When Did We Become Cis?
Words don't mean what they say, no one is cis, and we could use the delightful perversion of reading right about now.
I. You’re So Vain, You Probably Think Your Book Isn’t About You
I spent five years writing a book on the history of trans children. When I sat down to pen its preface, the very end of that process, I wrote an ambiguous line that accidentally conjured the idea of my trans childhood. I sat back and read it a few times. It sunk in. Fuck. In that fleeting moment I saw my own transness staring back at me for the first time in what was, in retrospect, the most obvious platform possible: a book, that I wrote, with Transgender in the title. But at the time it really was news to me. I hadn’t been able to see myself during all the years I’d spent in archives researching other trans people’s lives, in all the classrooms in which I’d taught transgender studies, or at all the conferences I’d attended to talk about trans history.
Sulking in a cloud of constant shame, I hadn’t even seen myself in the communities in which I’d lived during that same slice of time, where I’ve been lucky to know many trans people.
I know what you’re thinking, and no, it wasn’t a moment where my repression was lifted by the trans children I was writing about. Actually, one of the ironies about that preface is that I was stressing that I did not identify with the trans kids about whom I was writing. I didn’t know myself consciously to be trans during my childhood. Even though I was born at a time and a place where it might have been easier to access the word transgender than it was for the children I wrote about, whose childhoods transpired fifty or sixty years ago, I just didn’t. That moment just never happened. Until suddenly it did, when I was in adulthood, writing a preface to someone else’s childhood.
Although it has been painful to accept that feeling of belatedness, and it’s frankly a bit embarrassing to admit that finishing a book, of all things, made me realize I’m trans, it has also been exciting. There’s no moment of identification possible in my own writing, even if it gifted me a vision of myself as a woman of color. What writing has taught me, as a person who came out in its eleventh hour, is though my own transness gave me immense interest in my work, it didn’t produce any universal truth about gender. This essay isn’t “Transgender Studies Made Me Trans!” The point is, actually, about the value of not knowing. About what we might call the opacity of transness as an identity.
This essay is about words like transgender,about how and when they do and don’t get inside us, all without telling us who we are. It’s about the failure of another word, cisgender, to do what we want it to. And it’s about writing as a way of reminding ourselves that what’s empowering about being trans in the world isn’t some deep, everlasting truth that it reveals. It’s about loving what we don’t know about ourselves.
II. Kissing a Friend
All this has made more sense to me thanks to a book by my mentor Kathryn Bond Stockton, Making Out, where she shows us how words, by their very nature, get inside us when we read, without our permission, and grow strange meanings inside our heads. We actually kiss each other through reading words on a page and have fully-fledged “sex with ideas.” Reading makes us all a bunch of perverts—go read the book, you’ll see.
One of the other beautiful phrases Kathryn gifts us is “the prequel people.” Taking her own childhood as the object lesson, she tells us about those who lived as prequel to the word trans as we say it today. Through Kathryn’s childhood we learn about the “linguistic estrangement” from a word and a concept of trans in an era that also, weirdly, birthed a central cultural figure for what trans people are supposedly like (transsexual—something like Christine Jorgensen, you know?). Kathryn had her access to the word “trans” withheld by that same culture and so routed being a boy and loving girls through being gay. A pretty savvy compromise of meaning for a kid, I have to say.
Withholding the word was not simple lack, but the production of unknown-ness as a real thing in the world, or maybe an atmosphere: an unnameable mystique around that missing word, trans. This was not because the word didn’t exist, but because the white, American childhood into which Kathryn was thrown prized such unknown-ness above all else that it simply couldn’t allow trans to be read by her, to get insider her head. And so it comes to be that just as childhood Kathryn was practicing kissing and reading, and having sex with ideas that couldn’t hang their hat on the word trans, there were somehow also kids claiming allegiance with the very word that was withheld from her. These would be the trans children I’ve written about, who fiercely kissed that word and held it tight.
Here are two short stories I was told: a fourteen year old trans girl living in Los Angeles at the turn of the 1960s, who had never heard any words to describe her, takes the bus from suburban Studio City into Hollywood, nervously dressed as a girl. She wanders around what was, in that era, a notorious neighborhood, and happens upon a seedy newsstand, where she convinces the owner to sell her a copy of Female Mimics, a smutty magazine with titillating before and after pictures of female impersonators. These weren’t stories about trans women. They weren’t even stories about gay men doing drag. Whatever the personal identities or lives of the performers, the magazine was careful to portray them as straight men who dressed as women as a job. Yet in telling me this story, our protagonist made sure I understood that she read those pages voraciously that day and that, inside of her, they birthed possibilities that would within a decade lead her to a chewy, weighty word: transsexual.
Why don’t powerful words mean what they say, and why doesn’t their meaning tell us who we are? Is this all bad news?
