NB: 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.