgender picks out a specific gender identity, namely one where your internal sense of yourself as a man aligns with the gender norms associated with the sex you were born into. Your suggestion is a useful one and one I could probably get on board with – trans people have a gender identity, cis people don’t – but then the word cis doesn’t perform the function it is intended to. It is designed to normalise the experience of being trans by insisting that everyone has a gender identity, and the difference between that of trans people and cis people is that for trans people, this doesn’t match what society tells them about how people with their biology should behave. But the corollary of this is that for cis people, our subjective experience of our gender does align with what society tells us about how people with our biology should behave; but of course, that’s the very reason I call myself a feminist. Because I reject so much about what our culture and social norms tell us about what it means to be a woman.

      We are told that cis just means “not trans”. If so – if I am going to be defined by reference to some other group, and have that label assigned to me whether I like it or not – then yes, I do think we need a full description of what it means to be trans. And all persons have an interest in participating in that discussion, since it is to define us all. You have called yourself cis in your comment, but how do you know that you are? I assumed I was cis when I believed that meant “not suffering from sex dysphoria”. But now I realise that being trans doesn’t require you to have any dysphoria at all, and so I’ve no idea what it means, particularly when I come across things like women who look a hell of lot like “cis women” calling themselves “AFAB femme presenting genderqueer”, which in practical terms looks pretty indistinguishable to the women they are labelling cis. You might be happy to be labelled by reference to some other group, without there being any clear definition of what that group is, but I’m not. I want the right to define myself in my own terms. Perhaps this has more salience for women, since historically we’ve always been defined by reference to others, rather than being allowed to define ourselves. That is one of the things that feminism has fought for, and I don’t much feel like giving it up.

      None of this would matter much if it had no political import, but it does. Women are an oppressed sex class, yet are being denied the tools they need to self-define and self-organise. Women are being told that they are oppressors of a group of people which is entirely self-defined, and we are told that we must define ourselves by reference to that group. The only possible form of liberation is to join in that game, apparently. I was told yesterday on twitter by someone that it sounds like I am “agender”. So then what I should do is self-define as an AFAB femme presenting agender person. Then I could claim that all the cis women are oppressing me, because they identify with and conform to gender roles and I don’t! This option allows me to slip through the bars of the cage, while leaving the cage perfectly intact and all the other women remaining trapped inside it. (Actually, it doesn’t even do that. You can’t identify your way out of a cage. You can’t identify your way out of an oppression that is material in basis, as gender based oppression is. No amount of me calling myself agender is going to stop people seeing me as and treating me as a member of the inferior sex class.)

      The glaringly obvious and ironic thing about people calling themselves “non-binary” is that it creates a false binary between people who accept the gender binary and conform to gender norms, and those who don’t. Everybody is non-binary. Nobody is a one-dimensional gender stereotype. I like crochet and I also like boxing. Does this make me non-binary? Yes, but so is everyone, so I don’t need the label. It’s not part of my identity, it’s a fact about people. It is almost as if this group of people who want to see themselves as gender revolutionaries require there to be another group of gender conforming cis women, and so have created the category to define themselves against. But again, I don’t see why I should be defined by reference to someone else’s self-definition. And if non-binary people, especially those born and raised male, really wanted to queer gender, they could start by doing some of the domestic and emotional labour usually assigned to women. Now that really would be revolutionary.

      Liked by 16 people

      1. I think that your original post, and this reply, really articulates what I feel about feminism in relation to all sexes and genders: I’m female and straight, but I’ve also been a tomboy since I was old enough to make choices about what I wanted to play with or wear. I don’t do jewellery or heels, but I like pretty things, as well as football, and my favourite form of exercise is boxing.

        This feeling of being “non-binary” (in that I didn’t feel comfortable with the widely accepted and promoted idea of what it is to be a girl) has been a source of anxiety and concern for me since before I began secondary school, but which was exacerbated then – though, like Becca, I’ve never wished that I were male instead.

        Similarly, many of my male friends (all feminists!) reject the gender binary, and I know that their tastes, sensitivities and preferences ensured that they felt as awkward and uncomfortable at school as I felt. Again, that doesn’t make them “non-binary”; it just means that the notion of the binary is far too limiting.

        I suppose I don’t really understand why such generalisations and stereotypes are being used, and again I agree with Becca: if the term “cis” came about because people identifying as “trans” were saying “I don’t identify with them”, then we need to know what it is they don’t identify with . . . though chances are, many “cis” people won’t identify with those things either.

        The problem, then, is minority groups feeling they must define themselves *against* social majorities. I feel that in Western society we’re only just dealing with the idea that being female isn’t just being “not male” (or “the opposite of being male”), so creating more binary definitions doesn’t seem to be useful.

        Sorry for the length – it’s an interesting subject, and I have a tendency to think aloud!

        Liked by 8 people

      2. Thank you so much for writing this comment and this blog, you’ve beautifully expressed everything I’ve been feeling about the way the word “cis” is used. It is such a relief to know that other women feel the way I do about the concept of gender identity – that it’s offensive and dangerous to insist that my deep and personal identity is one of subservience.

        I have no deep, innate desire to perform femininity and suggesting otherwise is extremely problematic. The reason any female person performs femininity is that it has been foisted on us from birth and continues to be enforced by society to varying degrees.

        If trans women truly have a deep, innate need to perform femininity and be perceived as women, then they are nothing like any born female I know. We would be utterly thrilled to be perceived as people.

        Liked by 9 people

  6. So this is an interesting line from Nelson Jones’ comment above:

    ” I’m happy to take trans people’s dissatisfaction with their assigned sex/gender at face value”

    What he’s obviously not happy to do is take a woman’s (in this case, Becca’s) description of her own experience of gender at face value. (And yes, I noticed that he described himself as “cis”, but given that in the gender caste system to be a “cis man” is to be content in your identification with the dominant sex class, it’s clear that there are very different values attached to “cis” for a woman.) And this is very interesting, because the habit of denying women’s subjectivity and dismissing them *because they are female* runs very deep in patriarchal society, and the claim that cis women have a gender identity they are incapable of recognising is the purest example I can imagine of the chauvinistic reasoning that women’s insight is impoverished *by dint of being female*.

    Unsurprisingly, I reject this reasoning. I reject the analogy with “straight”, too. When Jones writes “I can’t really relate to sexual identity as a thing. Heterosexual does not define who I am: it’s just that, predominantly, people I have been sexually attracted to have belonged to the opposite sex,” he is describing a positive phenomenon (sexual attraction) that he observes in himself, and relates to a class identity. That class identity is indeed generally rendered invisible in our culture because it is conforms to the dominant norm, but the experience of sexuality is something he obviously has. Likewise, I experience sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex, and so I recognise that I have a sexuality and that sexuality is straight. But I do not feel anything that I could recognise as gender identity: there is no positive, internal feeling of “being a woman”. As Becca says, I just feel like a person. And that is the issue with the concept of “cis”: within a patriarchal system, female humans are not deemed to be “people” but instead to be partial and contingent on their relationship with male humans. “Cis” is simply a reformulation of that dynamic.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Of course I’m happy to take Becca’s self description at face value. It’s just that I don’t see why it doesn’t constitute a “gender identity”. What else could the phrase “gender identity” possibly mean? Fairly simple point I think. An argument about the meaning of language.

