“Cisgender”? Cui Bono?

 

If you read a single post here at CBG, make it this one.

Let’s talk about “cis.”  Some feminists think this word is harmful because it reflects an agreement with gender roles.

I think it’s actually more harmful when it simply means “non-trans,” particularly in the context of the sentence “Cisgender people are a privileged class.”

I’m going to start, as I often do, with an analogy.

Let’s say we had a word that meant “not Black.”  Black people have definitely faced historical oppressions that did not have easy equivalencies in other races, and let’s say that there was an idea that the proper way to fight oppression in the Black community was by defining themselves in this way.  So from now on, you have, say, people who are “melano-racial” (Black), and people who are “leuko-racial” (non-Black).

It would be very justified to say, in this context, that “melano-racial” people are oppressed people.  But it would be a mistake to say “melano-racial people are oppressed by leuko-racial people,” or that leuko-racial people were the oppressor class.

Why?  Because overwhelmingly, violence directed toward Black people, the oppressed class, has not come from simply “non-Black” people.  It has come from white people.  The oppression is not “non-Black supremacy,” but white supremacy.

Why does it matter?  Well, if programs originally designed to help, say, Latinos, or American Indians, were told that they had to also accommodate Black people, using the same budget and facilities, it would matter.  If white people—the actual perpetrators of the huge majority of offenses against Black people—used their institutional power to ensure that they were the group of “leuko-racials” that had to change the least and sacrifice the least in order to achieve equality, it would matter.

It’s likely that some of these “leuko-racial” Latinos and American Indians would accept Black people into their gatherings and spaces, for many of the same reasons that many women are accepting of both MTF and FTM trans people in their spaces—they’d recognize that the “melano-racial” people were facing serious, intense racial discrimination from white people that they empathized with to a strong degree, even though their racial oppressions weren’t exactly identical.

But what would happen if people started decrying “leuko-racial privilege,” and the principal targets of their anger were almost always Latino or American Indian?  What if a new term was invented for Latino people who objected to the new ways they were expected to share the spaces they’d carved out for themselves: MERL, for Melano-Exclusionary Radical Latino?  What if caricatures were made of what MERLs were like, caricatures that played with old stereotypes of Latinos that were hurtful and originally used to prop up white supremacy?  What if there was no similar simple acronym term for white people who continued their oppression, and Twitter filled with hashtags for not only #melanopride but also #killallmerls?

What if, when the MERLs themselves objected—both to the term and to how it was used—they were accused of being violent and melanophobic?  What if even attempting to say “this is a problem caused by white people, not ‘leuko-racial’ people” was met with scorn and derision, or an exhortation to “shut your mouth, MERL scum”?

You begin to see the problem.

“Cis” is a term that pretends to define an oppressor class, but instead works by lumping both the oppressors and many of the oppressed into a single, unified whole.  What this means, in practice, is that women—who are also an oppressed gender minority—are being treated like they are not only the oppressor class, but in fact the part of the oppressor class that needs to sacrifice the most, risk the most, and argue the least.

Terms that mean “non-x” can work to help identify oppression when they are being used to designate an oppressor class and people outside it.  That’s why “non-white” works, or “non-male.”  Anyone who is not in the class at the top gets shit on—to varying degrees, certainly, but iit’s all the same shit. Latino folks have not faced oppression in the same way as Black folks, but it’s the system of white supremacy that hurts both groups.

In other words, when there’s an oppressor class A, “non-A” works to define people experiencing oppression stemming from that oppressor class.  However, if you have oppressed class B, “non-B” can and often does include people of other oppressed classes facing oppression stemming from exactly the same place as class B.

Women and gender non-conforming people (including trans people, genderqueer people, genderfluid people, etc.) are all facing the same oppression: patriarchy and male supremacy.  So an honest and inquisitve person is forced to ask of the term “cisgender” a very important question: cui bono?

Who benefits from a term that groups the oppressor and parts of the oppressed group together?  The answer is easy to spot: the oppressor group does.  Since oppressed groups, by definition, have less institutional power than the oppressor group, the oppressor class will always minimize the impact “non-B” terms like “cis” or “leuko-racial” could have on themselves.  The burden, as much as possible, will be shifted to the shoulders of already-oppressed classes.

Male supremacy and patriarchy are the oppressions that hurt trans people, gender non-conformers, and all women.  In the words of the hashtag, yes—all women.  Terming “cis” the oppressor linguistically erases the oldest and most common form of oppression on the planet: male supremacy.  It allows members of one oppressed group to claim they are “punching up” while in fact hurting another group of oppressed people.  It allows a reversal by which other oppressed groups are viewed as the primary perpetrators of oppression.

“Cis” benefits men.  It can only benefit men, in the same way that redefining white supremacy as non-black supremacy can only benefit whites.  You can’t fight an oppressive system by redefining its victims as its aggressors.

 

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A brief note on the topic of “erasure” and identity

Look how many people will say: “This argument makes sense, but I’m not going to listen to it because …”

Because tone.  Because women won’t use the right words for men.  Just call us what we want, do what we want, and we’ll start listening to you, feminists.  We promise.

 

Sure.

Let me be very clear: misgendering “erases” no one.  I have several people in my family whose primary “identity” group, as such, is Christians.  If I were to call one of them an atheist, or a Buddhist, or the man in the moon, I would not be “erasing” them.  If someone identified, primarily, as a very funny teller of jokes, it would not be invalidating their existence to tell them that they are not particularly funny after all.  It’s worth noting that they’re not erased *even if someone is telling lies*.