Second story: a trans man was growing up on a farm outside of St. Louis. He knew he was a boy, not a girl, but he had no idea what to do with that and so kept it to himself. He could be a tomboy on the farm, but that wasn’t what his desire yearned for. It was the late 1950s and he read comics. One day in the back of his comic book he found an order form to send away for titles from a series called “the Blue Books.” These pamphlets, published by a socialist couple out of Kansas, used the cover story of providing reading material to the working classes to host radical, underground ideas. There was a whole series on “transvestism,” the men who dressed up as women—a compulsion, assured the sexologist who wrote the forwards to the articles. Our story teller anxiously sent away for some of these pamphlets and, though he never read one about a boy like him, the words on the page birthed meaning that forged a trans way forward for him, too.
A different trans word—transvestite—birthed futures of meaning for these kids out of texts they couldn’t identify with. Reading provided a live wire for these children of the mid century when they knew they weren’t supposed to exist in the present tense, but couldn’t be sure of much else. But why did these two kids find, almost mystically, such words to read, when during the same era Kathryn did not? And then there’s me. I was born three decades later, one the eve of transvestite and transsexual giving way to a whole new word—transgender—and yet I, like Kathryn, never had that childhood moment of letting trans words get inside me. Actually, even once I did read a lot of them in college and graduate school, they didn’t tell me a single thing about myself. So, what gives? Why don’t powerful words mean what they say, and why doesn’t their meaning tell us who we are? Is this all bad news? I don’t think so.
III. Who Are You Calling Cis?
Years ago I was at a conference and had coffee with a friend who lives in a different country. We confessed our mutual discomfort to each other about being “cis scholars doing transgender studies,” worried that we were taking up space we didn’t have a good reason to occupy. Fast-forward to another conference, a few years later. We are both out as trans now. They pull me aside for a second and remind me how we both fretted over coffee the last time we saw one another, for “being cis.” We giggle at the thought. I feel so much lighter.
Here’s the thing: no one is cisgender. But not for the reasons you might think. This is a tricky thing to say, I know—just ask the internet. There is no shortage of anti-trans agitators complaining about how much it hurts their feelings to be called cis. “Stop misrecognizing me, I don’t identify as cis!” they exclaim. These so-called injured people are being disingenuous. They don’t really care about the word. The whole crux of their gender has always been that they don’t have to be conscious of having one, so they feel their power threatened. Their complaint is strategic, it’s political. And yet, there is no shortage of people calling them out as cis, either. Both can be true. The problem is that the anti-trans side of this confrontation seems to be making better use of the instability of language than the trans-affirmative side.
Ask yourself this: how can you tell if someone is cisgender? Do you look at them? Study their gender presentation? Listen for their pronouns? Wait for them to self-ID as cis? I see this a lot at work. When “diversity” is on the table it usually means that everyone in the meeting has to go around and say their pronouns before we can begin. White ladies have to come out as cisgender. Okay, sometimes that makes me giggle. But it’s also profoundly unhelpful for a lot of other people who are non-binary, who don’t fit the recognizable figure of transness those ladies have seen on TV, or who are being misread by them anyways because of their ideas about race and class presentation. After I came out I began using they/them pronouns at work. My name hadn’t changed. And my hair is very curly, so it barely seemed to be getting longer, even after six months or a year of growth. With my brown skin and dark hair, no amount of shaving and makeup could keep a shadow from forming on my face over the course of a workday. All in all, unless I was wearing a dress, it wasn’t obvious from looking at me what I was asking from people. And so I felt all eyes on me every time I walked into a meeting. I didn’t need the people I work with to name their cisness to deal with that. The really cis thing at that meeting, after all, was the university, not the identities of the people who worked there.
Let me explain what I mean. I think of “cisgender” as a way of describing a significant change to the sex/gender system in the West that took place in the 1950s. Actually, the word “gender” didn’t mean at all what it does today until the 1950s. Before then, the word “sex” had to do all the heavy lifting. But in that decade a cohort of psychologists, endocrinologists, and plastic surgeons who had been forcing horrifying experiments on intersex infants and children for decades needed a new theory of human development and identity to save the binary. They had utterly failed to figure out what made people male or female, especially since a lot of people they had met seemed to be born outside of, or grow away from that binary. Other people they had encountered knew themselves to be a different sex than the one they were assigned at birth and some of them were asking for help in changing their sex—something that medicine could deliver, but doctors didn’t want to do.
Despite wielding medical science as a stick to force people to look “normal,” the sex binary itself was looking very weak.