      As to the rest, I don’t see my self-perception as essentially different. I have almost zero attachment to conventional notions of masculinity, and I’m certainly not “comfortable” with them, as many men undoubtedly are; I don’t think that makes me “non-cis” because that’s not my understanding of how the term is used by the vast majority of people I have observed using the term.

      It’s possible, I suggest, that the notion of “gender identity” as it is being objected to is simply a mistaken assumption by some trans writers as to how people who are non-trans/cis (women or men) perceive themselves. In which case, by all means try to explain it, as Becca has done lucidly here. But why deny that it constitutes an “identity”?

      It’s like saying “I’m British, therefore British is my national identity”. It doesn’t imply I go around with a solid sense of Britishness, that British is at the core of who I am. It’s a simple statement of reality.

      I too just feel like a person. But then I imagine trans people do likewise.


      1. Well if you don’t see what could constitute a gender identity and if you think it might be a “mistaken assumption”, then you now agree with Becca and me: we also don’t see what could constitute an essential interior feeling of gender either. (And now you’ve suggested that gender identity might be a “mistaken assumption”, I think you have the answer to the question “why deny having a gender identity” that you put to Becca above.)

        Gender identity or “subconscious sex” is a theory developed by trans theorists (Julia Serano is probably the most notable exponent) to explain the trans experience; but it’s by no means the only explanation for that experience, nor is such an explanation necessary, given that people are entitled to live as they are happy *so long as they don’t harm or oppress others*. Feminism, on the other hand, traditionally rejects the idea that gender reflects inherent sexed properties and analyses it as a class system through which males are socialised to dominate and females to submit. If gender identity doesn’t make sense to you, congratulations, you might be a radical feminist.

        I don’t just think that the radical feminist analysis of gender contradicts gender identity theory: I’d go further and say I think gender identity theory demonstrates the truth of the radfem analysis, because it is so often used to tell women what we are and insist we submit to an external vision of our interior experiences. Incidentally, that explains why some men find it so hard to accept feminist critiques of the word “cis”: because, whether they recognise it or not, designating women “cis” (and so confirming the status of female humans as an inferior sex-class) is a powerful way for men to enact their privilege as males in this society.

        Liked by 7 people

      2. Nelson Jones – I don’t really understand where you think we disagree. It seems from your comments that you agree with me that the notion of “gender identity”, where this means some internal essence or mysterious property that is independent of both biological sex and gendered socialisation, does not really exist, at least not for me or for you. It is that notion of gender identity – gender as an essence, or in Serano’s language, “subconscious sex” – that I am objecting to. You agree with me that you and I don’t have that. So where’s our disagreement?

        You call yourself cis, but why would you call yourself that unless you feel that you have a male gender identity, that your “subconscious sex” is male? As I tried to explain in the post, according to the current orthodoxy in transgender identity politics, cisgender does NOT mean “someone who doesn’t suffer from sex dysphoria”. This is because we are told that people can be trans without having any dysphoria about their bodies at all. Transgender is not the same as transsexual. Transgender is much, much broader than this now, and encompasses people with no desire to alter their bodies in any way. So the definition of cis as “not trans” does not mean “not having dysphoria”. It means “having a gender identity that is aligned with the gender norms associated with your biological sex”. If you don’t think you have a gender identity, understood in this deep, essential sense, you shouldn’t be happy to be called cis.

        You are responding as if it is me who has dreamed up this meaning of gender identity; that I have created a strawman that nobody really believes in. But I haven’t. The notion of gender identity as an internal sense of your gender, independent of your biological sex and your socialisation, is central to current thinking in trans identity politics. If you dispute that notion, then we are in agreement. Perhaps we should be arguing for redefining trans to mean something narrower. As I said at the end of my post, I am happy to accept a label that means “not transsexual” or “not suffering from sex dysphoria”. But I am not happy to accept a label that implies my alignment with a set of norms about how women should behave that I absolutely do not endorse.

        Liked by 6 people

      3. — “It’s like saying “I’m British, therefore British is my national identity”. It doesn’t imply I go around with a solid sense of Britishness, that British is at the core of who I am. It’s a simple statement of reality.”

        Actually it’s a simple statement of a *lack* of reality: in this conception, the identity of the vast majority of women would be defined via what they do not feel (a strong sense of gender identification). Metaphysically, this is not even two steps removed from Aristotle saying that women are “failed or lacking humans”, inert in their objectivity (from ‘being an object’, not ‘being objective’) & requiring a man’s seed as the active component of germinating a full human. Seen in this light, gender theory is not so much a two-millennial step back, but a slump into comfortable platitudes about what ‘woman’ is. Lazy, sexist, and wrong.

        Liked by 10 people

    2. I wish I’d read this first before I commented above – you’ve put things I was attempting to think through much more succinctly!

      And yes, I noticed the commenter above telling Becca what her identity is! > “So I conclude that not only do you have a gender identity, but you have managed to express with great eloquence just what having a “cis identity” actually feels like.”

      I can’t imagine that any of my male friends would write anything as dismissive as that, but I would like to say that though many would be termed “cis”, “straight” and thus part of what you call the “dominant norm”, I think they have still been oppressed and frustrated (and bullied) by this same “dominant norm” by virtue of being people, rather than belonging to a fixed, binary notion of what it is to be a man.

      I don’t say this in order to equate the oppression of these men with centuries of subjugation of women, but to emphasise the unhelpfulness of any kind of socially-imposed binary distinctions on the progress of feminism, which will necessarily be liberating for anyone who doesn’t easily slot into the gender binary.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. I would like to suggest a different analogy, and I only want to speak about myself (a cis woman). A good analogy, I think, is nationality. I am English, and this works on three levels:

      1) my passport says so (the equivalent of assigned sex at birth)

      2) I feel inherently English in some weird, deep down way that matters to me, and that I can’t quite explain or justify. But…if I suddenly decided to move to Denmark and live there for the rest of my life, I would never feel I was Danish. I would always be English. I just am English. (This I see as the equivalent of gender identity/sense of internal gender.)

      3) English people are socialised in certain ways, and certain things are expected of them: stiff upper lip, politeness, self-deprecation, etc, etc. I do not always (or even often, probably) fit these English stereotypes – however, even when not fitting in with them, I am still English. (Equivalent of gender norms/socialisation.)

