Entertaining a second definition for cisnormativity

A critical proposal

The Bauer, et al., premier definition of record (or authority) for cisnormativity advanced the novel argument that such a social condition actually exists and is meriting of a name. While there had been unofficial uses of the word within online forums, it was only in 2009 that it was raised to critical peer scrutiny. It is likely to be explored in future papers to varying extents.

While for a trans person cisnormativity may reverberate with assorted impacts and consequences throughout one’s lifetime — particularly starting with one’s first puberty, though sometimes earlier — this is also not news for us. Exclusions; compulsorily gendered inclusions (segregated physical education often comes to mind); policing of gendered dress codes “appropriate” for one’s recorded morphological sex at birth; expectations foisted on expectations of one’s morphological sex; and so on are some of the familiar themes plaguing the lives of trans people to which cisgender people with cissexual bodies can be completely blind, oblivious, or even complicit in maintaining.

Owing from my own familiarity on disciplines concerning physical spacing, placement, geographies, social participation, urban culture, and the like, I think it might be worthwhile to explore a second working definition for cisnormativity. While I see this as an institutionally engrained component of our culture, a second understanding can permeate more deeply on questions of where a trans person is permitted to be experienced publicly without escalating their risk for being outed or policed for violating attendant normativities expected within that space.

An “outing” (or being outed)/“forcible disclosure” for a trans person is, in effect, when the suspected or actual identification of a person whose body could be transsexual and/or whose articulation of gender — and the principal dialect they use to socially communicate themselves — is read to contradict social expectations of their body morphology is picked out, placed in a spotlight of scrutiny, and any or all of humiliated, put on the spot, excoriated, excluded, rejected, and even ejected from a space.

I hesitate to say “morphological sex assigned at birth”, because should one’s body lack visible markers of that information (say, following years of an exogenous (external) hormone regimen or through constructive surgery) — yet that person communicates something contradictory to how their body is now perceived — then a curious full-circle of cisnormative policing could place them directly in the crosshairs of cisgender people with cissexual bodies (let’s call this “CPwCB”, even though it’s really clunky and should probably only be used here) who feel a discomfiture with what they see.

Action to “remedy” this discomfiture frequently produces resistance for trans people within these spaces — ranging from obvious complaints of public washroom use to less apparent invisibilities of trans people within cultural and economic transactional sites such as restaurants, bars, and retailers. Should a trans person inside one of these spaces be noticed, the processes of repercussion against that individual (a kind of “cis-vigilantism”) are established by a cisnormative social-cultural order. In short, cis people who feel threatened by departures from cisnormativity — conscious or not — are aware of their extended limits in reacting to that person (such as it being “okay” to beat a trans person to death and to declare a “gay panic” “defence”) or treating them in ways they would never fathom treating a cis person. In turn, this jeopardizes the safety of that trans person, and it may revoke any hospitalities which previously were extended to them.

This can be the case within subsets of cisnormative spaces, such as the once-assumed ubiquitous heteronormative space — against which sexual minorities faced harsh repercussions for deviating from social-cultural expectations — to the emergent homonormative spaces which arose in the decades following the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, the Stonewall Inn riot, and other localized resistances to claim (cissexual) gay space within cities. Enclaves of homonormativity, such as the Castro, West Hollywood, Christopher Street, or Davie Village may tolerate the presence of visible trans bodies, but this is only if they are seen to be producing economic capital, not spending or consuming it.

For example, visibly transgender articulations within in a gay enclave may be confined to drag shows or pressed to its margins where informal sex trade is exchanged. Other articulations, meanwhile, are begrudgingly brooked so long as that presence is tacitly understood to be ephemeral, fleeting, and assured to vacate within a reasonable amount of time — such as a to-go purchase of coffee or buying a meal at a fast-food establishment. These “essential” transactions are not regarded as activities of leisure and enjoyment of life so much as activities of survival or functionality. The notion of leisure or elective consumption, however, is understood as a social affirmation within which one is permitted to belong in a space. Those who are not welcome should not be seen enjoying the good (cis) life.

