This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015. Actually, it used to be two articles, but I concatenated them here.
So, let’s talk about cisgender people, and how our sparing cis intellects assume the most ingratiating posture of surrender whenever the subject of trans people is broached.
When a trans person says they feel like this gender or that gender, many cis people find that confusing. “What does it feel like to feel like a man? *I* don’t feel like I am a man. Rather, I’m a man because society railroaded me into this role.”
If you feel sympathetic to this response, you may be interested in the theory of cis by default. Under this theory, some cisgender people simply do not have an internal sense of gender (“feeling like a man” or “feeling like a woman”), and simply go by the gender they’re told they are from birth.
This implies that not all cis people are the same. Some cis people have an internal sense of gender, some do not. If you’re confused by the very idea of an internal sense of gender, maybe you’re one of the people who doesn’t have one.
An additional complication is maybe some people can’t tell whether or not they have an internal sense of gender. I bring this up as it applies to myself. When I first encountered the concept of transgender, I didn’t understand this idea of feeling like you are a gender. Frankly it’s bizarre and the universe is pulling hella shenanigans on us all. But upon years of reflection, I realized I’d feel pretty uncomfortable if everyone started treating me, respectfully, as a woman. So maybe these gender-feels, however bizarre, exists in me? Or is does it just come from the fact that male gender roles involve inculcating us all with a fear of the feminine? I don’t know, and I probably never will.
As far as I know, all this diversity appears in trans people too. Some trans people have a strong internal sense of gender. Others may simply have to compare their experiences being seen as a man vs a woman, and find that they feel much better one way, even if they don’t have an explicit “I am a woman” kind of feeling. Some trans people may not have an internal sense of gender at all, and identify as non-binary for that reason (people ID as non-binary for other reasons too).
In my interactions with nonbinary people, they never universalize their feelings about gender. Queer people don’t have the luxury of being able to assume everyone feels the same way they do. Cisgender people have never had that luxury either, but sometimes they think they do.
The fact that some, if not all, people have an internal sense of gender is what makes gender identity completely incomparable to racial identity, and what makes “abolishing gender” ultimately undesirable.
Earlier, when I wrote Cis Diversity, the popularity of that post surprised me. I don’t think I was saying anything new, rather, I was simply sharing Ozy’s idea of “cis by default“. But perhaps it’s an idea that deserves explanation, spreading and re-explanation.
Now, let’s talk about the problems with “cis by default”.
As a political tactic, it’s useful to convince cis people that they may be cis by default. The political message is, even if you don’t understand gender identity, you should still trust trans experiences. If you don’t understand it, maybe it’s you, not them.
On the other hand, I suspect that a lot of cisgender people initially think they’re cis by default when they’re not. This suspicion comes from my own experience, where I initially thought my gender wasn’t that important to me. But upon increased interaction with non-binary people I realized that my gender is actually pretty important to me. I think an internal sense of gender may not be immediately obvious. If you’re trans, you notice something wrong, and after a lot of thought and investigation you figure out what it is. If you’re cis, you don’t notice anything wrong and then you just aren’t motivated to think about it very hard.
It’s not that cis-by-default people don’t exist. I’m sure they do. But often I think the best evidence for this is not in listening to cis experiences, but in listening to trans experiences. Many trans people clearly have an internal sense of gender, and many others just as clearly do not. Any theory of gender that does not account for transgender experiences is a pretty poor excuse for a gender theory.
On that note, here’s Zinnia Jones, discussing more or less the same topic:
There’s also a transcript.
Notice the immediate differences in the way Zinnia talks about it and the way I do. I’m clearly coming from a cisgender perspective. The idea of an internal gender sense is of philosophical interest to me, and to my cis readers as well. To a trans person, this is not a philosophical issue, it is a practical one. Trans people can’t treat it as a spherical cow problem. It’s probably overly simplistic to suggest that some people just have an internal gender sense, and others just don’t.
Zinnia also talks at length how the question of what it “feels like” to be a gender is not politically neutral. People use this question to invalidate trans experiences, because they think trans people can’t really know what it’s like to be a woman or be a man.
The great irony here is that it’s often cis people who don’t know what it’s like to be a gender. We often have the privilege of being able to leave it as an eternal mystery. Trans people don’t have that luxury.