      This sums up my attitude to the cis thing. So, I am and have always been biologically female, I definitely feel that I am a woman – very much so. If I were to be kidnapped by evil doctors and turned physically into a man, I would still not be one. I have a very strong gender identity/essence that tells me I’m a woman. However, some of the norms associated with womanhood are things I think are nonsense and so I ignore them and do what I want instead, e.g.: I’ve never even considered sacrificing/toning down my career in order to be the family drudge. I don’t feel obliged to lose weight or dress to please men. There are many other examples. But even while working 14 hour days while someone else looks after my kids (like a typical man, some might say!) I am still, internally, very much a woman.

      So…this was a longwinded way of me saying that I disagree with the original blog post in one way: I disagree with ‘most women don’t feel like women’. I’ve never asked anyone, but my guess would be that more than 50% of women would say that they feel a strong ‘woman’ identity, even while rejecting any sexist nonsense.

      I would also like to ask one question: if you believe there are only two real things – biological sex and gender norms – and if you also believe that there’s no such thing as ‘sense of gender essence/identity’ separate from socialised gender norms, then surely you would, by logical extension, have to argue that trans people’s feeling that they are NOT the gender they were assigned at birth, despite having that body in many cases, is somehow made up/invalid? Or, to put it another way, surely the existence of trans people proves that at least some people DO have a strong sense of gender essence, separate from socialised gender norms. People born with male bodies can think, ‘No. I’m sorry, I am not a man. I am a woman.’ I have that same feeling – that I am, unquestionably and in every way, a woman. And I was born with a female body. That’s why I’m happy to be defined as cis. It doesn’t mean I’d be happy to be raped, subjugated, made to look after small children etc etc.

      Re gender as class system, I think it can be that and also be an internal essence thing too! Eg: I am a woman (biologically and psychologically/essence-wise). I would like to be treated as equal to men, but if my society doesn’t treat me as equal to men, then my group (women) is being treated as second-class. I can reject the second-class treatment without saying, ‘I’m not a member of that group after all’, surely? It’s the difference between ‘I am X, and I am just as good as you, so don’t treat us Xs badly’ and ‘You’re treating Xs badly? Then in that case, I am not X.’

      It seems to me a key point here would be to actually find out if Becca’s right or if I’m right about whether most women feel that they have a psychological identity of ‘woman’ over and above their physical body. I’d bet most would say yes, but I could be wrong! But until we know what most would say, we are missing crucial information, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a deeply flawed analogy I’m afraid. I was born in the USSR – a national entity that no longer exists. I became stateless at 5 and the place in which I was born did not become an independent national state until I was 18. I am not and was not invited to be a citizen of that country (Azerbaijan). I am neither ethnically nor religiously kin to the legitimate citizens of Azerbaijan – being a Jew of European extraction. I lived in Israel from the age of 6 to 26 and am a national of that country. However I have never felt like I truly belonged there and never felt the sense of “deep down” national identity you describe. I have lived in the UK and/or Ireland for the past 15 years. I don’t now, and don’t expect myself in the future, to feel a deep down identity as a British, English or Irish person. Especially since the first of those is a deeply contested identity that not all British people agree on.

        I’m not telling you this for your entertainment, but to demonstrate that I have, quite legitimately, no national identity. And the reason I have no national identity and you do is not because I’m somehow deeply unlucky and flawed, but because in the world as it was during most of the 20th century and to this day, to have been born and died as the uncontested citizen of one nation state, linguistically, culturally, ethnically and religiously coherent and stable, is a monumentally rare privilege. You and other English people (many of whom, in my experience, tend to think that they’re just ‘normal’ and people with complicated migration histories are freaks) are the global outliers. Very lucky global outliers.

        What your argument is doing is trying to claim that a minority privileged experience is in fact universal. This is the opposite of a well developed moral imagination; it is a position from which social justice cannot proceed. I would contend that at least some of the theorising around gender identity, especially by MTF transgender academics like Serano, makes the same error, born out of insufficient empathy with the theorised object (in this case women) and an inability to relate to it as a subject in its own right (which we, in other words, call patriarchy).

        Liked by 9 people

      2. I am pretty sure that the people arguing for the existence of a gender identity would not be happy at all with the suggestion that it is analogous to national identity.

        The reason I “feel British”, if indeed I do, is because I was raised here and have lived her all my life, immersed in British culture and social norms. You are right, if I moved to Denmark I wouldn’t feel Danish, no matter how well immersed in the culture I became, because I was not socialised as a Dane.

        Imagine I told you now that despite having not been born in Peru or spent any time there, I had an internal national identity as a Peruvian, and that you, as a Briton who feels British, are cisnational, whereas I, as someone raised in Britain but who feels Peruvian, am transnational, and you have cisnationality privilege over me. That would be pretty silly.

        If you think this is an offensive argument, as many people do, it must be because you think gender is somehow more innate and essential than national identity is, and that one can feel like a woman without having been raised as a woman, even though one can’t feel like a Peruvian without having been raised as a Peruvian.

        Liked by 8 people

      3. “English people are socialised in certain ways, and certain things are expected of them: stiff upper lip, politeness, self-deprecation, etc, etc. I do not always (or even often, probably) fit these English stereotypes – however, even when not fitting in with them, I am still English. (Equivalent of gender norms/socialisation.)”

        This is a difficult analogy anyway, but why does this analogy then proceed to you moving to Denmark? That’s not the equivalent of trans gender politics in action. Transgender politics minimises the effect of socialisation, minimises the effects of biology and focuses only on identity. Sex dysphoria is not necessary in order to be a transgender man or woman.

        The analogy you gave would mirror transgender politics more closely if, despite having never moved to Denmark and (and this is the important bit) having no wish to move to Denmark, your national identity ever since childhood has been Danish. You wish others to refer to you as a Dane, let you join Danish political groups, let you stand in Danish elections, agree with you that your needs are the same as cis-Danish people’s needs, and also agree with you that cis-Danes oppress trans-Danes.

        Liked by 4 people

  7. “The glaringly obvious and ironic thing about people calling themselves “non-binary” is that it creates a false binary between people who accept the gender binary and conform to gender norms, and those who don’t. Everybody is non-binary. Nobody is a one-dimensional gender stereotype.”

    You know, this hadn’t really occurred to me before, socialised as I have been to read my ‘internal, personal’ personality as Genderqueer, simply because it doesn’t conform to a culturally constructed spectrum of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – but this post is really thought-provoking and well written; why do I call myself that? Because my personality does not fit into the social system designed to segregate those two things into essentialist characteristics based on genitalia. So, is there a difference between a ‘gender role’ and a ‘gender identity’? I don’t know, I’m still working that one out – but I don’t believe in forcing any term on to someone whose lived experience and personal identification I know nothing about. So ‘cis’ is out, whilst I consider the implications of trying to put anyone in a box you’re personally desperate to escape.

