Caught in the Gender Binary Blind Spot: Intersex Erasure in Cisgender Rhetoric
Earlier this month, two intersex blog posts about the term “cisgender” reminded me that it’s high time we talk about how current cisgender rhetoric facilitates intersex erasure. But wait, how does it do that? you might be asking. I thought cisgender was the new rage in progressive gender terminology? Well, let me explain.
For those of you new to the term, when I first found myself looking up “cisgender” (with a group of trans* folks at a 2009 New Year’s Eve party), wikipedia defined it as, “describing gender identity where individuals’ experiences of their own gender matches that of their sex at birth.” (FYI, before “cisgender” emerged, people would just say “non-trans*” to describe that experience.)
The framing of all non-trans*, presumably gender-normative, people as cisgender allows one to talk about “cisgender privilege”, which means, basically, the benefits experienced by people that fit into the social gender norms attributed to their biological sex. It’s the difference, for example, between being born into a female body & growing up to look & feel like Angelina Jolie, versus being born into a female body & growing up to feel and look (or want to look) like The Rock. People whose gender identity and expression conform to the norms attributed to their biological sex face less challenges than those whose gender identity and expressions don’t.
But if you are born intersex, this doesn’t actually apply to you because there are no gender norms attributed to your biological sex as society doesn’t even acknowledge that it exists. Indeed, as “cis” means “on this side of”, and “trans” means, “on the other side of”, those of us who are not on either side of this binary framework of sex are inherently excluded from cisgender rhetoric. And note, we didn’t used to be, back when people simply said “trans*” or “non-trans*”.
While it is useful to distinguish between gender-normative and gender-variant people, the term cisgender only successfully does so if you pretend that intersex people and other gender variant folks don’t exist. For example, where do butch lesbians who proudly identify as female fit into the equation? Technically they’re cisgender, not trans*, because they identify as their biological sex, but they don’t experience cisgender privilege. I can think of a lot of males in the same boat. They’re not trans*but they’re not really cisgender either, according to “cisgender privilege” rhetoric. They fall into a grey zone that the term’s proponents did not take into account, which I call the gender binary blind spot.
As an intersex person with a natal “body/identity match”, I too fall into this gender binary blind spot. I noticed it the minute I announced, at the aforementioned New Year’s Eve party, “So I guess I would be cisgender then, because I was born intersex and I feel intersex.” Some people seemed bothered by my statement, because it troubles the intended use of the term cisgender, and specifically “cisgender privilege”.
You see, like butch lesbians, although I have the classic cisgender body/identity match, and am thus not trans*, I’m also not gender-normative. I’m cisgender, yet I do not experience “cisgender privilege”, but the opposite: the fact that I was born intersex immediately put me at a grave disadvantage in terms of gender. For no matter how “normatively gendered” an intersex person may grow up to look and/or identify, we are often immediately vulnerable, at birth, to non-consensual, medically unnecessary, cosmetic genital surgeries (a.k.a. Intersex Genital Mutilation/IGM).
In addition, unlike others whose bodies and gender identities “match”, when intersex people experience this alignment it can result in problems similar to gender dysphoria. For example, I struggled for well over a decade with deep confusion around my gender identity – not, like most, because it doesn’t match my body, but because it does! This is because of the fact that growing up feeling intersex in a male-female only world so unwelcoming of intersex people that modern society has tried to systematically eliminate us is challenging, and identifying and living openly as intersex is extremely difficult. Indeed, in today’s cultural climate, simply being born intersex is viewed as subversive.
The challenges to the application of cisgender rhetoric are resolved if intersex people (as well as other gender variant folks) identify as trans*, but intersex people have yet to be acknowledged by society at large because of how our existence troubles deeply rooted cultural beliefs about biological sex, gender and sexuality. Thus defining ourselves as trans* before our existence is generally understood and acknowledged simply serves to exacerbate our social invisibility. In addition, on a personal level, after years spent overcoming intersexphobia in order to truly embrace my non-binary identity, I want to revel in, rather than redefine, it.
If we are endeavoring towards an accurate, equanimous view of sex and gender, gender studies rhetoric should incorporate the reality of all gender variant people rather than erase it. However, I noticed at some point following that New Year’s Eve party that the definition of cisgender had changed in a way that further erased, rather than acknowledged, the intersex community. Today, wikipedia defines the term cisgender as used to, “describe related types of gender identity where individuals’ experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth.”
