Why I changed my Facebook gender and so should you – Hidden Power of Words Series, #9

In response to pressure from the transgender community and their allies, Facebook started allowing people to choose their gender. No longer confided to the Male/Female binary, users have been able to enter anything they desire since February of this year. Popular options after Male and Female have been Cisgendered (or Cis) Male, Cis Female, Transgendered (or Trans) Male, Trans Female and small variations of these. Indeed, a few days ago I finally got around to updating mine from “Male” to “Cis Man.” (Updated 10/9/16, I’ve now changed it to say “genderqueer male.”)

Some of you may be asking, what does this “Cis” business mean anyway?

First, we need to recognize that no one is simply Male or Female (both weird quasi-biological terms), regardless of time or place. These, both as so-called biological classifications of sex and as social categories of gender, are nothing more than social constructions. See this link for some additional details and names for further reading.

So, a Cis Woman, for example, is someone who began life with a doctor subjectively announcing “It’s a Girl!” and who throughout life basically comfortably identifies, biologically and socially, as a Girl and as she grows up, as a Woman.

How do you know if you are part of the Cis group?: If you are not a Trans Man (arrived in life with the announcement, “It’s a Girl” but identify as a Boy/Man) or Trans Woman (arrived in life with the announcement, “It’s a Boy” but identify as a Girl/Woman), you are part of the Cis group.

(Also, whether one is Cis or Trans is completely separate from questions of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, etc.)

So while the Cis conceptualization has been around for about two decades, it has only recently found en masse popularity. Even with all of my readings about genderized history and society, I have also only known about the concept for a year or two.

The use of Cis is very important because it recognizes that Male/Man/Boy and Female/Woman/Girl as genderized and sexualized categories are not that different than Black and White as racialized categories. All of these and all of the other ways in which society subjectively divides and defines people are very powerful social forces that are forced upon all people, forces that consciously and unconsciously dictate behavior patters and expectations, and forces that have very real consequences for every one.

The use of Cis is also important because it no longer directly privileges the rhetoric of traditional genderized and sexualized frameworks. Trans AND Cis are both very specifically and equally identities, one of many identities any given person has. As Whiteness studies helped scholars recognize that White-is-not-default and that there are not White people but people who are racialized as White, Black, etc, Using both Cis and Trans allows us to see and specifically recognize how that no one is free from the power and consequences of such powerful, institutionalized structures. Further, this framework accepts and celebrates both Trans and Cis as fully legitimate and valid ways to experience and live the categories gender and sex.

I’ve written about other forms of privilege on this blog before, but this is also a good time to look at Cis Privilege. The following items are just a few examples directly copied from this awesome list (this website also has all kinds of other excellent lists looking at different forms of Privilege.) 

.        Use public restrooms without fear of verbal abuse, physical intimidation, or arrest
.        Your validity as a man/woman/human is not based on how much surgery you’ve had or how well you “pass” as non-transgender.
.        Strangers call you by the name you provide, and don’t ask what your “real name” [birth name] is and then assume that they have a right to call you by that name.
.        Your identity is not considered a mental pathology by the psychological and medical establishments.
.        You can easily find role models and mentors to emulate who share your identity.
.        Having your gender as an option on a form.
.        You don’t have to deal with old photographs that did not reflect who you truly are.

So in closing, I would like to call on all of you to rethink how you answer the question “What is your sex?” or “What is your gender?” depending on the form. While it is wonderful we now have both the Cis and Trans framework, our work is not done. Much remains to be done as far as acceptance—legally, socially, culturally—for all people regardless of their sex/gender identities/expressions/preferences. And even the Cis / Trans framework is still a binary. Binaries by nature exclude.

In some ways, there are as many genders as there are people and just as many ways of expressing this gender.

(And a side note: To the makers of Microsoft Office, “Cis,” “Cisgender,” and “Cisgendered” are all actually words in popular current use, please update your programs so my computer doesn’t have red underlines everywhere. Thank you!)

Click to enlarge. From the website linked above.

Listen to this excellent song while you’re here, please.

See the full Hidden Power of Words Series postings, too!