    I don’t know whether or not without ideas of what it even means to be socialised as male or female in a society that is inherently geared towards the oppression of what is considered female, the gender binary would still be a thing…would there still be a spectrum? We are all a mix-bag of socially recognised ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits, after all. Wouldn’t we all just be people then?

    But then I guess that denying the current gender binary as it stands would also trample on the people who *do* experience sex dysphoria to the point of sex reassignment, and I’m not willing to do that, as again – I don’t have that lived experience to the max (although I was in gender therapy for a few years considering transition, but that’s another story!), and it isn’t my place to put convenient labels on anyone to suit my own politics.

    I don’t know. I’m just learning as I go here.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I think I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here.

      I definitely don’t want to disparage anyone’s self-perception, and if you strongly feel genderqueer or non-binary that’s great, I don’t deny that you are. My feeling is just that we’re all non-binary, to a greater or lesser extent. Nobody feels aligned with every aspect of masculinity or femininity. We all of us actively endorse some bits, passively acquiesce with some bits, and positively rail against some bits, and the balance we eventually settle on will be an individual, personal thing. And if that’s so, then the label “non-binary” becomes pretty meaningless because every person is non-binary. But what ends up happening is that a bunch of people who feel they’re non-binary have to construct an artificial category called “cis” people or “gender conforming” people, because this category is required in order for their self-perception as “non-binary” to be meaningful. I find that oppressive to the people lumped in that box, many of whom reject the identification. Moreover, it’s a form of liberation from gender that is only available to some people, the handful of lucky ones who get to be non-binary. All the rest of us are consigned to the gender we’re assigned, and all the baggage that brings – and told we like it that way! That’s why I would refuse to call myself non-binary or agender or anything like that; it’s an entirely individualistic approach that does nothing to alter what is actually oppressive about gender.

      The problem seems to be a continued conflation of sex and gender, which you would hope was a problem that people immersed in theories of gender would be able to avoid. We can want to abolish gender norms, and still recognise the very real experiences of people with sex dysphoria, precisely because this is dysphoria about their sexed bodies, NOT about gender at all. The reason many transgender identity politickers conflate the two is because they want to argue that even people without any dysphoria can be trans. But there is no possible way to make that argument except by appealing to gender stereotypes and social norms about appropriate gendered behaviour. What might it mean to be trans, if not that one has dysphoria about one’s body? The only other possible way to describe it would be to point to things that one likes to do or to wear: “I’m a woman because I like to wear makeup”, “I’m a man because I like sports and science”. And then you’re reifying and shoring up gender norms, which can only be harmful, to women especially. I’ve seen a YouTube video of a (male) person who claims to be non-binary, and to have days when they’re a man and days when they are a woman. When they are a woman, they flutter their eyelashes and do a silly, high-pitched, coquettish laugh. As a woman, I actually find it a bit offensive that this person thinks that this is what it means to be a woman.

      To be clear: I am very supportive and empathetic towards people with dysphoria. I want them to get whatever help and treatment they need. I think the current move to define being trans in terms of “gender identity”, rather than dysphoria, is harmful to many people, most notably people with dysphoria themselves. Their specific experiences and needs are rendered invisible by this move, and their terminology and tools of political struggle are being colonised and co-opted by people who know how much they stand to benefit from most people’s failure to appreciate that the label “trans” does not refer to transsexual people only. I am certain that most people have a lot of compassion for transsexual people, because the distress and anguish of sex dysphoria must be very painful indeed. The move to broaden the trans umbrella to include people without dysphoria takes advantage of this, and I think the more people who speak out to resist this, the better for everyone.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. “We can want to abolish gender norms, and still recognise the very real experiences of people with sex dysphoria, precisely because this is dysphoria about their sexed bodies, NOT about gender at all. The reason many transgender identity politickers conflate the two is because they want to argue that even people without any dysphoria can be trans. But there is no possible way to make that argument except by appealing to gender stereotypes and social norms about appropriate gendered behaviour. ”

        YES! BANG! Back of the logic net. I love this – it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate to myself over the last few days after entering this lion’s den. I entered treatment because of dysphoria over the physical fact of my sexed body (it’s ongoing, but better), not whether that sexed body was more into ‘guy things’ than was ‘appropriate’ or ‘normal’. That’s conditioned gender role BS, and I was dysphoric about something innately physical.

        Maybe the idea behind the whole ‘you can be trans* without dysphoria’ argument is that so many people are identifying less and less with traditional roles and what ‘gender identity’ means, and I think that’s great – but as you say, it would make people essentially non-binary to begin with, given that our only definition of a ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ spectrum in terms of personal identity is a bunch of outdated socialisation in terms of what either ‘side of the binary’ can and can’t do.

        Anyway, thanks for replying 🙂

        Liked by 5 people

  8. I do not have a deep, personal sense of my own gender.

    I think this is what most (cisgender) people start out by thinking. But what if this identity as a woman was taken away from you?

    A small thought experiment:
    Say tomorrow you were called to an appointment with your doctor, who tells you:
    “Well, I don’t know why nobody noticed before, but you are actually not a woman at all: you’re really a man. Your genitals just didn’t really develop properly because of condition… There are some treatments available, even surgery if it makes you feel better. Anyway, we’ll get straight on having your legal status changed. Of course, from today onwards, please stop making that cross beside “f”, and choose “m” instead. And most importantly, please avoid ladies’ rooms and ladies’ changing rooms from now on, as it would be entirely inappropriate for you to invade these spaces reserved for (real) women.”
    If you really don’t have a deep, personal sense of gender, this shouldn’t really bother you much, should it?
    I know it would bother me.


    1. In that situation as my own personal gender identity would not change (like the blog author I don’t feel I have one) it wouldn’t both me on that level, but I’d be aware that society would treat me differently and that would bother me.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. That’s a really daft thought experiment. People are *socialised as women* because they are *recognised as female*. So sure, I or Becca or whoever could discover that we have androgen insensitivity syndrome (this is a real thing) and that we are, in chromosonal terms, male. We would still be read as female. We would still have the secondary sex characteristics of female humans. We would still have been socialised as women up to that point (i.e. into the inferior sex class) and we would continue to be treated socially as such. There would be no reason to start living as men, because we would not be interpreted as men, and furthermore it would be dangerous for anyone obviously part of the inferior sex class to start using the facilities and private spaces of the dominant sex class, because members of the dominant sex class (i.e. male humans) are well-know to use violence to enforce their dominance. That doesn’t mean that a “deep, personal sense of gender” exists. It means that the class system is profoundly embedded in our society.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. Exactly Sarah.
        Society treats & sees me as a woman.
        My experience mirrors your experience as far as society goes.
        My medical history us just that history.
        Trans children do not get treated like other kids not by a long shot.
        They are seen as weak, bullied picked on, marginalized and othered.
        And trans folks on the femme spectrum are often seen as prey by men.
        My mom taught me about men who may want to prey on me and to stay safe. She also taught me that private parts are just that “private”
        I could go on I was just tryin to draw some parallels that you may understand.


