Cis diversity

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.


  1. Siobhan says

    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.

    I’ve got some work on my docket about how trans and cis, while generally functional labels, aren’t discrete categories for this exact reason. After all I spent the first 19 years of my life badly chained to the “cis by default” mentality, and put myself through a rigmarole of various therapies thinking “it’s just _____.” But before I had the vocabulary to describe gender dysphoria, or take up a series of medical decisions and the political identity of trans, I assumed cisness of myself, and would’ve only been reluctant to take up the label because I had been struggling with gender questions.

    Even when I proposed a framework for education that described gender identity as “an experience of the body,” I still had to account for the fact that some people would well and truly be indifferent if they woke up tomorrow sexed differently than they are now, and that gender dysphoria doesn’t manifest in the same degree in everyone who has it. That said, most people who perform the thought experiment in good faith typically conclude that they are invested in their body’s sexed attributes, and they sometimes change their opinions on trans folk.

    To put it another way, I asked a guy once, “how would you feel if you incurred an injury during war that affected your penis?” and he thought he’d struggle with an injury like that. Then I told him that’s sorta what trans men can be born with, and suddenly I’m the fucking trans Socrates or something.

  2. khms says

    After a bit of introspection, my reaction is, how do I recognize this sense of gender, and how does it differ from simply feeling how my environment has trained me to feel?

    I am reasonably certain that I have no deep-seated way to be something different, but just like I like to read about people having adventures (which I wouldn’t like to have myself), I like to read stories whose heroes have the opposite gender. Perhaps more significantly, I fairly often find a stereotype which says men do A, and women do B, and I prefer B and cannot see myself doing A. (Of course, I also find the opposite.) So, I see how I could make an argument that there’s something wrong here, but that’s not how I feel (at least not on these topics).

    End result: these discussions tend to leave me confused.

  3. Siobhan says


    End result: these discussions tend to leave me confused.

    “Gender” has about six different uses that I’ve observed. I’ll shamelessly self-promote and offer my break down here:

    When you talk about expectation A and B and how those are tied up in (assumed) gender, I deem those gender roles, and note that it is entirely commonplace to find those expectations constricting. By contrast, trans people have an experience of their body which causes them distress, and this is what compels them to transition. We are subject to gender roles too, and whether we support them (see: Caitlyn Jenner) is a product of the rest of our politics, not our transition itself. Asking yourself “what is the source of the thing bothering me?” may help clarify. If you’re annoyed at other people’s expectations, you’ve arrived to the entirely defensible conclusion that gender roles suck. If there’s something about your body, or the way your body is perceived (by yourself or others), then it may run deeper than gender roles.

  4. says

    If I were assigned female, I think the obvious thing to me would be the social dysphoria morethan the body dysphoria. I may not like a lot of forms of masculinity or male gender roles, but I think I gravitate towards them pretty strongly. It’s feeling like these are the social constraints I’m meant to wrestle with, not those other social constraints that women deal with.

  5. EveryZig says

    @Siggy 5
    I feel kind of similarly. On one hand I don’t perceive having an internal sense of gender, with my response to the penis injury thought experiment being “well it would be a bummer to be unable to masturbate” (or in the alternate version where it instead transforms into a vagina that would seem like a pretty equivalent exchange). On the other hand I feel like my preferred behavior fits pretty well into the masculine associated role of “asocial, likes computers, pays minimal attention to appearance”.

  6. says

    I wonder how this all fits in with a wider body perception. Being a diabetic, one of my fears is foot or leg amputations. I know there are dysphorias where a person feels a limb doesn’t belong to them. Nothing sexual or gender related about those situations.

  7. Luna says

    I would question the logic of letting transgender people be the “arbiters” of what life would be like for a person with any sense of gender identity. Transgender folks by definition had to care about gender enough to transition (whether it’s the full suite of surgeries or just a social transition) or consider doing so.

    Cis-by-default seems like a bit of misnomer people, so I will call them defaulters (I don’t think they are cis at all). It could be that some transfolk had a more clear cut sense of gender identity than others. However even those who claim to rank low may be well above a true defaulters. Any transgender person may have a hard time putting themselves into the shoes of a true defaulter.

    Defaulters would only be motivated to change their social or physical gender given fairly severe extenuating medical (intersex or related medical conditions) or societal (many historical cases of women disguising as men; gay in Iran. This isn’t because defaulters “never think about it”, but because of some extremely obvious personal risk-benefit calculations. Far from having this easy, breezy relationship to gender where they “never think about it” many defaulters have long histories of unhappiness with and/or resistance to norms of masculinity/femininity. However if and when they learn that options like non-binary or agender exist, many make yet another “choose your battles” calculation and conclude that taking a non-binary or agender identity could mean MORE not less scrutiny towards their gender behavior. So they choose their battles. They opt to focus limited resources and goodwill on things that make a tangible difference in their lives. Like the population most are heterosexual but a noticeable minority would be gay or lesbian. So obviously attracting an opposite sex partner or a fairly mainstream gay man or lesbian could be a priority and a factor in how they ultimately present at least some of the time. Pronouns, restrooms, locker rooms, sports teams, and even “dressing nice” can be areas where defaulters reflexively prioritize a “means to an end” approach. A heterosexual defaulter woman who grew up being told her desire to be a mathematician was a sign of “penis envy” would be very reluctant to make waves over the locker room when she is hoping for tenure as a professor of mathematics. A heterosexual defaulter man who dealt with bullying and allegations of being gay because he preferred guitar to football if he has a shot at fame likely will present more like Bruce Springsteen than Boy George. Certainly a medical sex change REALLY looks like a bad calculated risk due to invasive nature, risks, and lack of guarantees.

    Indeed such “calculations” rather than “never thinking about it” may rule the “defaulter experience”. When defaulters look at stories of trans children and think “My God! What ever happened to ‘Free to be You and Me’?!?” they aren’t being old fashioned or invested in conventional gender roles-quite the opposite.

    Of course there’s a larger calculation. IN a world where women live under the long historical shadow of misogyny, coverture and just being deemed “less than” a lot of feminists are going to ask questions about trans ideas not because they are mean or exclusionary. Indeed talk about “man in a woman’s body” or “male/female brains” CAN smack of biodeterminism of the worst kind. Identifying as “cisgender” can feel like consent to be labeled according to every sexist stereotype in the book.

  8. says

    @Luna #9,
    What I would say to that, is that I think you’re getting too deep into speculation. At some point, you need to check with people who actually have such experiences. (Or if you’re speaking from any personal experience, first speak for yourself!)

  9. Luna says


    Actually I am speaking from a combination of personal experience and being around other people. I am sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have no “gender identity”. I have met a number of other people in my travels who appear to be sort of the same. It wouldn’t surprise me if “defaulters” constituted about to 40% of all people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *