Challenges in Naming Gender Identities: Cis and Trans
Issues of sex and gender are popular and common topics in sociology; we discuss the complexities of defining sex as physical (male, female) and gender as social (women, men).
We assume that males take on the gender identity of men and females that of women. Social roles are built on these identities and gender is structured into the fabric of society, including our workdays, occupational aspirations, and social obligations. Our society presumes that people are heterosexual, thus expecting men and women to prefer each other as sexual partners. These pathways and definitions are all supported by societal norms.
With more cross-cultural, biological, and social science research on the subtleties and issues in how sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual attraction (or orientation), we can see that these issues are all much more complex than we are taught. Other cultures have more than two genders yet our dominant social norms either do not recognize these categories at all or consider them to be viable or valid realities.
We know that gender identities may not align with that of the expected sex categories. One term used to describe this has been “transgender.” Historically, the medical community has considered this identity a problem and assigned labels of medical disorders to these individuals.
Some would say that we have a greater societal acceptance of transgender now than in the past. Ru Paul has her own drag queen reality show and famous transsexual people such as Chaz Bono have created media to help educate people on the issue.
The term “cisgender” has emerged in the last few years as a counterpart to “transgender” for a
number of reasons. To normalize the transgender (or trans*) identities, one must have a label for the previously normative category. Trans with an asterisk (trans*) is emerging as a useful term to capture all the categories of experience and identity that exist outside the traditional cisgender definition. Thus, transgender, transsexual, and many other terms can be acknowledged and included when using the trans* label.
The parallel here is in how we used to teach “minority” relations or gender studies. We would only focus on the subordinate or disadvantaged categories such as people of color or women, rather than encompass the entire range of categories. However, for the last twenty years or so, we have increasingly enlarged our foci to including all racial and ethnic groups, and all genders, so as to better understand the dynamics of power and stratification and how some are defined as minority or subordinate while others maintain dominance or positions of ”majority” even without a majority of numbers.
One can’t truly understand how racial or gendered power structure works if one only focuses on “minorities” or women. One must also look at whiteness and men/masculinity to grasp how power and stratification have been created and maintained.
Cisgender gives us that wedge into the sex/gender dynamic to better understand transgender issues. There is a lot of diversity in how individuals experience, understand, and express their gender, yet societal norms frame us into one of two boxes (in this culture anyway). By naming the normative category of sex identification meshing with gender identity and definitions, we can (potentially) see more clearly the range of diversity of human experience.
Criticisms of using cisgender include negating any perceptions of privilege and reductionism and essentialism. Elizabeth Hungerford has written about how cisgender assumes equity between men and women, thus erasing male privilege from the equation. Others have pointed out that cisgender reduces or essentializes everything to the body, rather than acknowledging the social and socially constructed dimensions.
The term cisgender first emerged in the early 1990s, but it seems to just now be emerging in wider circles of discussion. Does this signal some progress in the trans* movement?
My concern with the term cisgender is whether or not it includes – or should include – issues of sexual orientation. Orientation is linked to sex and gender in terms of normative pathways yet things get really complicated when transgender issues are included in the discussion.
Our society’s heteronormativity is a form of prejudice based on privilege and on how gendered power is structured into our society. Heteronormativity and homophobia are potent tools for men to remain the dominant group over women (and “non-masculine” men).
Some would say that we have a greater societal acceptance of diverse sexual orientations. The changing marriage laws illustrate this, as do some media portrayals. Instead of the gay funny sidekick or gay best pal, today we see more characters who are just characters that happen to be gay or lesbian. However, stereotypes about non-heterosexuality are firmly built upon the trans* pathway.
Stereotypes about gay men and lesbian women still hold that they are, respectively, feminine men and masculine women.
Sexual orientation is really about sexual intimacy, not gender identity or expression. This is why “gaydar” is not usually accurate – it is not possible to identify heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or asexuality simply by looking at someone and how they express their gender identity. If someone is wearing a rainbow shirt that carries a positive message about being gay and/or lesbian, that doesn’t even mean that that person may be gay or lesbian. Such a person may simply be an ally, “straight but not narrow” as the saying goes.
Sexual orientation as a concept is not useful when applied to various trans* categories. If someone is born with a body categorized as male yet identifies as a female woman and lives her life as a woman, is she a lesbian if she loves another woman? Is she gay if she loves a man? If she has sex reassignment surgery, does that change anything? On what do we make these decisions about what people are? Should we even spend time making such decisions about other people?
Cisgender and trans* issues are complicated but the emergence of these terms do signal new understandings of how we live our lives and how society privileges some of us because our identities match the normative categories. Time will tell if our society can absorb and accept what these categories can teach us or if the current normative power structure will prevail and continue to oppress and divide people from one another.