    3. A small thought experiment:
      Say tomorrow you were called to an appointment with Immigration Services, who tells you:
      “Well, I don’t know why nobody noticed before, but you are actually not an American citizen at all: you’re really a Brit. Your parents are both British you were born on a cruise ship while still in British waters. There are some legal steps available, you could apply for citizenship if you like. Anyway, we’ll get straight on having your legal status changed. Of course, you will need to be deported. Please pack up your bags and call on your employer, your friends, and family. We have located you an apartment and a job similar to the one you were currently working at, at an equivalent salary, in Britain.”
      If you really don’t have a deep, personal sense of nationality, this shouldn’t really bother you much, should it?
      I know it would bother me.
      Am I bothered because I am cis-American and this new identity clashes with my internal sense of self, or am I bothered because I am now going to be losing (people), environments, and customs that are familiar to me?

      Liked by 1 person

    4. A thought experiment for you: would the medical professional delivering that news to me be able to go back in time & undo the fact that my not-really-really female genitals were raped by a man with a penis when I was 18? No? Then my gender ‘identity’ has got fuck all to do with it. You can take the woman out of the male violence, but you can’t take the male violence out of the woman.

      Liked by 6 people

    5. The writer already acknowledged that they are happy to call themselves CIS if this means they do not experience dysphoria about their sexed body. You are discussing the sexed body here, not a gender identity separate to that.


  9. There is a pattern in liberal politics, where liberals act only to displease the imaginary conservative in their minds, rather than in response to material reality. I’d wager that “cis” is the result of one of these episodes. As in: “if trans people are marginalized by ‘society’, we need something to call the hypothetical conservatives that will inevitably defend this marginalization — we need a word to add to our modifier collection of ‘white’, ‘able-bodied’, ‘middle-class’, ‘straight’, and, well, ‘male’, but that one is on the way out now, given that we’ve logic’d ourselves into ‘male’ being a bad word that cis people use.”

    To the liberal man, all oppression (or “inequality”) works the same way: there is no need to think about any particular one to any degree, as long as you’ve got all the right privileges checked on your roster. After all, the goal is to make the conservative Republicans upset, nothing more. If some odd “radfems” or “TERFs” come out of left-field objecting to the intersectionality party, well, they must be conservatives too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the motivation behind the word “cis” is a reasonable and admirable one – the desire to normalise and demystify the experiences of a group that is otherwise cast as deviant and abnormal. Unfortunately, I think the problem arises because it tries to universalise something that just is not universal – namely, the idea of a gender identity. I don’t know if transgender people really do have a gender identity, but I don’t, and am not prepared to accept a label that assumes that I do. (I suppose an interesting question could be asked about whether everybody has a sexual orientation, as our current language suggests. We have a label for people who feel no sexual attraction to anyone – asexual – but I guess some people might have a reasonable objection to being identified by their sexuality at all. I don’t really “identify” as heterosexual, and although I won’t correct anyone who calls me that, it doesn’t accurately capture my self-perception, and isn’t part of my identity. Sex is something I do, not something I define myself by.)

      If cis was a label that described a medical condition, characterised by the absence of sex dysphoria, I would accept that I am cis, though I’m not sure why I would need a specific label to pick out the fact that I don’t have a rare medical condition. I don’t have a label to describe the fact that I’m not diabetic or not colourblind, to name two other medical conditions I don’t have (and that I think may be more prevalent in the population than sex dysphoria). But cis doesn’t mean that. It means I have a deep, personal sense of my own gender that matches the gender norms typically associated with my sex. I do not have this, and I won’t accept the label as part of my identity. I won’t define myself in response to other people’s need to attribute a label to me that validates their own self-perception.

      Liked by 8 people

  10. Until today, identity was the tell-tale sign of oppressive system. There is no positive white identity (to paraphrase Ignatiev), no positive male identity, no positive religious identity, no positive national identity. The preferable world was one in which there are no identities, as they are borne out of power structures to convince everyone of their inevitability and necessity. Skin color makes no difference, body morphology and sexual attraction makes no difference, spirituality and political/economic organization are not based on power dynamics… there is only significance in one’s own “box” for as long as it takes to dismantle the box factory.

    Now, instead of the box factory being recognized as a factory, we’re told that it’s a meadow of cardboard origami. Which is it? Is gender socially constructed and arbitrary or innate and psychological? Are there infinite genders or three? Whichever gets people to stop yelling at me, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Of course – do you think they aren’t? They aren’t a different species. They are like everyone else and unlike everyone else, in all the same ways that everyone else is!

          (I don’t know how you’re defining crossdresser. Do you mean people who have a paraphilia where they are sexually aroused by wearing the clothes typically associated with the opposite sex?)

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Well they are clearly differing from the norm.

            Which means there is a norm. Right?

            I’d say there’s different reasons for crossdressing. But I expect the compulsive kind has similar routes, no?


  11. @boodleoops Hi Becca, this is a really interesting and thought-provoking piece; I enjoyed reading it hugely. I guess what I’d immediately say is that ‘being’ trans* is lived in many, many different ways and having the innate sense that you’re in the ‘opposite’ gender is just one way of very many of living, or at least identifying with, the whole term trans* (and the term is highly contested in itself, although a lot of people use the asterisk to acknowledge this diversity and difference). The whole narrative that there is one, essential ‘transgender’ experience is in itself problematic for many people, not least because it allows ‘hierarchies of trans’ to be reproduced. Also, the whole point for me about privilege is precisely that it we are able to live inside an *unmarked* category – e.g. I can occupy a position of white privilege without having an innate sense of whiteness (indeed, that’s what constitutes it as white privilege, in part). Does that make sense?


    1. PS A book you might find interesting is ‘Making Sense of Gender, Race and Class’ by Celine Marie-Pascale – I can really recommend it!


    2. I absolutely get the privilege that comes with living in an unmarked category. But the solution to that is not to assign me to a category that does not accurately describe me.

      I belong to the category “white people” because it is an objective fact about me that I have white skin, and regardless how I “identify”, I will continue to be read as white and to accrue all the social advantages that white skin brings, whether I realise it or not. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t “feel white”; I look white, I am viewed by others as a white person, and I get bucket loads of white privilege whether or not I’m even aware of it.

