[Image description: Macro shot of snowflake (color altered to cyan) on wool (pink and deep purple)]
This article was rejected by the trans publication which commissioned it because it’s “too alienating for cis people”. The irony of coddling a cis audience by protecting them from an antagonistic piece on cis fragility, in a publication which alleges to be focused on trans experiences, is not lost on me.
To be perfectly clear: I am not interested in toning down my writing to make it palatable for cis readers. I don’t write for cis people.
Cis people exist in a social environment which validates their genders and reinforces a gender binary which corresponds to their lived experiences, giving them relative privilege to trans people. Cis people therefore have a low tolerance for that which challenges their gender identities and their conceptions of gender more broadly. Cis fragility (drawing on white fragility in critical race theory) is rooted in a desire to restore and reproduce cisnormativity. It is a combination of lack of stamina in interrogating their conceptualizations of gender, as well as a resistance to challenging those conceptions.
The very idea of trans people challenges the cisnormative notion of gender: gender is not easily defined by genitals or a falsely dimorphic understanding of “biology”. Non-binary trans people further challenge cisnormativity simply by existing and refusing to define their genders in cisnormative terms.
I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?
— birdsrightsactivist (@ProBirdRights) August 17, 2013
When cis people encounter challenges to their conception of a binary gender, they often react with defensiveness, forcing trans people to do the emotional labor of comforting the cis person in addition to educating them and explaining basic concepts about gender or divulging personal experience to satiate cis curiosity and confusion. This derails conversations about trans experiences with oppression and devolves them into assuages of cis guilt and potential violence. The too-familiar “I’m sorry I misgendered you, singular ‘they’ is hard for me”, centers cis difficulty in remembering a new name or pronoun over the discomfort and disrespect toward the trans person they misgendered. This is an attempt to redirect social resources (time, attention, emotional labor), prioritizing cisness over transness.
Cis fragility is so delicate that cis people seek to reaffirm their genders in every step of their lives: everything from clothing to beverages to occupations are gender coded. This serves the interests not only of cisnormativity, but patriarchy and heteronormativity in an extremely boring but ubiquitous triple threat. Cis gender expressions are not named such: women wear feminine clothing, men perform masculinity, and these behaviors go unnoticed and unexamined until there is deviance from them, as though these norms are “natural” rather than dynamic and constantly redefined and reproduced.
Trans identities are not afforded the level of complexity that cis ones are assumed to have. Trans people are presumed to be constantly shaped and defined by their transness as though it is the primary, if not singular, aspect of their selves; but cis people are just people. Because they occupy an identity of “normalcy” it is not considered an identity at all, and they presume that they have an objective perspective on gender uncolored by their own experiences of it.
Trans people are also expected to be “ambassadors” of transness. Cis people feel entitled to trans people’s time in educating them and indulging their invasive questioning without considering that the trans person they’re interrogating might not have an academic interest in gender. Trans people are presumed to know all about all things trans and to accurately represent all other trans people, which is both impossible and exhausting. While trans people experience transphobia and cissexism on a regular basis, they may not have the vocabulary or framework to analyze their experiences at the systemic level. This contributes to creating or leaning on existing hierarchies of palatable transness fit for anti-critical cis consumption in order to survive an interaction unscathed, even if it means sacrificing other, “more deviant” expressions of transness to do so.
Cis people who pride themselves on being “progressive” might learn correct terms and make efforts to use the right pronouns, but will still be unlikely to confront cissexism and transphobia as it manifests in their lives. They will congratulate themselves for asking the pronouns of a “visibly” non-binary person (whatever that means), but refuse to examine why their gender identity needed clarification when those of the apparently-cis people around them didn’t. Or perhaps they’ll never assume anyone’s pronouns, but they also won’t intervene in street harassment and violence directed at gender non-conforming femmes. Privilege deflects the responsibility of accountability. There is no neutrality in issues of oppression, only complacency and antagonism.
The burden of interrupting cissexism and transphobia belongs with cis people, but trans people have already proven that we are more than capable of disrupting the power structures which oppress us whether cis people are interested in helping or not. There is power in challenging cis fragility. There is power in protesting cisnormativity by refusing to center cis experiences or use cis frames of reference. There is also power in survival, which is often opposed to confronting cisnormativity. Transness is antagonistic by nature; it is enough just to be.