Friday, August 7, 2015

"Cis by default" and privilege

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.