      But if cisgender picks out a subjective “gender identity”, rather than being a label to describe people who objectively speaking are not transsexual, then it’s hard to see how anyone can assert that I have cis privilege. Being cis is then *entirely* subjective. It’s entirely a state of mind. Nobody can tell that I’m cis from looking at me – no matter how much like a cis woman I might look, I can just insist that actually I’m non-binary or genderqueer – or even just insist that I identify as a man, despite being demonstrably, incontrovertibly female – and in fact you calling me cis is erasing my identity and is a form of oppression, not privilege. (You say that there are multiple experiences of being trans, but ultimately you still assume it’s something that one “identifies” as: whether or not you are trans is entirely determined by your self-identification as such, and not by any more objective criteria).

      The only people this serves to help are the people who wish to deny their own privilege by co-opting the political struggles of transsexual people. There can be no real argument with someone about the content of their subjective mental states. But I can disagree about the subjective mental state they try to ascribe to me – I do not “feel like a woman”, no matter how politically convenient it would be for others if I admitted that I did. And I can disagree that one person can be structurally advantaged over another on the basis of their subjective mental states. I am sure I benefit from being socially read as not transsexual, because of the ways in which society discriminates against transsexual people. But I don’t accept I have cis privilege where this refers to having a gender identity that matches the gender norms assigned to female persons, because I don’t. If the concept of “privilege” is going to remain politically useful, it needs to refer to structural advantage that some groups have over others. And it’s hard to see how one group can have structural advantage over another when the differences between them are entirely subjective, existing only in their own experiences/mental states and nowhere else.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Hi Rebecca, thanks for engaging – I do understand what you’re saying but would still recommend that book (e.g. it has some really fascinating and important things to say about the whole notion that e.g. whiteness is an ‘objective fact’). Of course no-one can or should ever force you to identify with a particular category – and I too feel troubled by similar issues to those you have raised (hence why I’m commenting on here – I wouldn’t do so if I didn’t think your post was really thought-provoking). For me, I actually reject the whole notion of identity for all of the reasons you raise. Instead, I prefer to think of things in terms of ‘subject-positions’ rather than ‘identities’, as it allows me to step away from the whole dichotomy between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘material’ (which I see as an ultimately unhelpful one, although I agonised over it myself for years). So, I ‘identify’ with the subject positions of, say, academic, mother, feminist, queer theorist, horror fan, chocolate lover, etc etc – depending on the context, they are all positions that I occupy, and they intersect in ways that mean I experience privilege (or, put another way, mean that I am normative) in some ways but not in others. But I occupy those subject-positions not because I strongly identify with them but rather because I am *positioned* as occupying them, and I accrue certain privileges but also certain difficulties because of the various ways in which I’m positioned. To be ‘positioned’ in this way doesn’t mean that there is an innate essence to any of it that, in turn, I have to identify with – quite the contrary, whenever people tell me that x is the essence of y then I want to rally against it (e.g. that mothers have to bear their own children, or have to breastfeed, or whatever, to count as a ‘real’ mother). Rather, I see these categories as constantly being in flux and as being capable of renegotiation – as we are doing here, in fact. But it is important, for me – and it is material – that I am positioned in certain ways. It can mean violence, blood and even death and so is very much ‘material’ rather than ‘just’ something that is subjective. These subject positions can be felt, and lived, even though they are also in flux. For example, I’m unlikely to be beaten up or murdered for wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes (because I am positioned as comforming to gendered expectations of what a ‘woman’ should look like), but I also experience a hell of a lot of other forms of oppression because I am identified as a ‘woman’. I don’t know any of this makes sense … There’s a really powerful discussion by Butler in ‘Doing Justice to Someone’ and she does a far better job than me in setting this kind of approach out. Anyway, thanks again for the post and for engaging.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. Replying to Marina and Becca’s earlier replies to my initial comment:

    Marina – I certainly wasn’t trying to suggest that anyone (like you, for example) who doesn’t have a sense of ‘innate nationality’ is flawed! And…I’m not sure if you’re saying that you think I’m claiming to be normal and accusing you of being a freak? I’m not sure where you’ve got all that from! I agree, I am privileged in the sense that I feel I belong to/in the country where I was born and grew up. From what you’ve said, it completely makes sense that you would not have an innate sense of national identity. I have checked back over my original comment and I don’t think I said anything that implied I felt superior – did I?

    Becca, your point about innate Peruvian-ness is a good one. So, okay, I accept that I probably picked a crap analogy – one that works for me but not for others.

    However, one interesting thing emerges from both of your replies, and the contradiction between them. Becca, you say:

    ‘Imagine I told you now that despite having not been born in Peru or spent any time there, I had an internal national identity as a Peruvian, and that you, as a Briton who feels British, are cisnational, whereas I, as someone raised in Britain but who feels Peruvian, am transnational, and you have cisnationality privilege over me. That would be pretty silly.’

    And yet Marina says:

    ‘…to have been born and died as the uncontested citizen of one nation state, linguistically, culturally, ethnically and religiously coherent and stable, is a monumentally rare privilege.’

    So, actually, you are both kind of addressing, in your replies, things that might reasonably be referred to as transnational and cisnational – aren’t you?

    On the gender issue – leaving crap analogies aside! – I would reiterate: my hunch (and of course I could be wrong) is that in addition to my physical female body, and in addition to the way I have been socialised as a woman by society, I do feel very strongly that my essence is ‘woman’ not ‘man’. Of course, this might be a feeling I have been socialised into having, like my Englishness. I totally accept that – in which case, I’ve been socialised brilliantly effectively. (Though not, I would note, effectively enough that I’ve ever given a toss about making myself look a certain way to please men, or willingly done more than my fair share of housework/childcare, or ever willingly taken any crap that women are expected to take. I rebel against any and all gender roles that I find annoying.)

    So let me ask this question again: if you both believe there is no such thing as ‘gender identity’/’gender essence’, how do you explain trans women who were born with male bodies but knew they were women? And the same question re trans men? Why, if there is no such thing as innate gender identity, do so many people just know that they are the gender that doesn’t match their body? It seems to me that the logical extension of your position is that there can be no such thing as a man with a woman’s body, or a woman with a man’s body. In which case, wouldn’t you have to argue that trans women are in fact men, and trans men are in fact women?

    Marina, I’m not sure why you said ‘You and other English people (many of whom, in my experience, tend to think that they’re just ‘normal’ and people with complicated migration histories are freaks…’ – I mean, I hope you weren’t suggesting that I am guilty of this? Neither of my parents was born British – they were both immigrants, so please don’t imagine I’m a typical English person. Two of my grandparents were Moroccan!

