So You’re Cisgender – What does this mean for your life?

Posted on May 24, 2010

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So You’re Cisgender – What does this mean for your life?

BY Micah & Brian

Micah:

As a young man who is relatively open about my transgender status, I get asked a lot of questions from cisgender people. Many, if not all, of those folks are well-meaning, and earnestly want to know more so they can be respectful. But I’ve only been publicly identifying myself as trans for the past three years, and I am already exhausted of answering the same questions time and time again – often phrased in ways that make me cringe.

As a white man, when it comes to race, I’m on the flip side of that equation – I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color, and so when I was first learning about my white privilege, my instinct was to want to ask people of color what I could do to help undo racism in my life. However, I quickly learned that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of people of color to educate me – that’s just another example of my privileged ass wanting someone else to do my work for me (but now, since I’ve started that work, if you’re interested, here are two excellent resources on this topic -Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and Fix It: Racism). Educating myself is now easier than ever – there’s a magical invention called the world wide web with all the resources I could ever need right at my fingertips.

And fortunately, the same is true for you when it comes to educating yourself about trans identities and issues!

Something else that’s helpful to have around is someone I trust to pass the baton to when I just can’t talk about this stuff anymore. For me, that person is my best friend Brian, and he’s here to give you some good places to start educating yourself. So maybe if you meet that first real live transgender person face to face they don’t want to back away slowly as you ask them what their “real” name is. Take it away, B.

Brian:

First off: I am honored that Micah trusts me to write this post.  There is a tension. It is important for me to remember that trans people can and do speak for themselves.  I am not writing this post because I am an expert, or because you will listen to me more, or because I can be a “voice for the voiceless” (everyone has a voice, just listen). I am writing this post so that my best friend doesn’t have to, for the umpteenth time this week, explain gender and what it means to be trans.  It is my hope that all the cisgender folks at Queermergent can be trans allies: an important first step is recognizing this tension.

Owning what I don’t know:
I am not transgender.  I have trans friends and I can read about trans lives, issues, and experiences, but I am cisgender–and that’s OK. The point is not for me to “understand” what it means to be trans but rather to trust the experiences of trans folks–to honor their experiences as real, and to recognize they are best suited to provide solutions.  That’s my responsibility. If you are cisgender, I invite you to make that your responsibility too.

And now on with it.

The basics:
Gender Identity: We all have it!
When talking about trans issues, it’s important to remember that we all have a gender identity. Mine is male. What is yours? You can answer aloud to yourself right now.

My gender identity is the same as the gender I was assigned at birth. Thus, I am cisgender (cis is a Latin root for “on the same side”). People whose gender identity and assigned gender don’t match are transgender (trans is a Latin root for “on the opposite side”).

Other things to know: some folks are born with intersex conditions, some folks are genderqueer, androgynous, or identify with another third gender.

This Conversation Has Been Done Before
I want you to read Trans Respect by Micah Bazant. Much of what I know I learned from trans folks. Using the internet is one of the ways we can learn from trans people without burdening them.

What does it mean to be transgender?
A person may identify as transgender (trans) when their assigned gender (what the doctor tells your parents) does not match their gender identity (what we know to be true about ourselves). This person may have had any combination of surgery or hormones–or they may not.  Each person can know what their gender is.  I am male.  I am sure of it.  I don’t need other people to second guess me.  Likewise, a trans person does not your unsolicited opinion on their gender.  They get it.  And, on a grammatical note, “transgender” is an adjective–it describes a noun.  It is not a noun (as in not “a transgender”, but rather “a transgender person/male/female”). It’s also not a verb (no one “transgenders”).  A person’s trans status may not be their primary identity and for many people it’s not a gender.  A trans male is male.  A trans woman is female.  Do not add the qualifier unless it is necessary.

Talking about trans folks:
Trans folks did not “used to be” any gender other than the one they identify as. Period, the end.  When you refer to them–past or present tense–use the correct pronouns and only the correct pronouns.  “When so-and-so used to be [name or gender]” is never correct. It’s not just inappropriate, it’s wrong.  Also, a person will tell you their name. That’s all you need to know.  Don’t ask what their “real name” is or their “old name”–it’s irrelevant.  One of my cisgender friends is named Brandon. It’s not his given name but very few people know that and no one ever asks him about it. That’s called cis privilege. If you have trans friends (and I hope you do!), and someone asks you their legal/given/former name, only disclose that information if you are sure your friend wants you to. It’s their life.

Use the right pronoun
No really, just do it. Don’t say it’s hard, or you are trying, or it would be easier if…. Just do it. Cisgender folks take for granted that others will use the right name and pronoun for us–let’s do unto others.

Being “out”
For many gay/bisexual/queer people, the ultimate goal is to be “out,” while for many trans people, the ultimate goal is to be consistently correctly perceived as the gender they are.  Respect that and allow them to just be.  If a trans person wants to disclose their status, they will.

Micah:

Brian’s given us a lot of food for thought here, and we have even more we want to share with you soon! We just don’t want to overwhelm you with a 3,000 word post. Plus, where’s the suspense in that? Now you have something to look forward to in the rest of this series.

Thanks for reading, and we look forward to interacting more in the comments. Let us know what you think!

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Micah & Brian are best friends (and sometimes roommates) who reside in New York City when we aren’t traveling to speak about, lead training for, or engage in activism with Sanctuary Collective. Brian is a filmmaker slash web designer and Micah is a writer and dreamer.  We spend sunny days wandering around Brooklyn, listen to music, and talk about our lives and romance and theology.  Brian makes Micah watch cheesy gay movies and Micah encourages Brian to drink cheap beer. We’ve been known to go dancing, we host friends, and we laugh a lot.  We also care deeply about the world and discovering the ways we can each have a hand in making things better.