‘Cisgender’ is not oppressive

What is gender? Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, political philosopher at the University of Warwick, certainly has some strong feelings about it in her article Gender is Not a Spectrum. Her article presents a learning opportunity for anyone uncomfortable with the ever-changing landscape of gender identity, and anyone–women in particular–who feels hurt by the descriptor “cisgender” and troubled by the complicated axes of intersectional oppression.

Reilly-Cooper does a fine job setting the scene for feminist theories of gender: she writes that “while sex referred to what is biological… gender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.”

While this view may not account for all gender difference as biological factors complicate the mix, there is substantial evidence that this theory is useful. Schoolyard bullying and harassment punishes deviation from heterosexual gender norms, parents instruct and enforce gendered clothes and behaviours, schools and teachers enforce sexist dress codes. Children are taught gender difference, and these early lessons about gender also form the basis for the kind of workplace, public, and interpersonal sexism faced by women in our society.

Furthermore, they serve to stifle gender difference that people experience in the world. An increasing number of people are seeking refuge from the male-female gender binary in alternative, non-binary identities to which the author alludes.

It is this point at which the set up ends and the vague, ornery fallacies commence.

Reilly-Cooper meticulously lists non-binary gender identities, communicating clear derision for what she considers a redundant and indulgent fad. Then this needless bit of linguistic acrobatics:

“If gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, as it would fail to pick out a special category of people.”

She extends this argument to the word “Transgender”, claiming that because gender is inculcated in all people “every single one of us is cisgender”. Therefore “everyone is trans. Or… there are no trans people.”

Well.

First, the language in this article is a hot mess, with liberal conflation of ‘non-binary’, Transgender, transsexual, and various other identities, weird pronouncements like “the queer view of gender”, and a lot of other nutty unpacked assumptions and language. For the purposes of this response, I’m going to use “non-normative” to invoke any non-binary or non-normative gender designations unless otherwise specified.

For the record, I can’t believe I’m going to engage rationally with these claims.

The phrase ‘gender is a spectrum’ doesn’t demand total, dogmatic adherence. No one is fucking married to the phrase. It serves one very clear function, which is to illustrate that there’s various different ways to exist beyond the historically-obligatory “men” and “women” when it comes to gender. It’s useful for dealing with adherents to the naturalistic model of gender Reilly-Cooper herself describes, for those who believe gender to be intrinsically connected to biological sex.

It is not, in fact, contradictory for the word ‘non-binary’ and the term ‘gender spectrum’ to coexist, because despite the vast scope of human diversity implied by ‘spectrum’ we are still assigned one of two binary genders at birth. The binary is kept alive in our society, in systems which re-enforce that reductive and oppressive view of humanity and deny the spectrum of human diversity. ‘Non-binary’ could refer to anyone who identifies anywhere outside of that social binary which still exists in our language and our institutions–yeah, that’s right, non-binary people didn’t make the boxes. And while we’re on it, what is the political power of LGBT+ and non-binary people such that their identities are “politically troubling”? In the U.S., Transgender people can’t even use the bathroom. The existence of agender and other non-binary people is widely unrecognized. Doesn’t look like undue political influence to me.

Reilly-Cooper wants to play language games rather than engage with the lived experiences and stories of people who identify as non-binary. Implicitly, ‘non-binary’ and other non-normative genders also refer to those whose assigned gender felt so uncomfortable and incongruent with their identity that they needed another word to feel happy, sane, and to tell their truth. Their life may even have depended on it.

If this sounds improbable to you, it may be because it is not something cisgender people experience. The difference is that while cisgender people may not like the way people of their gender are treated, they don’t mind the identity itself. If you’re comfortable living with the gender identity you were assigned, you already don’t understand how it would feel to be so uncomfortable with that gender designation that people like you are depressed, dysphoric, and commit suicide at alarmingly high rates.

Apparently knowing none of these things, Reilly goes on to mock various kinds of gender, mostly with the fact that language makes use of oppositions and so no one can claim to be ‘non-binary’. I’m not convinced that this quality of language means those with non-normative genders are oppressing her.

She also makes fun of various genders she made up, like “pizza” and “the sea”. If you dig here, there’s a valid discussion beneath her slippery slope fallacy. Some terms might just seem too improbable or fantastical to be taken seriously by all people, so what does that mean for those with non-normative genders?

For Reilly-Cooper it means you can be condescending, telling them to “have some fun” with gender after spending multiple paragraphs implying that having fun with gender is ridiculous.

Let people call themselves what they want–I promise the gender binary will still be alive and kicking even if someone chooses the gender “pillow”. And there is a pretty big difference between that person and someone who identifies as agender.

But Reilly-Cooper thinks they’re essentially the same, because she doesn’t believe in all this alternative gender claptrap like the existence of agender people. To her, the possibility of “frog gender” existing means they must all be thrown out. She claims adopting a term like agender is to “slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the rest of the cage intact” (Somehow, the cage means sexism). The only solution is abolishing gender, and she doesn’t seem to realize that there’s most probably no way we will ever abolish gender, or that there might be steps in between then and now, like establishing alternative genders.

The existence of alternative genders actually helps destabilize the proverbial cage. And if calling themselves agender works to make someone feel good, why shouldn’t someone do it? Because it leaves her behind, that’s why. And the existence of non-binary and non-normative gender identities is about her.

Reilly-Cooper is painfully wrong about what being Transgender means. She allows Transgender people to exist because they allow her to preserve the binary, and she projects her own gender oppression onto the notion of transition. She claims people transition because they “find the gender roles associated with their sex so oppressive and limiting that they cannot tolerably live under them.” No, people transition because they identify with a gender other than their assigned gender. And Transgender means many different things to different people.

Ms. Reilly-Cooper, you are not “a two-dimensional gender stereotype”. Neither am I. And non-binary people aren’t interested in enforcing your cisgendered-ness. They’re not the ones thinking of your uterus when evaluating your suitability for the workplace. They’re not the ones catcalling you, or writing your gender on your passport, or forcing you to use pronouns that don’t communicate the depth of your personality, or coordinating a vast system of gendered oppression. That system hurts them too. They have enough to deal with. If anything’s proof of non-normative gender identities, it is the fact that people continue to adopt them despite constant ongoing violence visited upon them. That’s how important it is for them. And that is not our reality, which makes it easy for us to trivialize and deride the needs of those who choose to name their own gender.

The question that has to be asked is this: Ms. Reilly-Cooper, what is your point? The argument is incoherent. Its most honest moment is the claim that non-binary people are perpetuating and permitting the misogyny she experiences. Ouch.

What kind of delusion could inspire someone to think that those people seeking refuge from a punitive, restrictive, reductive binary system of gender are responsible for the gendered oppression you face as a woman? How is the mere existence of the chosen identities of some of the most marginalized and victimized people on the earth the cause? No logic to be found here. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the normalization of the label “cisgender”, which she perceives to be as oppressive as a two-pole binary gender hierarchy.

“Gender is not a Spectrum” consists of revelling in tiny, invented technical incongruities, as well as combining condescension and mean-spirited incredulousness directed at those with different experiences with a terrific lack of interest in learning from people who actually have these identities. But here’s the real spirit behind the article: Reilly laments that “a handful of individuals are apparently permitted to opt out of the spectrum altogether” (emphasis mine). Reilly-Cooper’s article is permeated by a sense of righteous anger that those with non-normative genders are cheating to escape the routine oppression and violations they are “due” as a member of the gender binary. And that’s fucked up.

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