    Also, ‘This is the opposite of a well developed moral imagination’? I’m happy to be disagreed with on any and all points, but isn’t it better if we stick to disagreement/discussion over points rather than trash one another’s entire moral imaginations? Isn’t that a bit harsh. I find these issues really interesting, but I slightly despair at the apparent inability to discuss in good faith without everyone thinking the worst of one another.

    Becca, I don’t find any of your arguments offensive – I’m not sure why you thought I might? But anyway, when you say:

    ‘it must be because you think gender is somehow more innate and essential than national identity is, and that one can feel like a woman without having been raised as a woman’

    Yes! I do (instinctively – again, I could be wrong!) feel that this is true. If it isn’t, how do you explain transgender people’s feeling that they are men trapped in women’s bodies or vice versa?


    1. I don’t think (as far as I can tell) that Becky is saying gender identity has never existed for anyone, but rather that it is not common to everyone.

      Transgender people have a notion of their gender independent of socialisation and sometimes independent of their feelings towards their sexed bodies. Some who are not transgender also have a notion of their gender independent of those two factors. That’s a given.

      But what’s being said here is that not all of those who are not transgender have a gender identity. In other words not everyone who is not transgender is cisgender.


  13. I feel about my gender identity the same way you feel about yours, and for that part of the essay: Well said!

    However, you seem a bit grudging about the possibility that others experience things differently than you do: for example, “But I can concede for the sake of argument that some people might experience a form of subjective mental state that I don’t.” You concede it only for the sake of argument? Others “might” experience something different from what you do? I take it as a given that others DO “experience a form of subjective mental state” different from mine, regarding gender and pretty much everything else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The reason for that is that I am sceptical about the notion of gender identity. I don’t have access to other people’s subjective mental states, and so I’m not qualified to assert anything stronger than that, which is why I allowed it for the sake of argument. But I am sceptical. Suppose someone had to explain what it means to “feel like a woman”, without making any reference at all to biology, either to their own female biology, or to a feeling of dysphoria about their own male biology. I don’t see how they could do that without invoking gendered stereotypes about what is socially considered appropriate for women to do or to wear. And if that’s the case, I don’t see why this is evidence that the person is a woman, rather than evidence that social norms prescribing certain forms of behaviour and dress to the sexes are restrictive, oppressive and painful for many people to conform to.

      It may be the case that some people have a subjective mental experience that they describe as “being a woman”. But if they cannot describe that experience in a way that makes sense to anyone else – if they are incapable of explaining what that means to other people – then the word “woman” becomes meaningless. It cannot perform the linguistic function of conveying meaning, because its meaning is different to each person, and their own unique meanings are not accessible to other people. (On this, see Wittgenstein on beetles in boxes.)

      Liked by 7 people

      1. Do you “feel like a human,” rather than a dog or cat or horse? If so, can you explain that without making any reference to biology?

        I admit a bias here: I am very negative about people who disbelieve (or are “sceptical” of) others’ accounts of their own thoughts and feelings. You appear to expect others to accept that you do not experience gender identity, yet you are “sceptical” about their saying that they do experience it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not disbelieving anyone’s thought and feelings, as such. That would be a silly thing to do, since I have no access to other people’s thoughts and feelings. What I am doing is questioning whether it makes sense to say they are feelings about gender identity.

          If the definition of “woman” means “somebody who feels like a woman”, then that definition is circular, and hence meaningless. Why would you feel like a woman, unless you believed there was something objective that it meant to be a woman, some objectively defined class of persons called women, that exist independently of your mind? Why would you believe you’re a woman, unless you believe there’s something that it is to be a woman, some criteria that you meet, some objective facts about the category “woman” that apply to you? Unless there is some shared, collective definition of what the word “woman” refers to, then it’s meaningless. If I insist that I feel like a woman, but refuse to say anything more about what women are or how they are defined, except that to feel like a woman is all that it means to be a woman, then the word “woman” becomes devoid of meaning in our language. It means potentially anything, and therefore it means nothing. This is the point that Wittgenstein is making with his private language argument. A concept that can only be understood by one individual, a word that has different meanings to every individual, has no meaning at all.

          I can’t really give any explanation of why I’m a human, rather than a dog or a cat or a horse, except one that makes reference to my biology. And if I said that despite my biology, I identify as a horse and feel like a horse, you would presumably think I was mistaken. (I’m aware of the purported existence of “otherkin”, people who claim to identify with animals despite being humans, but I’m never sure whether such people actually exist, or whether it’s just a hoax designed to illustrate the absurdity of identity politics when pushed to its logical conclusion).

          Liked by 5 people

          1. If you can’t give any explanation, then how does “human” mean anything? I see this as exactly parallel to your argument regarding “woman.”

            Biology isn’t as simple as you seem to be seeing it. It isn’t just body parts; it’s also hormones and chromosomes and chemicals in the brain. There are people with external parts that look like one sex, but their chromosomes do not match that. Science doesn’t know everything about the effects of hormones and other body chemicals; I see no reason to doubt that these could make some people “feel” that they are a woman or a man (or for that matter, a horse) no matter what their exterior looks like.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. Cakmpis. I think there is an important distinction to be made here about being sceptical about someone else’s experience, and about their explanation of that experience. I agree with you with regard to the former – I think it is extremely important to accept other people’s accounts of what they feel. In fact, nobody is in an epistemic position to deny what other people feel, and affirming and empathizing with other people’s feelings is, I think, an important component of justice on a personal level.

          However, it does not necessarily follow from that that one must fully embrace another’s explanation for their feelings. Nobody is denying that trans-people have a subjective experience of identifying with the other gender. The concept of gender identity is not, however, a straight-forward description of that experience. It is the positing of a metaphysical entity – ‘gender identity’ – in order to explain that experience.

          As far as I’m aware the concept develops out of the medical/psychiatric profession’s classification of trans experience as ‘gender identity disorder.’ As has been frequently recognized, the medical profession’s gatekeeping function with regard to access to SRS often involves expecting trans individuals to exhibit/perform stereotypical gender traits (notably this observation is one made by both trans and and non-trans observers). That is, with regard to this question, the medical profession has historically applied a conventionally patriarchal concept of gender (that it is natural, and that it involves innate tendencies and traits), and ‘gender identity’ as a concept is congruent with that kind of understanding.

          Therefore, it is possible – and I would say ethically necessary – to fully accept trans people’s accounts of their lived experience of gender dysphoria/identifying with the other gender, and at the same time, to reject an explanation of that experience which has emerged out of, and exemplifies, patriarchal concepts of gender-as-essence. If there was nothing at stake for women in this question, then this entire conflict would never have happened. No matter what some trans activists say, there is no reason on earth why feminist women would react with moral disgust (as implied by the term -phobia) to trans-people (in fact, we are the last people on earth to care about/or police the gender presentation of *anyone*).