The new word gender, by which these researchers meant our deeply felt sense of being a boy and/or a girl, was supposed to fix that conceptual weakness, to give the binary new teeth. And it did, with a kind of sleight of hand that we are still trying to outsmart all these years later. John Money, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, knew that finding a biological basis for sex could never be the justification for enforcing a match between anatomy and identity. Instead, he changed the terms of engagement. From now on, the issue was not if humans were biologically binary, but rather “the life adjustments of patients in our series”—how normal they felt, or how well they adapted socially. With that twist, a gender identity that did not conform to a binary body could be subject to medical control because it might lead to social stigma, not because there is anything unnatural or unhealthy about it.
(Sidebar: any anti-trans or “gender critical” person who appeals to “biological sex” is making an empirically, demonstrably false claim, as this historical moment reveals. Medicine and science have never claimed that human beings are biologically sexed in only two ways, that sex cannot change, or that it is biologically normal for anatomy to look one way and correspond to the psyche in a one-to-one sense.)
With this tectonic shift, gender became cis. And what’s “cis” about gender from then on is the way that social norms can be coercively enforced to prevent the perceived stigma of being different. In other words, gender becomes cis when it demands a match between anatomy and identity not because that is natural, but because it’s how society functions. It’s a tautology, it’s we live in a society on steroids, but it’s worked quite effectively. To put it a little more precisely: gender, as a system for categorizing and governing our bodies, identities, and social recognition, is cisgender in this specific way. Cis isn’t an identity. It’s a diagnostic, a description of a system organized to subject people to the authority of institutions: the state, medicine, law—and the university, to go back to that meeting I was conjuring earlier.
what’s “cis” about gender from then on is the way that social norms can be coercively enforced to prevent the perceived stigma of being different.
The prefix “cis” means, roughly, “on this side of/on the same side,” and the reinvention of gender as cis in the 1950s allowed the enforcement of sameness between body and identity to become a legitimate goal of medicine, law, and the state. And this is why no one, individually, can actually be cis. Cisness is not a state of being, it’s a set of operational norms that we use to discipline people’s gender and punish their transgressions. Making gender cis in this way has accomplished a great deal of harm, but here are a few examples: we assume trans and non-binary people are the only ones who need to explain their genders; we have visual and biological norms for what a human body’s primary and secondary characteristics are “supposed” to look like; we accept the arbitrariness of having to identify our genders on almost every form and ID document; and we empower countless random bureaucratic agents, from border guards to liquor store clerks, to compare how we look to that letter on our ID, with potentially high stakes in the outcome.
I like using the word “cisgender” to name these institutional systems of power that govern us through forcing us to declare a gender that exhibits sameness to our bodies. But I don’t think it’s particularly useful as an individual identifier, and it’s especially risky as a way to call people out. Like I said, no one is really cis, that’s the whole point of the concept. And making guesstimations of someone’s gender based on how they look is the antithesis of trans-affirmative politics. This is the other side of the coin I encountered in writing the preface to my book. It’s also the source of the unease I felt when I shared my fear with my friend that I was a “cis person doing trans studies.” Well, it turns out I really wasn’t, so there was some other unease at play, too. But regardless, the words cisgender and transgender, in and of themselves, can’t reliably do what we want them to in drawing up clear boundaries around people. As Kathryn’s book so elegantly lays out, that’s not what words are for.
I said earlier that none of this is bad news. In fact, I think we could be a great deal more excited about how our words lead us to what we don’t know, to the opacity of our own selves and one another. One of the signature effects of the medicalization of trans people since the 1950s has been to reduce the sheer diversity of our experiences, identities, and lives into a single, confined narrative. For girls like me, at first it was something like “you are a woman trapped in a man’s body,” where you had to adjust that body to try to pass. Today, in spite of all the new words we have to make meaning of gender, you can still find the same idea in play. It looks more sophisticated now, something like “trans people have brains similar to cis people of their gender identity.” But we don’t even need that scientific hypothesis to justify trans people’s existence or rights. We need a system of gender that doesn’t recognize existence and rights on the basis of inborn immutability—and the extensive work around of forcing people to align their bodies and identities to reflect what was supposed to be immutable.
We do need gender to be something other than cis, as a system. That might look like breaking the enforceable connection between appearance, identity, and assumptions about how a body should look. But in the meantime, we all have words, trans, nonbinary, and cis alike. We are all estranged from the words that get inside our heads, telling us only so much about who we are, and perhaps more about who we are not, who we are becoming through meaning. Here is where the “we” I’ve been invoking throughout this essay rightly falls apart. We don’t know ourselves, precisely because of the words we use—man, woman, femme, masc, trans, nonbinary, queer, cis—to describe who we are. That is, perhaps, our strongest case against the cis system of gender. And this is what I’ve learned from writing a book in transgender studies that told me I was trans, without revealing what that means.
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 John Money, Joan Hampson, and John Hampson, “Hermaphroditism: Recommendations Concerning Assignment of Sex, Change of Sex, and Psychologic Management,” The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal 97, no. 4 (1955):285.