The issues of intersex erasure in this current cisgender definition are twofold. 1. The term diminishes awareness of the gender disadvantage that intersex people experience, via IGM, as compared to those born with male or female bodies. 2. The term linguistically denies intersex people the possibility provided to others of experiencing a cisgender body/identity match, thus placing intersex people in an innately unequal position, as compared to those born male or female.
1. Obfuscation of Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM)
Many have discussed and some, such as intersex academics Morgan Holmes and Cary Gabriel Costello, have written about the fact that intersex people who were assigned male or female at birth and feel like men or women as adults do not experience cisgender privilege. As Costello, who is also a trans* and intersex blogger, explains in a recent post to The Intersex Roadshow, “Intersex children are born neither male nor female, but are forced into a binary sex category by a contemporary social ideology that says this is mandatory. Many are then subjected to infant sex assignment surgery to try to make their bodies conform to their assigned sex…. Just because a person grows up to identify with the sex they were assigned at birth does not mean they will feel surgeries they were subjected to were appropriate. Loss of potential fertility and loss of capacity for sexual sensation are prices that they may not consider worth the result of a somewhat-more-sex-conforming body….” http://intersexroadshow.blogspot.com/2014/08/cis-gender-trans-gender-and-intersex.html
However, the “sex assigned at birth” definition positions intersex folks who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth as cisgender, and thus recipients of cisgender privilege, despite the fact that they have typically undergone IGM, or at the very least been at risk to it. In contrast, under the original ”sex at birth” definition of cisgender, intersex people who grow up to identify as men or women are deemed trans*, because they do not experience a body/identity match. While this avoids the linguistic conflict of defining people as cisgender who do not experience cisgender privilege, the approach coercively assigns gender – in this case trans* gender identity – which is inherently problematic.
2. Obfuscation of intersex biological sex variation and non-binary intersex identity
By replacing the words “sex at birth” in the original definition with “sex assigned at birth”, intersex bodies are disappeared, replaced by the male or female ones assigned to us. Intersex people such as myself no longer experience a body/identity match because our bodies have been eradicated in favor of our “sex assigned at birth”, which is never intersex. (Note: as of November 1, 2013, intersex babies have been acknowledged in Germany — though not as “intersex”, but simply as a blank. If an intersex baby cannot be easily determined to be male or female, it can not be legally assigned as such on it’s birth certificate, unless a male or female body is surgically assigned via IGM. I examine these and other problems with the new German law in a separate essay, here. http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2013/11/06/op-ed-germany’s-third-gender-law-fails-equality.)
Ironically, the phrase “sex assigned at birth” comes directly from intersex activists, who have been using it for over two decades (intersex advocacy groups first emerged in the late ‘80’s in Australia and the U.K.) to refer to the sex that was surgically imposed on their bodies as infants. In the cisgender definition however, the phrase is employed for contrary means. Rather than being used to illustrate that some people are originally intersex at birth, not the male or female sex that is ‘assigned’ to them, the wording obfuscates intersex biological sex variance by utilizing only legally validated, male and female sex categories to define gender identity.
Due to deeply rooted cultural beliefs that biological sex consists of only “male” and “female”, the law acknowledges only women and men as citizens in almost all nations (Australia, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and, questionably, Germany, remain the exceptions). This in turn supports the medical establishment’s efforts to surgically eliminate intersex traits, and thus people, from society. These efforts are in effect a gendercide, and have been denounced as torture and acknowledged to be a human rights abuse.
Marginalized populations have historically had to assert their need for legal rights and acknowledgement, and today intersex people are in the formative stages of this process. It is thus deeply problematic that cisgender rhetoric utilizes the same two-sex legal system that promotes intersex gendercide.
Why should we define gender identity according to a faulty legal system, one that has only recently, in some locations, acknowledged LGBT people as equal citizens?Intersex people deserve the same right as trans* people to be acknowledged within gender studies and LGBT rhetoric as who we are before attaining legal validation. Thus if we create terms that define people whose identities match their bodies at birth as cisgender, then intersex people should be allowed the same right to identify as such that all other humans are afforded, rather than denied the possibility because we are not born male or female.
However, according to the “sex assigned at birth” definition, I am no longer cisgender but transgender, and this bothers me because I’m tired of societal efforts to redefine intersex people as something other than what we are. I am gender-variant, not because I have transitioned from one socially sanctioned body and/or identity to another, but rather because I have embraced being born with a body and identity that falls outside of these erroneously binary sex and gender norms. Thus, the term transgender does not describe who and what I am. I want to be accurately identified as intersex, rather than redefined as — or hidden within — a different population, for the same reasons that trans* people and others want to be defined as the gender they are: it feels good. Also, acknowledging intersex people is also a crucial step in ending Interex Genital Mutilation (IGM).