          The issue is that the concept of gender identity is a reification which contravenes the most basic tenet of feminist thought. That gender is a social caste system which functions to exploit women’s sexual capacities and reproductive/domestic labour to the detriment of our human becoming. That is what is at stake for women – our human becoming. It is no small matter. And concern for it is not irrational prejudice, or hatred.

          Liked by 5 people

          1. Within myself, for my own personal view of the world, I generally agree with you. I would very much like to see how gender would play out in a society that had no gender norms or expectations whatsoever, where everyone was just “person” and lived as suited them. Given the biology of human reproduction, I’m not sure such is possible. Without any other differentiations being made, it would eventually be noticed that babies grew only inside people with a certain body appearance, for example, and then we would have “those who might grow babies” and “those who can’t,” followed by “those who might grow babies can provide milk to them if they do,” followed eventually by “those who might grow babies do so only if they perform certain actions with those who can’t grow babies,” and we’re off to the races. In the absence of a completely gender-free example for comparison, and with the possibility that such could not exist, I am unwilling to say that it is impossible that other people feel what they say they feel.

            I come back to “human”; if one says that one feels a “species identity” of human rather than horse, where does it come from? Is it no more than the fact that societal norms and expectations say we are human? (And, of course, that some are not-human, as certain “humans” historically have judged others?) And do those who deeply feel that they are another species just have body dysphoria? Maybe so. Within myself, for my own personal view of the world, I think it likely that trans people are experiencing either (1) body dysphoria or (2) identification with the way society sees a gender other than the one the person has been assigned from birth, or (3) some of each. But in the society we live in, I am unwilling to impose my personal viewpoint about this on others.

            Liked by 2 people

  14. Actually cisgender / Cissexual is language used by the medical and psychiatric community to distinguish clients.

    Cis on the same side.
    Your mind/body/sex are congruent.
    So you do not experience an internal sense of self as far as gender is concerned.
    And that is what being cis is.
    Your mind and body do not experience a incongruence.=Cissexual
    Trans from one side to thee other.
    A person with a incongruence
    Often transsexual folks will align their bodies since they can’t change brains.
    Hormones change the body and mind to help a person become more congruent with themselves.


      1. I am, I guess cis-male. I was born male with all the usual bits, I dress male, aside from the common experiments most men have in childhood and as young men.
        I have many relationships with women.
        Some of those are transwomen; whether they are occasional cross-dressers, people who live as women but don’t take hormones and have no surgery, or have gone all the way with extensive surgery, hormones, etc.
        Some of them are none of those things. In the Venn diagram that encompasses all people who identify as women, I find it useful to have the word ciswoman to identify those who are not trans.
        I mean nothing perjorative, demeaning, insulting or whatever by that usage. I presume that if you take that meaning you’re imputing insult where none is intended; a classic ploy of the ill-intentioned.
        If you’d prefer I didn’t use the term, then please put forward another term and get it generally accepted.
        Until I find a better term, I’ll continued to use the word ciswoman. I’ll continue too to assume that any woman who objects to that is the sort to take offence where none is intended, and is therefor somewone whose company is best avoided.
        I find the kind of navel gazing that I see above as being far too introspective.
        Get on with life, there is much more we have in common than we have as differences; we can all create misunderstandings.
        But if we’re sensible we do everything we can to improve understanding, because those makes us all stronger.
        And everything we can to avoid misunderstanding, because there are many who’d want us divided, and divisions weaken us.


        1. I’m delighted to hear that you mean nothing pejorative, demeaning or insulting when you call women cis.

          However, if you had actually read my post before commenting, you would have learned that I do not object to being called cis on those grounds. I have never claimed that being labelled cis is pejorative, demeaning or insulting. I do not believe it is.

          If you had actually read my post before commenting, you would have learned that I nonetheless have some very good reasons to object to the label cis, namely, that I do not think it accurately describes me and my identity (and furthermore, I am dubious that it accurately describes many other women, either).

          You have disregarded the content of my post entirely, and rather than making a good faith attempt to understand where I’m coming from, have imputed intentions and mental states to me that do not exist, “assum[ing] that any woman who objects to that is the sort to take offence where none is intended”. You thinking you know better than I do the content of my own mind does not surprise me, being entirely consistent with your insistence that I am cis, despite my telling you that I am not.

          If you don’t like introspection or navel-gazing – or what might also be called “abstract thought and critical reflection” – I suggest you find another blog to read. On my own blog, I will continue to think critically and to examine whatever issues I damn well please.

          The desire to avoid one another’s company is entirely mutual. But thanks for stopping by!

          Liked by 6 people

          1. On the contrary, I have read and -re-read your post.

            It seems to me that if I apply ‘abstract thought and critical reflection’ to your essay then I undertand it to imply that because ciswomen vary enormously at an individual level, the word doesn’t apply to you. Nonsense! ‘Cisgender is a broad categorym, with no implication that it means a batch of ‘Stepford Wives’. The closer you get to looking at individuals, the more granular things will be Reality is fractal.

            If I were to transpose your argument to another field, e.g. if I were to argue that because the term ‘white woman’ includes everyone from Angela Merkel to a homeless white crack whore, then the term ‘white woman’ is meaningless: with the two unspoken corollaries that we should redefine the term ‘white woman’ to mean ‘all-women’ and therefore that ‘non-white women’ are not really women at all, then the logical fallacies and the dangers of taking that view seriously become clear.

            When I was doing my engineering degree, my girlfried was studying sociology. Because I could speed-read, I read her set texts, sketched out the gist of the expected essays, which she then filled out in her own words to make time for love-making. I’ve dipped into feminist literature from time to time ever since, confirming to me, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

            It seems to me that feminist writing is, like a canon of holy works, laced with brilliant nuggest of insight into many aspects of the human condition, set into a mass of irrelevant and contradictory tosh. Feminist theory is a theology, divided by competing creeds, schisms, heresies and orthodoxies justifying holy wars.

            Incidentally I can’t see where in what I wrote imputed motive; I don’t for a moment think that you are deliberately and consciously choosing to stir shit. I am, though, suggesting that the effect of what you’re saying is to create a nasty stink.

            Keep it real, grounded, use logic not fancy, beware simple fallacies.


          2. I can’t bring myself to reply to most of this comment, because it’s so dripping in misogyny and entitlement it’s made me feel a bit queasy. All I will say is this:

            “Keep it real, grounded, use logic not fancy, beware simple fallacies.”

            Dude. I’ve got a PhD in Philosophy.

            Liked by 17 people

      1. This doesn’t have an audience in the Spanish world yet but it’s bound to have it eventually. We are importing this cultural trend just like we imported Pepsi and McDonalds. It’ll be useful to have thinkers translated when it happens. This post is possibly the most in depth text about queer/trans theory in the Spanish language as of today. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

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