Trans, cis and the default

In a recent post, I talked about one reason that the word “cisgender” was coined. I agree that it is a good idea to have ways of talking about people who aren’t trans without evoking a context of “real” or “normal” to imply that we are not legitimate or to highlight our minority status. If this were the case, something like “non-transgender men” might be enough. But many of the arguments for “cis” go beyond this.

The first step beyond simply using “cis” is asking non-trans people to “identify as cis.” The idea is that trans women are marked as “not normal” just by virtue of having a word for ourselves, while non-trans women are the default “women.” There are similar situations for women in general, for example in soccer:

@jaclynf After this game, everyone better start calling it “soccer” and “men’s soccer” #usausausa #USWNT

Asking people to “identify as cis” – possibly as a condition of being accepted as an ally – means asking them to center trans people as the norm and mark themselves as deviating from that norm, at least in that context.

Some people have gone beyond simply asking people to “identify as cis,” and made a point of criticizing the use of unmodified “woman” in contexts that do not apply to all (or any) trans women. The idea is not just to make “trans” one acceptable default, but to exclude anything else from default status.

These three linguistic goals – replacing words like “normal,” admitting “trans” as a possible default status, and removing default status from non-trans people – are all aimed at removing the stigma associated with transgender actions. This stigma is real: I’ve received dirty looks and received petty harassment for wearing women’s clothes.

Of course, I’m relatively fortunate. I have never been attacked for being trans. I have received unconditional love and support from my family, and found a reasonable amount of success in my work life and acceptance from my neighbors. Others have been fired, kicked out of their homes, beaten and even killed for “being a man” in a dress or in the women’s bathroom – or for *not* “being a man” enough in the family or the workplace.

This stigma is not fair, and it needs to stop. The question is whether a word like “cisgender” can confer default status on us, whether default status will actually help to stop it, and if so how much.

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