Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Political correctness

Keeping up on one's politically correct terms sometimes seems futile - every term will eventually be pejorative and outdated eventually. As an ally and a holder of most privileges, it's necessary to know about respectful language and terms in attempting to hold a discussion and increase my knowledge on these views.

But it's hard. Terms can go from polite, to being co-opted by schoolkids, to being pejorative in less than a decade - I'm never sure whether I, as a cis, straight person should say queer or gay/lesbian or LGBTQ. In the context of college, where I had a lot of friends identifying as queer, I used queer. But now, living a more vanilla life, I'm more comfortable with LGBTQ.

I saw another example of this in the recently reviewed "Our Guys". Throughout the 1997 book about the 1989 rape of a developmentally challenged teen, author Bernard Lufkowitz uses the term "retarded" to describe the victim. The book is extremely sympathetic towards the victim, and Lufkowitz seems to be advocating from a feminist perspective. But his use of retarded, intended to be medically descriptive and respectful, dates the book immeasurably.

I remember that cisgendered (meaning someone whose gender identification is the same as their sex) seemed particularly silly to me when it was first introduced - alienating, academic, not rooted in colloquial language. I predicted that it would not be long for the PC world - it's good to have a term to describe that particular privilege, but it's not well defined and, as I said, unclear. What, exactly, is a body that's in line with gender identity? Are the only cis people those who were born in the sex that matches their gender? What about intersex persons?

A over at aelphaba today posted a terrific musing on being described by others as cisgendered:

Does the fact that I am currently presenting as female and I’ve never not wanted a vagina (penises are just inconvenient) mean that I am any less gender queer?

No. I have struggled with gender for the majority of my life. I have had panic attacks over it, I have sliced my skin over it, and I am fully aware of the difference between gender presentation and gender identity. The queer community should be too.
I choose to present as female, but female is not an identity that I claim. The problem with the term cisgendered is that it is a term that the queer community is using to apply to other people. This labeling is done under assumptions of presentation. I understand how the term “bio-female” might be taken the wrong way from the transgendered perspective, but I think that cisgendered is not a term that the queer community should be throwing around unless someone self-identifies as it.

I think that the idea of context is important here. It's not that you can't say that Rush Limbaugh isn't cis just because he hasn't formally claimed that term. But one needs to avoid applying this term to others in the context of a feminist/queer/womanist/whathaveyou discussion. Unless someone identifies with a specific group, assume that they are not in possession of that privilege.

A's situation to me is analogous to a light-skinned person of color or a person with a non-outwardly-incapacitating diseases such as fibromyalgia. (Just similar - not less or more or equally oppressive, necessarily). Though folks in this situation may seem to possess a privilege, you cannot assume the details of one's life story.

Read more here.


  1. Interesting. I've never heard the term cisgendered before. I can see how it might not be the right description for some people, but I can't think of a better way to draw those lines. I think that's a big problem in the LGBTQ community in general, just because so many different kinds of people exist. It is kind of unfortunate that humans need such rigid definitions to make sense of the world (or even that our language isn't capable of such fine distinctions).

  2. Here's my main problem with a lot of people's arguments against terms like cis: while many of them make valid points about invisible identities, they don't really provide any viable alternatives. Criticizing a term like cis without suggesting a better one allows a cis identity to remain unmarked, leaving trans*, genderqueer and other identities as the only marked ones.

    Also, given that cis folks are still very much in the minority, I think it's dangerous to say "Unless someone identifies with a specific group, assume that they are not in possession of that privilege." Unprivileged until proven privileged? How is that any better than the current situation, where those of us in the marked categories have to speak up if our oppression isn't outwardly visible?

  3. Yikes! Clearly that should read cis folks are still very much in the majority. Feel free to edit that...

  4. I personally don't like the term, very much for the same reasons both you and aelphaba talk about. I think the challenge is that most people for whom that term would apply, have never had occasion to question how they would self-identify on the gender spectrum. Some of them are still wrapping their minds around the idea of a "gender spectrum" to begin with.

    I work with it as the term I've got, but if someone were to correct me, I'd hang with whatever they gave me.

    It's worth mentioning that no matter how many times I identified as trans or genderqueer, *all* of the feedback forms that used pronouns, used "she". I'm not bothered by it, because most people will always judge me by their own perceptions of gender and presentation.

  5. Criticizing a term like cis without suggesting a better one allows a cis identity to remain unmarked, leaving trans*, genderqueer and other identities as the only marked ones.Fair point. I agree that there should be some kind of marker, and I think that cis works. I think it can still stand criticism, though, as we all could.

  6. I think in the end it comes down to terminology used to describe a given sociological situation and not identity.

    Cis isn't an identity unless you use it as one. It isn't applicable unless you apply it as one (by saying "I am" or "I identify as"). Much in the same way trans isn't really an identity unless you apply it as one.

    It goes the same way as white. There are quite a few people who possess white privilege but would never self identify as white. Maybe they have a Mediterranean tone or they believe that white is an arbitrary category absorbing radically different Slavic, European, Pacific and etc groups. So white is a poor identity and expecting someone to identify as a white person is a poor way to handle things.

    But when it comes to the discourse of marginalization, white isn't based on identity (nor is cis). They are social groups, created by society, wherein individuals are placed within them (whether they identify with them or not) based on arbitrary elements that society uses to create oppression and apply privilege.

    A trans person who hasn't realized they're trans has cisgender privilege. A trans person who has transitioned physically and "passes" has cissexual privilege. Cis people are not cis people because they identify that way any more than white people are white because they identify that way. It's because one does not exhibit the traits outwardly that would allow society to marginalize them on trans lines and ergo receive the opposing privilege.

    Stating that cis and cis privilege is offensive is no different, to me, then stating that white and white privilege are offensive.

    The blog post I wrote is a bit more enraged then this comment (from betrayal of the trans community by Pams House Blend), so I won't link to it. I think I summed things up (ragelessly) well enough here. XD

  7. Hey RP - thanks for checking out this post and adding some much needed perspective. This was written over three months ago, and I probably wouldn't write it today. Apologies for cis privilege if anyone else finds their way here...


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