what it means to be placed as cis

there’s a new round of blog posts by (so far, all white) cis women showing up recently which implore others to recognize how they aren’t trans, but how they’re somehow not cis, either.

the imploring here is not specified outright, but the subtext is that trans people — and especially trans women — better be listening to this, or else face the wrath of white (“not-cis”) cis women who believe on some level that trans women’s relationship with womanhood and/or femininity is in any way manufactured, fake, or 13mm spanners in the toolbox of patriarchy.

(of course, at this time, said white (“not-cis”) cis women can and probably will claim plausible deniability for implicating or indicting trans women. or maybe not.)

this not terribly novel argument of “non-cis” cis people centres around personal narratives of discomfiture around one’s own bodies and the gendered expectations a cisnormative social order places and demands on not just trans people and their bodies, but also on cis people and theirs. that cisnormativity is inherently imperialistic. taken to its origins, it’s quite kyriarchical and, yeah, patriarchal. 

(cisnormativity, it’s worth reminding, encompasses both social orders of heteronormativity and homonormativity.)

these grievances centre around prescriptive ideas of body and butlerian “performance” — that prescribed expectations of a femininity envisioned by patriarchy unnecessarily confine and alienate many cis girls and cis women. this is quite often so. what’s not said: prescribed expectations of a masculinity envisioned by patriarchy unnecessarily confine and alienate many cis boys and cis men. this is also quite often so.

for a great many trans people? the mere sense of alienation doesn’t stop there. the alienation is compounded by an estrangement (really the only way i can think of before drinking a cup of coffee this morning to say alienation², or alienation, squared). not only is there this realization that prescriptive ideas for body confine and alienate a trans person from themselves, but there’s also an awareness that how they’re placed by other people in a di-gender social order is wholly off the mark.

for a great many trans people, it isn’t just a grievance of “i have a self-loathing of my body which fails to meet gendered expectations ascribed to it systemically at birth.” it’s also a grievance of “this body’s morphology is utterly alien to me, what in the the actual fuck?” and it’s also a grievance of “the way cis people place me as cis — and link that to how i was assigned at birth — is flat-out incorrect,” especially before one is able to begin their own transition.

said patriarchy reinforces essentialist dichotomies. it shoehorns many, especially cis people, into expectations which uphold a di-gender social order — one valuing an unmarked (default) masculinity over a marked (exceptional) femininity.

prescriptive expectations are quite real. they demand compliance from both cis people and trans people. some, especially so by trans people, resist this. this resistance isn’t necessarily some conscious decision — it’s not as if every trans person, in voicing themselves as trans, is out there to “fight the system,” as it were.

but where we are right now within a cisnormative regime (which, all other intersectional experiences being the same, doesn’t penalize people placed as cis versus those who are placed as trans)? to even voice oneself as trans continues to be a wilful act of resistance to that regime, even should one believe that voicing themselves as trans isn’t so much a resistance as it is a means to articulate themselves within a di-gender social order — to be, without pretence, artifice, or subterfuge.

here’s what “resistance” to cisnormativity isn’t: it isn’t the act of questioning marginal populations within these regimes. for instance, when cis people (yes, that includes the “not-cis” cis people) interrogate whether trans narratives are legitimate, this is not an act of resistance against any regime. it’s an act of cisnormative subjugation. and discussion of non-binary people’s experiences doesn’t even get a whit of notice in these cis-centric grievances.

when a trans person who has not only transitioned, but is also placed — whether consistently or periodically — by cis people as cis, they are cognizant that the intersectional privilege of being unmarked as cis comes with less harassment, threat, and danger than being marked as trans.

when that trans person can walk into any cisnormative space of assembly — a sidewalk, a grocery store, a retail job, at the airport — and not be placed as trans, they are aware that they have a privilege of being placed as cis.

for that trans person, unlike with a cis person, this placement is conditional. they are cognizant on some level that it can be taken away. it can be taken away if somehow a cis person — or even a trans person (who believes every trans person should be forcibly disclosed as trans) — realizes that a trans person is trans.

the penalty for a trans person being placed as cis, but being “discovered” somehow as trans, can be material, substantive, and punitive. it can even be fatal.

a cis person, meanwhile, doesn’t really experience this. a cis person may get placed as trans before they can demonstrate or even “prove” that they aren’t trans. this can usually be managed pretty quickly.

there have, however, been extremely rare cases where a cis person was placed as trans and then, say, murdered before the assailant could realize that they were truly cis. one example: a cis woman named Brenda Ludgate, a sex worker, was shot on site and killed by a cis man because he believed her to be a trans woman; the same man shot and killed two other sex workers the same night (a trans woman and a genderqueer person) he also placed as trans.

Ludgate’s death example further obviates this misbegotten belief that a cis person can be “not-cis” and/or lack cis privilege. had Ludgate been instead placed as cis on that night, then she would have lived to see at least another day, if not another decade or five. cis privilege is not meted by how one perceives themselves. cis privilege is meted by how other people operating in a cisnormative social order places that person in social transactions.

tl;dr. white “non-cis” cis women: this isn’t about you. this is about how other people place you as cis. if this feels repulsive to you, then good: start tearing down structural cisnormativity. in turn, tear down heteronormativity and homonormativity. tear down kyriarchy. don’t tear down or question the validity of trans people in order to validate your own discomfiture with your body and the expectations which have been placed on you as a cis person in a cisnormative social order.


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