The Cis State
The state wants to identify as cis, with a disturbing authoritarian outcome hanging in the balance.
Chase Strangio on recent anti trans bills targeting kids: "I think the impulse underlying both is to try to establish governmental policy that it's harmful to be trans."
A few examples of state power as exercised and proposed in the past few days:
The police enjoy the de facto, if not de jure right to summarily execute—which is to say, once we abandon the state’s abstract legalist language, to murder—Black people at its discretion.
The state of Texas proposes it can abduct trans children and place them in foster care if their parents or guardians recognize their gender.
The state of Georgia is targeting its Black citizenry for disenfranchisement using new poll taxes, reorganizing the state election system, and banning the delivery of bottled water to voters.
Now that we’ve disabused ourselves of the notion that liberal appeals to the state can rescue us from its real monopoly on certain forms of anti-Black and gendered violence, I have a hypothesis about what is (in part) happening with the anti-trans bills flooding state legislatures: the state is trying to become cisgender.
Two longstanding observations are merging in real time:
Cisgender is a fiction that gender tells itself to organize its binary and coordinate the biological anchor of political governance in the individual and population.
The modern state is a fiction it tells itself to authorize its political domination of social life.
The result of this merger? The state is trying to add a cisgender identity to its fictional biography. But the word fiction is not evidence that it is weak, ineffective, or doomed to fail. I doubt any of the estimated 45,000 trans youth who are facing the loss of healthcare and equal access to education find comfort in fictions.
What does it mean to say the state would be cis? In The Straight State, historian Margot Canaday summarizes the transformations that made the US state straight, a useful point of comparison:
“From the mid-1940s into the late 1960s…the state crafted tools to overtly target homosexuality. In contrast to the earlier period, policies were enacted that explicitly used homosexuality to define who could enter the country and be naturalized, who could serve in the military, and who could collect state benefits. A homosexual-heterosexual binary, in other words, was being inscribed in federal citizenship policy during these years” (3).
Rather than the state merely encountering gay and lesbians and then folding them into its political life (the liberal, progress narrative forwarded in mainstream LGBT activism), the state proclaimed itself straight in order to found its practices of administration and political domination on the exclusion and dispossession of homosexuality as uncivil.
We can see a corollary in the anti-trans policy making and political logic of the past five years. The state has, at all levels from federal to local, attempted in different ways to exclude trans people not so much from citizenship as public life. North Carolina’s infamous 2016 bathroom bill, which was the first time “biological sex” was written into US law, had an obvious outcome: if you can’t ever use the bathroom in public, it’s hard to participate in life outside of the private sphere. It’s no coincidence that restrooms, schools, and eligibility for state benefits, three zones where the US state has ample experience at racial segregation, have remained central in anti-trans politicking. If trans youth and adults lose access to public education, healthcare, restrooms, and legal recognition of their gender, there is essentially no way for them to participate in public life. They are not so much legally disenfranchised as in losing the right to vote or hold citizenship as they are expelled from the public sphere, exempt from care and support, as well as vulnerable to policing and violence.
We are witnessing an attempt at the total privatization of trans life, confining it to the social realm of civil society.
(Enter here all the venture capital backed, private hormone subscription and transition related services targeting the isolation and life stresses caused by this expulsion from public life. Although I remain extremely skeptical of why anyone but wealthy, mostly white trans people would avail themselves of these private services when trans DIY is the oldest, most durable, and democratic form of mutual aid, one developed by poor trans women who have extensive experience in informal economies of care, kinship, and social reproduction from sex work and experience being racialized by the police state.)
If the state wants to become cis through its relentless campaign to expel trans youth and adults from the public, we have to ask another question: what gender has the state been all this time? The state, much like sex and gender, has never actually been cis. This might come as somewhat of a surprise—most of all to transphobes, you poor, fragile things—as we are led to believe that the descriptive efficacy of a cis-trans binary is not only self-evident, but that it must apply retroactively.
It does not. As much of my work in Histories of the Transgender Child shows in greater detail (read chapter 3 especially for a more thorough explanation), sex did not become cis until the invention of the concept of gender in the mid twentieth century. Gender was invented by psychologists to bring order to the collapse of the sex binary in science and medicine. Over the preceding fifty years, sex had fallen apart under the weight of scientific investigation. Despite an obsessive and wide ranging interdisciplinary project, not to mention decades of horrifying non-consensual experimentation on intersex infants and children, medical science had utterly failed to explain how individuals acquired a bodily sex and corresponding psychic identity. They had also failed, even more spectacularly, to prove that sex was naturally binary in the human species, let alone in other animals. As a result, sex was in a major crisis in the late 1940s, appearing naturally intersex, non-binary, and trans according to science and medicine. What was to become of so-called “normal” people if those labeled as deviant were not biologically different, let alone diseased?
