Labels as relational

Something struck me last week when I was doing my Trans Sex Ed presentation for ASPECC. In order to make sure everyone was on the same page I had to start by making sure the word “transgender” was clear. Ultimately I think this is one area that could turn into an entire presentation itself, because the more I thought about it the more I realized this was a topic that could run deep.

I’ll illustrate with some other identity labels of mine: atheist. I mean, that’s a given on a freethought network, right? But I also live in this progressive little urban bubble where people are largely indifferent to religion. My coworkers, my boss, my previous landlord. Nobody cared. If I had been “outed” as an atheist, I think fuck all would have happened. People would’ve shrugged and moved on. People have shrugged and moved on.

In terms of importance or relevance to me, personally, that makes my relationship with atheism weak at best. I don’t often do posts about the epistemology of the Christian god, mostly because I consider the matter settled, and so do enough people in my life that it’s just not an important question anymore. So I mean, sure, I’m an atheist. And yes, I’ll accept that label because it’s accurate. But no, it isn’t the sort of thing that actually gets the people around me to respond differently, so its relevance is negligible, as long as I do my homework and steer clear of traveling to, say, Iran.

Being trans, on the other hand. Well, every asshole on the internet has a strong opinion. No PhD in gender variance, mind, or even a passing attempt to actually read the research they claim supports their position, but hot-damn does being transgender carry a significant gravity to it, drawing in dickheads and assholes in orbit like some kind of black hole hurdling through a solar system. If were talking about labels in terms of their importance to other people, then hells yes, “transgender” is a heavy and influential label indeed.

So I arrive to a different use of labels altogether, one that doesn’t involve describing my relationship with myself, but one that describes the world’s relationship to meFramed like that, it contextualizes things like how my personal, morally neutral choices such as my clothing or grooming is suddenly subject to public debate on whether I’m reinforcing feminine stereotypes or just doing the trans thing for attention. Now it makes sense to take up the label transgender, not because I may or may not want to grow my hair long, but because a choice of such minimal relevance to other people’s lives is somehow granted importance through some invasive and kindy creepy entitlement to know every detail about my body. An entitlement that is present because of the world’s relationship with being “transgender.”

If I lived in a post transphobia society, I imagine I would feel about my gender identity the same way I do about my religious identity: Meh. Something to be acknowledged and make a few changes to make things comfy, but not the sort of sordid public spectacle that it is now.

The only reason trans issues ranks so highly is because of the damage these hamfisted attempts at policy writing cause, ensuing upon discovery of our existence. That’s a relationship I don’t want denied, how I’m some kind of walking-talking time-bomb for all the comfortable assumptions people make about gender. I may not particularly care about being trans, personally, but I think you’d have an incomplete picture of what it’s like as a cis person to be a trans person if you didn’t comprehend how much mutually contradictory bullshit we’re put through.

Thus, even if you personally don’t have a strong relationship with your gender identity–which is only natural, because nobody reacts to it–you could accept cisgender as a label for those circumstances and that relationship, the same way I accept the label atheist despite living in a peaceful bubble of religious irrelevance. It’s not any kind of commentary on you. It’s more of a commentary on your circumstances. Less of an identity unto itself and more taking stock on the relational behaviour of those around you. How, for instance, nobody has asked you about your genitals, or what your “real name” is. Or, perhaps the most salient to our current political climate, sex-segregated spaces are a no-brainer for you where they reliably get a trans person to start sweating under the collar.

This sidesteps the entire issue of trying to communicate what you do or do not feel, not that the people dismissing gender dysphoria as “just” feelings are the sorts of good-faith commentators who’d actually listen to my alternative (hey, there’s another relationship to describe between trans people and our environments: We’re “just” feeling a certain way, but you? You’re taken for-granted). I don’t have to share any kind of deeply personal struggle with my body. In fact, I can point out that the curiosity for said struggle perhaps better defines my existence as a trans woman than does the struggle itself!

Food for thought. What do you think?



  1. AlexanderZ says

    As a cis man I have nothing to add to the parts regarding your identity as a trans* person, but I completely agree with you about being an atheist. Even though I live in a religious country and a religious city, non-religious people are visible and accepted (though being self-described as an atheist is still rare). Leftists, on the other hand, are despised. So when I do identify it is with my leftist ideas, usually Palestinian freedom/equality since that is the much more pressing question and that because I’ve never been punched for being an atheist, but I was for being a leftist.

    However, I don’t think that’s a good comparison. Atheism and all the -isms that fall under the umbrella of the Left are ideologies. Ideas. Things that can be very fluid and as such are expressed only when they come in contact with a rival ideology. Not something that can ever be comparable to being a trans* person.
    Perhaps I have a slightly better comparison: I’m a Jew. I was a Jew in USSR where it was made very clear what my role in life for being a Jew (quick anecdote: the kindergarten teacher once organized the other kids to beat me up and became very distressed once I started hitting, or more accurately, strangling back). That was a major part of my identity and the identity of my family. Even though we were never religious, we did have a culture and history (and looks and circumcision) that were different from those around us.