This returns to the question of cisnormativity and geography: where do trans people (and people whose articulations of the language of gender violate rules of ciscentric permissibility — that is, genderqueer people) belong? When do they belong? Do they even belong? Do they belong if they are seen as trans? Do they belong if they are seen as cis?

Without much surprise, the answer is a resounding, unqualified “no” and “never”, with special exception to the very last. That special exception comes with much harsher penalties if one is outed in cis space.

Visible trans people have already been discussed, so what of trans people who are accepted by cis people as putatively having similarly cissexual bodies? To the consternation of some cis people, this is often a far more common occurrence than observing instances of a visible trans person in public spaces of assembly. These trans people are permitted to occupy space within a cissexual context precisely because they are validated by cis people as permissible participants. These trans people articulate a dialect of gender with a minimum of “latent accents” ascribed to a dialect for which they were trained to use before transition (irrespective whether they got the hang of that dialect or not). This may sound somewhat appealing to reach for trans people who have not (yet) managed to do this, but it also raises a different kit of caveats with sometimes far more violent means of cis “policing” or cis-vigilantism.

We witness this in the form of trans people — disproportionately trans women — who are outed in moments of heterosexual intimacy (i.e., a cisgender man with a cissexual body (CMwCB)), or in moments of exchange with medical or legal services. For the latter, this brand of cis-policing (while not rising to the level of a vigilantism) may result in wilful denial of urgent or preventive care or in the wilful mis-gendering of a litigant involved in a claim. Both can effectively destroy the life of a trans person — functionally and/or literally — for falling beyond and violating the permissible bounds of cis spacing and denied the social, cultural, economic, and political privileges afforded to people with cissexual bodies.

So to present a second working definition for cisnormativity as it relates to spacing, it might be worded as thus:

Cisnormativity is the spatial-relational condition of privileging social-cultural-economic accessibilities to persons who are cisgender, who have cissexual bodies, or both, at the specific exclusion of or penalty to those people who do not have these — namely, trans people who are perceived as trans and not cis. Cisnormative spacing is an overarching paradigm comprised of both heteronormative and homonormative territories over which dominions of assimilation over trans people prevent them from being fully enfranchised as socially, culturally, and/or economically participatory residents. Trans violations of intruding on cisnormative space may produce social rejection, institutional exclusion, and even grievous bodily harm without comprehensive criminal penalization for doing so.

This will be used as a framework to analyze the cisnormative dominion around which trans people are forced to carefully navigate as a precondition for accessing basic needs and social involvement. To reify — to make the abstract more tangible and to name it (thus giving it semantic anchoring) – what trans people intimately know already is to open discursive scrutiny, critique, and to present to cis people (allies, adversaries, and all in between) a concept that they can begin to recognize their own complicity in denying trans people an comparably equitable footing which cisgender people and people with cissexual bodies accept for granted.

As a footnote to this discussion and for others to follow: a new semantics to articulate the idea of a cisnormative framework will be emerging steadily. Some of this will probably be a bit cumbersome and clunky at first, though this is arguably an important first step towards finding more common ways to accurately describe a trans individual’s placement or the specific conditions endemic to different cisnormative spaces. What we have had up until now are largely prescriptive definitions around which value judgements are tendered and are harmfully used in some of the same disempowering ways which one might expect from a Nathaniel Hawthorne Puritanical classic.

Also, at times these discussions will be a bit arcane and tedious, but a necessity for clarity is the genesis behind this approach. A goal from this exercise is to find better ways to, again, describe conditions facing trans people and describing trans people ourselves without resorting to compromise key meanings of experience (or awareness of self) and to do so in a way which can be dropped into far less academic language (cos really now, who speaks like this outside of essays, theses, and policy talks? I sure as hell don’t. No, really. I don’t. Honest.). :)

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