Under an inclusive linguistic framework, the question is not how do intersex people fit into cisgender rhetoric, but rather, why are we promoting false, binary conceptions of sex and gender by linguistically erasing, rather than acknowledging, the existence of intersex biological sex variation?
Fortunately some, like Costello, are making efforts towards inclusion. After a conversation in which we discussed these issues, he included an afterward to the aforementioned blog post which proposes an alternative that allows intersex people like myself, who experience a body/identity match, the equal opportunity to identify as cisgender . “If we were to add the term “ipso gender” to trans and cis gender, we could perhaps describe intersex experience more accurately. A cis gender intersex person would be one with an intermediate gender identity, since that “matches” their birth sex. An ipso gender intersex person would identify with the binary sex they were medically assigned (the social sex substituted for their intersex birth status being the same as their identified sex). And a trans gender intersex person would be one who identifies with the binary sex other than the one they were assigned by doctors.”
I find the addition of “ipso gender” an interesting solution. It speaks to the unique distinction between intersex people whose gender identity matches their assigned sex, and non-intersex people with this experience. It also, as stated above, deems intersex people capable of the same body/ gender identity match as everyone else. However, as Costello himself notes, it still does not resolve the challenges that intersex people pose to successfully discussing “cisgender privilege”, which I outlined earlier.
The linguistic failures of the term “cisgender” illustrate the problems inherent in employing an erroneously binary biological sex and gender model to describe humans. In addition, the term’s employment of “sex assigned at birth” rhetoric obfuscates the existence of intersex biological sex variance (and thus, intersex people), as well as Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM). I thus suggest the terms “trans*” and “non-trans*” as a means of distinguishing between people who grow up with a gender identity that matches their biological sex at birth and those who don’t, as they’re accurate, they don’t coercively assign gender identity, and, as additional perk, they utilize a trans-affirming, trans-centric linguistic framework by defining all who are not trans* as “non-trans*” (just as all people of color were originally deemed “non-white” in a white-centric linguistic framework).
In addition, when distinguishing between people who experience gender privilege and those who don’t, I suggest the use of the terms “gender-normative” and “gender-variant”, as they too are accurate and don’t coercively assign gender identity. Using “gender normative/variant” terminology, butch lesbians can accurately be described as “gender variant”, for example, when examining gender privilege, rather than being recast as either cisgender or trans*. In trying to build a world that respects individuals’ right to identify their own gender, whatever it may be, it is critical that we use terminology that enables everyone to do so.
©Hida Viloria. August 18, 2014.
Beautifully written! I was hoping to be able to quotes some parts of this post into an informative page I am making for the term ‘cisgender’? I could take what you’ve written here, and what I’ve read elsewhere, and write something up of my own, but having your words, your true experiences, is a much better learning tool. I will of course place a link next to the quotations for reference.
I am so sorry that I didn’t respond to your message earlier! I am sadly limited in my web skills, but got some hands-on help recently and realized I had a bunch of old messages.
Thanks for your comments on my piece, and for your interest in quoting me. Did you end up doing it? Could you please send me a link if you ended up doing so?
All the best,
Dear Hida, may I translate this article or parts of it into Russian? I’m a trans activist, but being an ally to Russian-speaking intersex people, I recognize that trans movement has its faults, and this crtitical text would be very useful. Thank you.
Dear Yana — Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk more about this. 🙂
Oh my goodness— I just saw your message now, so sorry! If you are still interested in translating yes that it okay, but please send me the final product, so y friend who speaks/reads Russian can read to me. Thanks for being intersted in doing it!
All the best, Hida
I really, really don’t like the proposed solution of calling people ‘non-trans’. To me, it feels inherently othering. I don’t like the idea of having a label for the othered minority but not for the majority, because it centers the majority as default. I don’t know the solution, but I feel very strongly that ‘non-trans’ is *not* a good solution.
Hi Ettina. I’m sorry I missed this until now! I hear you that you don’t like “non-trans,” but the othering with “non-trans”is actually of folks who are not trans. It’s similar to how people used to say “non-white” to refer to all minorities who were not white.The group that is othered is the one that is referred to with the “non” prefix. This is why, for example, the term “people of color” arose to replace “non-white.” Non-white” primatizes/centers being white, and people of color got tied of being referenced as not the dominant majority. Non-trans actually primatizes trans people. Also, where the new term “people of color” was created by and for the people it labels, the new term cisgender was not created by and for the people it labels, which is problematic. You still can dislike non-trans though, just as I dislike cisgender for the ethical reasons explained in the article.