    When I came to Israel it all changed. Here I’m considered a Russian (even I wasn’t born there and that country didn’t even exist when I left USSR) and often not in a good way. I’m also seen as a Jew, whenever it’s advantageous to someone. Even though my culture is if anything more Jewish than it was in USSR, I detest being approached as a Jew because those who do it always to try to convert me to a conservative asshole if not into a full blown Judeo-Nazi. Now, if I must be described by nationality, I would rather be described as an Israeli, even though I’m very much a Jewish Israeli and my identity and culture is very different from Palestinian Israelis or other non-Jewish Israelis.

    My identity is defined by the way society treats me. However, despite that I have never been treated badly for being a cis-het man, and yet that is what I’ve always been and how I introduced myself in this comment. I guess some identities are inherently different than others.

    Sorry for the rant. I hope it was somewhat comprehensible :P

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Thus, even if you personally don’t have a strong relationship with your gender identity–which is only natural, because nobody reacts to it–

    What do I think?

    I think this is wrongheaded. The comparison isn’t with being labeled an atheist, the comparison is being labeled generically Xian. Take the average rural, centrist-to-right-leaning Xian anywhere from Nevada to North Carolina and they don’t object when you assume their Xian instead of asking, sure. But assume they are Salafist instead of asking & you’ll find out just how much they care about religious ID. Not fighting over something because you’ve already won isn’t at all the same as not fighting about something because you really couldn’t give a fuck. And they don’t have a strong relationship with their religious-ID?

    Fuck that. And further, to return from our metaphor to a direct discussion of gender: I expect cis folk that have done little to no gender-introspection often have the strongest relationships with their gender IDs. Think about how trans people respond to being persistently, intentionally misgendered by the government over the course of years and think about how the average no-introspection cissy would respond to a violation of gender identity that was no more intrusive, agency-removing, misrepresentative, or threatening.

    Yeah, that’s what I thought: scratch the surface of cis folk who don’t fight for trans* related rights of gender and you find persons desperately, insistently focussed on maintenance of their gender IDs to a degree the average trans* person would find bewildering.

    [[if you’re sensing anger in this comment, it’s not directed at you, Shiv, or anyone else on FtB. I’m just pissed at the continued existence of the myth that cis folk by-and-large don’t care much about their gender IDs. They aren’t the reasonable ones with calm, dispassionate perspective on an important issue like you, Shiv, on religion.]]

  3. Knabb says

    I can see where you’re going with this, and I don’t necessarily disagree in all respects – the whole idea of cis as a circumstantial description suits me, personally, just fine. In the specific context of people who aren’t necessarily attached to a gender identity or sure if we even really have one circumstantially cis works pretty well. Sure, I’ve caught some flak for looking deliberately androgynous before, but it’s just never been a big deal. Generally I’d considered myself agendered in such a way that I can dodge people who are genuinely cis, but the absence of hostility has always left that in question, and circumstantial cisness works pretty well to express that. Expressing the difference between people who are actually trans and actually take shit for it and people who aren’t necessarily classically cis per se but for whom that just doesn’t matter is valuable.

    It breaks down much further in the context of cis people deeply invested in their gender, and there’s plenty of them. There are plenty of cis men who will get furious if misgendered; the rhetorical strategies of telling people to “act like a lady” or “man up” actually have weight for a lot of people; there’s plenty of cis people who heavily police other cis people and demand they act sufficiently close to their apparent gender, etc. There’s the way that telling a man that they resemble a woman in some respect is considered a heinous insult – and I’m not talking about the response where people object to behavioral stereotyping. This is again one of the things that I’ve run into personally; the aforementioned androgynous appearance has led to more than a few kids pointing out that I look “girly” or “like a chick” or whatever. As far as I’m concerned that’s a neutral observations being made by exactly the people who make neutral observations all the time. If cis people in general had a gender but were broadly unconcerned with it the general reaction would be that it was a neutral observation. There certainly wouldn’t be immediate shock and apology from the part of the parents.

    There’s usually shock and apology (and the implication that looking androgynous is bad is very much noted). I’d also agree with Crip Dyke that this comes up a lot more in the context of people (particularly men) who haven’t thought of it, or have only done so minimally. Even putting aside how staggeringly unsophisticated cis supremacist rhetoric tends to be there’s the small matter of cis people having been gender obsessed since well before cis culture as a whole was willing to acknowledge that trans people existed. A lot of introspection seems unlikely there. Even among cis supremacists who have clearly put some thought into it (see: TERF assholes), whether there’s been actual introspection is a different matter.

    Then there’s the whole cultural default thing, again as pointed out by Crip Dyke. If your gender matches up with your assigned gender and you feel strongly attached to the gender in a society that says to be strongly attached to your gender, why think about it? They’re not fighting because they’ve won, not because they don’t give a fuck. Give them a reason to think about gender and they tend to flip the fuck out. Meanwhile people who are cis but don’t have that strong relationship they’re told they’re supposed to have have a reason to think about their gender, and actual thought is likely to make them at least not fight against trans* related rights.