tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[personal profile] tim
Over on Twitter, I wrote: 'Cis people have sexes, trans people have "gender identities"! Men are from Mars, women are from Venus!'

And a friend who is cis asked, in response, 'Suggestions for (gently?) correcting cis people who're under the impression that "gender identity" is what trans people prefer?'

One thing that I, and many other trans people say, is that if you're cis, and care about trans people, you should call out cissexism when you hear it: for example, if someone in your presence uses the t----- word (and is not a CAMAB trans person), or makes a joke whose humor is contingent on it being ridiculous or pathetic for CAMAB people to wear or do anything coded as feminine, you should inform them of your displeasure. There is no need to do so diplomatically or politely unless you think that is the most effective way to send a message to the offender, and anyone else present, that this behavior isn't acceptable. Rules don't have to be polite -- stop signs don't say "stop, please". As an ally to trans people, you assert a boundary when you say "it's not okay for you to use slurs around me." And there is no need to be particularly nice in stating that boundary.

To me, though, use of the term "gender identity" -- which is, in my opinion, almost always part of a stealth tactic to invalidate trans people's self-affirmed sexes and elevate cis people's identities to the status of "biological" -- falls into a different category from slurs and hateful jokes. First and foremost, some trans people do prefer the "gender identity" terminology; some trans people do say things like "my biological sex is female, but my gender identity is male". It makes me cringe to hear that, and when I feel like I can, I'll try to let people know that there are other ways of talking about our lives that are more honest and accurate.

But it's not a cis person's place to have that conversation with a trans person, and likewise, it's also not a cis person's place to claim they know what set of terminology is right for all trans people.

Here's what I suggest you do instead if you want to call out terms like "gender identity", and you're either cis, or being seen as cis: shift the focus to cisness, instead of transness. For example, you could ask: "Do you have a gender? Or do you have a gender identity? Do you feel you know what your sex is? If so, how would you feel if someone else told you they know what your sex is, and the sex you know you are is just a 'gender identity'?"

Even using the terms "cis" or "cissexual" bothers some people because they would just rather be called "normal"; if "cis" and trans" are adjectives of equal status, neither one marked as the "default" state, then it's almost as if being cis isn't any better than being trans. By getting cis people to understand that they are cis, that the way they relate to their body and to the labels they were coercively assigned at birth are not universal but are simply their subjective experiences (no better or more real than anyone else's subjective experiences), you can encourage other people cis people to step off the pedestal, and relate to trans people as equals rather than superiors. If you can name yourself as "cis", that's one step towards realizing that trans people are not flawed versions of yourself, but rather, people who are different from yourself, just as you are different from us.

In my opinion, "gender identity" serves a similar function to language that marks "trans" but leaves cisness unmarked. The language of "biological sex", being "born a man" or "born a woman" (which sounds painful for the individual giving birth), "chromosomes", and so on, all sound scientific, but in this case they're serving a decidedly political function: to lend legitimacy to the idea that people whose sex is different from the sex they were coercively assigned at birth do not exist. "Gender identity" makes us second-class and tells us we have to be second-class for science (and few things are considered more shameful among the middle class than rejecting science, or rejecting anything that can be framed as "science").

But not all trans people agree with me. So rather than trying to summarize what all trans people prefer (an exercise that's likely not to end well, any more than you could summarize what all cis people prefer), maybe focus on questions, instead of answers. "What do you mean by that?" can take you a long way. I think that's especially true when unpacking much of the language used to describe sex and gender, whose function is to subordinate some people politically and raise the status of others, rather than to describe reality.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-08 07:53 am (UTC)
luinied: Wakaba is doing science! (science)
From: [personal profile] luinied
*waves* I am cool with people knowing the question was from me.

The recent inspiration for asking - although there have been other similar situations in the past - is a friend who has been known to say "changing [their] gender identity" to refer to coming out / starting to transition. I know this friend of mine has a trans friend (I think a college friend, definitely someone they've known for some time) who they're on good terms with, and I suspect they got their "what does it mean to be trans?" education when this friend came out to them however many years ago. I have no idea whether they're echoing the terminology that their friend used, or that their school's trans group's literature used, or that something they read on the Internet used, and obviously this information would impact whether or not I'd feel like it's my place to critique terminology.

I'm inclined to give my friend the benefit of the doubt that they aren't using "gender identity" as cover for not taking trans people seriously - they haven't used "normal" to mean cis, appealed to "biological sex", or anything like that (which I do correct people on when the situation allows it), and they have a good track record of taking other people's experiences seriously even when those experiences are very different from their own. So I'm probably going to wait until I get more of a feel for where their terminology comes from before I say anything. (Also, it would be weird at this point to suddenly bring up something they said casually, like, a week ago.)

Also, a bit of a tangent:

"biological sex"

The Museum of Sex's section on non-human animals noted that, in Biology, sex is defined by relative gamete size - which seems to be standard - but also had Biology's definition of gender, which I hadn't seen before and can't immediately find on the Internet: basically, it's for species that consistently have very different recurring types within a sex, like these lizards. Which really drove home the point - not that the gamete-based definition of sex doesn't also - that these are terms defined specifically for talking about diverse sorts of creatures, all of which we can't communicate with; to apply them to humans, who we can communicate with and who do so much more in software than in hardware (as it were) relative to almost every other species out there, is not just inaccurate but incredibly arrogant and nonsensically dismissive of our capacity as humans. Because, come on, terminology in biology (like, say, "life", or "species") doesn't come from some purely reasoned truth; at best it's a best-so-far approximation put together while trying to make some sense out of studying a very complicated, messy thing (life), and the fact that we can understand humans better than other creatures on account of our amazing ability to communicate using language should be friggin' celebrated and used whenever possible.
luinied: The robot catches many monkeys. (academic)
From: [personal profile] luinied
So personally I look at it in the other direction

That does certainly sound like the most plausible explanation for how things got how they are. I am thinking I might advocate the view (if this ever comes up when I'm talking to a cis person; I have no idea the likelihood of this) that talk of gender and sex in non-humans is similar to how mathematicians will steal terms from elsewhere because they need some terminology - i.e., I will try to associate appeals to definitions from Biology to demean trans people with the sense of embarrassment one gets from misusing math jargon and oh Christ I didn't realize how this sounded until I typed it out. But, um, given my social circles, this isn't necessarily a bad way of shaming someone?

(If you're curious, the museum exhibit in question - which was about sex-the-act more than sex-the-kind - never talked about humans explicitly, but it clearly had the unstated goal of refuting ridiculous "sex in nature supports my sexist bullshit" claims by showing how incredibly varied sex in nature actually is.)

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Tim Chevalier

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