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On gender identity and power of definition

Some time ago, one of my friends posted a link to an article called “6 Reasons Why Being Called a Cis Person Is Not ‘Oppressive’“, which made me think. In general, I think that the author is getting things mostly right, but their conclusion seems to me to be off the mark, and badly so. I will freely admit that I am of two minds here. One part of me is “well, cisgender is not hate speech”, whereas the other part is “offense is defined, not by the offender, but by the person who is being offended”. I would like to expand on that.

Kyke” is universally recognised as a derogatory term for jews, and anyone calling me a kyke would be guilty of hate speech. Likewise, calling a PoC a “nigger” or “gook“, would be hate speech, as would calling a lesbian a “dyke“. The crucial point here is intent; all of these terms have long been used to oppress, and are all parts of the language of oppression. It follows that they are imbued with an intent of oppression. Under this understanding, being called cisgender is not inherently oppressive, as cisgender is both a fairly recent term (it seems to have been originally coined in 1991), and one which does not have a consistent history of oppressive use (that is not to say that it does not have the potential to be used for oppressive purposes, as we shall soon see).

It seems to me that the problem here stems from people taking offence with being classified in a manner that is unfamiliar to them, and in which they have not classified themselves. (I would add, at this juncture, that while I do not have any problem being called cisgender, I do understand how someone unfamiliar with the term and its connotations may take offence.) This goes specifically to the second point in the article; if you do not perceive something as creating a rift, as far as you are concerned, it doesn’t. However, one must be aware that perceptions differ, and that one can never define someone else’s perception for them.

Despite the misguided nature of the Uppity Biscuit response, they are right in one very crucial thing; “You have no right or authority to name me without my consent.” At the core of this statement is the right to self-definition. How many people have been defined as straight against their will, and against reality? Who are you (for clarity “you” as in “you who define others as cisgender”) to define anyone else’s gender identity? Now, I understand that being defined trans is substantially different from being defined cisgender. That is irrelevant to the point I am making, which is that the power of definition lies with – and must lie with – the one being defined. In a world where defining someone else’s gender identity for them is unacceptable, it must be unacceptable both ways. This is not a Winnie the Pooh kind of thing; it’s either unacceptable (and I certainly think it is), or it is not. Labelling someone who has not explicitly stated a preference (both for labelling, and for the specific label) is not OK.

I identify as a cisgender straight white male. Because I actively and (and here’s the important bit) publicly identify as cisgender, people are free to call me cisgender. Had I not self-identified as such, the only thing that is apparent (if you meet me in person, or google me), if you do not know me, is that I am a white male. My gender identity and sexual orientation are non-obvious, and would remain so, even if you were to encounter me in public, with my wife and children. What does this mean? On the one hand – and as previously stated – labelling someone as cisgender is not inherently oppressive. The intent behind it is the important point. As several friends point out, the few times they’ve been labelled as cisgender, the implication had been that they, as cisgender, had no right to enter into a particular discussion. At that point, the intent is oppressive, and the term – in that specific context – becomes an oppressive one.

There is also another thing to consider. When we label others as cisgender, the implication is that those not labelled cisgender, are transgender. My brother-in-law asked “Does it help us if we are constantly reminded that while Steven is a cisgender guy, Sam was once Samantha?”, and went on to point out that, in judaism, while there is no prohibition of defining oneself as a convert, we are not allowed to refer to a convert as such; they are simply jewish. To me, labelling someone else as cisgender seems not only misguided, but also to indicate too much of an interest in labelling people. On the other hand, using the term to describe oneself is a useful way to indicate that “Yes, I am aware of my privilege”.

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