The success of gender in the 1950s onward is that it makes no claim to ontology, or what constitutes the proper sexed being of the human species. John Money, the psychologist who spearheaded the new concept of gender, meant for it to bring a social imperative to police human development. The new cisness of gender, which meant practically that one’s internal gender identity had to match their physical body, was not a biological norm of the human species according to Money. Rather, it was an enforceable match that could be imposed by medicine because otherwise people whose gender identity didn’t match their sex would experience social stigma. That’s it. Sadly for transphobia, there was no appeal to biological sex here. (Again, read chapter 3 of Histories of the Transgender Child for the details and research behind this.)
Given that the very idea of a cis gender was only birthed seventy years ago, it’s not surprising that it hasn’t fully taken on yet, especially at the level of the state. That is not to say that the state was somehow nonbinary or ungendered up to this point. On the contrary, the state has pursued many different forms of racialized gender over its lifespan. For most of the history of the United States the state was white, male, and propertied, if we use the franchise as our measure. Indeed, its universal, abstract citizen “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” was a fiction precisely because it relied directly upon the ungendering—to borrow Hortense Spiller’s genius formulation—of Black flesh held in chattel slavery, the theft of indigenous land as its referential territory, and racialized migrant labor from around the world to power its post-slavery industries.
The modern state is savvy as to the expansion of its own power and the justifications for its domination, as Karl Marx laid out in 1843 in “On the Jewish Question.” The state will grant the private freedom to practice religion, as Marx explores in that essay, in order to emancipate itself from religious minorities like Jews, who are henceforth confined to a second class status as parochial, private adherents to beliefs incompatible with modern political universalism. Meanwhile, it can preserve Christianity as the unofficial state religion, cementing a hierarchy that it claims to prohibit in its constitution. (See also contemporary Islamophobic regimes of secularism in France and Quebec.)
Likewise, we could use this analysis to see how the state has incorporated a certain kind of feminism into its regime of power, if we examined, say, how the coronation of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s liberal project “on the basis of sex” to be a whitewashing (and cis-washing, if we note how TERFs love to cling to RBG without understanding the law) of her reliance on Pauli Murray’s legal analyses of Jane Crow, a Black trans reading of anti-Black, gendered state power. Likewise, we could also see how the straight state has shifted towards what Jasbir K. Puar calls homonationalism, where a certain kind of white, nationalist, and propertied homosexual serves as the ideological alibi for American empire.
It might surprise you to learn, for instance, that trans people have not always had these problems with the state, since the state has never been cis. In 1945, for instance, Lucy Hicks Anderson, a Black trans woman and brothel owner living in California with her husband, appeared in court to defend the legality of her marriage and its associated US Army benefits. She lost, but not before saying in open court, “I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” That she could say this without it being read as outside the bounds of state-facing rhetoric is telling. White trans Americans had a significantly easier time. In 1957, Louise Lawrence, a trans woman partnered with a US army nurse named Gay Elkins, obtained a passport marked female to join her girlfriend at her new post in Germany. When the State Department later objected to her female passport and name, the Army discharged Elkins without benefits, leading to a legal battle, which they won. Lawrence traveled to Europe on her passport to be with her girlfriend at the end of the 1950s.
The state has never been cisgender, but it is desperately trying to identify as such now, making cisness a prerequisite to be a participant in public and political life. These bills treat trans youth, adults, and their families as uncivil for any number of fantasized reasons (our use of medicine, or our trespass of the gender binary) in order to justify excluding us. But the implications of a cis state are more dire than just making trans life a publicly excommunicated, private second class status. Cisness empowers the state to strengthen its authoritarian tendencies, since the stripping of civil rights and any access to public welfare is at stake here. We need to see these bills in concert with the other reprehensible forms of state power I mentioned at the outset, namely anti-Blackness as a justification for extreme police violence, mass incarceration, and the codification of a white, conservative voting majority.
If you don’t want an authoritarian, white nationalist state, you don’t want a cisgender state either. And it’s not quite yet cis, so we still have time. But we don’t want a trans state, or a nonbinary state either. State power folding us in is not the solution to its monopoly on violence and public life.