The only way, in fact, that denying an identity is “erasing” that identity is if the person doing the denial is telling the truth.  Then, the simple act of saying “I refuse to participate in your delusion” shatters the reality of the delusion.

 

Let me put this another way.  If I identify myself as an excellent writer and, say, a very bad fanfiction writer says to me: “You’re a terrible writer,” my identity remains entirely intact.  Why?  Because I have no reason to credit what they say, there is no reason to doubt my identification.  In the same way, if someone says about a novel I have written and am very proud of, “this is garbage, not worth reading,” my identity as a good novelist remains intact, because I really did believe I’d written it well.

If, on the other hand, a writer I respected and admired, or an editor I desperately wanted to approve my work, wrote back with comments amounting to “this is bad writing and I’m not sure why you’d think anyone would like this,” I would feel like my identity and sense of self had, in some way, been diminished.  In the same way, if I was unsure of a work’s quality and someone told me it was pure shit, I’d be much more inclined to feel deeply hurt, lashing out, and resentful about it.

 

I believe the trans people who talk loudest about “erasure” when it comes to pronouns and statements like “was born a girl” are the ones who, deep down, are least settled in their own identities.  I certainly never feel that my identity as a feminist, or my reality as a woman, is somehow threatened when they have misgendered me or called me names or said I was transmisogynist.  Insecure people who know that they’re lying–on some level–are the only ones who feel that the very fabric of their being is threatened by a contradiction of their own internal narrative.

All The Things You Can’t Deny: Title IX, Trans Women, And the Reality of ‘Neutrality’

When it comes to the issue of identification versus biology, perhaps no place illustrates the discrepancies better than sports.

Athletes like Fallon Fox, who went from being a third-rate MMA fighter in the men’s division to winning all his bouts but one when he went in the ring with women, show that the body discrepancies between an XY and XX human are not simply due to hormones.

Now, many trans activists claim that the fact that Fox lost one of his bouts—and the fact that several sports authorities have agreed to accept men as women if they complete two years of hormone replacement therapy—proves that there is no difference between hormone-altered men and natal women.

This, of course, is based only on studies that show muscle percentages being similar.  How are bone density, the differences in body shape, and so on supposed to change?  No answer.

The problem becomes clearer when we apply it to an immediately visible aspect of human physiology: height.

No one (except, perhaps, the world’s most dedicated devil’s advocate) would disagree that when it comes to playing basketball, height is an important determining factor of ability, especially at elite levels.  Basketball players in NCAA, NBA, and WNBA teams have historically been much, much taller than the average person.

Enter Gabrielle Ludwig.  Gabrielle is 51 years old and plays for a college basketball team in Northern California.  He previously coached basketball for young people.  The young women sharing a team with him are 18-20 years old.

Ludwig stands six foot six (a height he claims he has after “losing height” because of his transition—apparently he claims he was six foot eight before).  While seeing photographs of Ludwig next to the far-shorter women he plays with make it obvious that this is an old man playing against young women, trans activists are not convinced.

Image

 

(above: nothing wrong with this picture, say trans activists!)

These activists maintain that because some women have been six foot six, and because trans women (like extremely tall women) are a very narrow subset of the population, no real dent could be made in women’s basketball by transgender players.

But is that true?  Let’s take a look.

At six foot six (198 cm) Gabrielle Ludwig would be a slightly shorter-than-average NBA player. If he entered the WNBA, on the other hand—which he couldn’t, because he doesn’t have the skills and is very, very old for a basketball player—he would be in its top ten or fifteen players of all time.

Ludwig’s height corresponds (based on http://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/height-chart.shtml and http://biology.stackexchange.com/questions/9730/what-is-the-standard-deviation-of-adult-human-heights-within-sexes) to a z-score of 2.85, meaning that Ludwig 2.85 standard deviations above the average.  That’s quite tall even for a man—in fact, 99.8% of men in the United States are shorter than him.

Women, however, are shorter, with a slightly smaller standard deviation in their heights.  A height of six feet, six inches corresponds to a z-score of 5.67—nearly six standard deviations above the norm.

What kind of probability does that convert to?  Well, it’s tricky to say, because z-score tables usually cut out at around a score of 3.4.  However, according to wikipedia, a z-score of 5 means that only one in two million people would be expected to be over this range.

One in 500 for men—one in two million for women.  That’s a factor of 4000.  In other words, even if only one in 4000 male-born persons decided to transition, there would be as many trans women standing 6’6 as there are natal women.

And that’s just for a z-score of five (also known as five sigma).  If the calculation was for 5.67, we could expect that 4000 number to be even larger—perhaps as large as 6000 or so.

As it is, most estimates place the prevalence of transgenderism at roughly 1 in 200 people.

If those estimates are accurate, 6’6 MTFs outnumber 6’6 women by a factor of at least 20.

In basketball, height matters.  I expect to see people commenting right here on this post that height doesn’t matter, because it’s the internet and you can find someone advocating any contrarian position imaginable.  But if that’s your first impulse—to start saying height in basketball doesn’t matter—think about where your ideology has led you to.  At the point where you start denying these other basic realities in a rush to placate your own gnawing doubts or your political allies, you’ve crossed over into cultish, fundamentalist thinking.

There are many more tall (6’2 and above) trans women than natal women, even when you take into account the significantly lower proportion of trans women in the population.  Since basketball and many other sports confer a height advantage, it is likely that allowing MTF people into women’s sporting programs will lead to a slow but definite erosion of women’s opportunities for athletic scholarships and more.

I wonder what it will take for people to recognize this practice as harmful.  Given what some countries have done to ensure Olympic successes (puberty blockers, lies about birth certificates), and given that the IOC now will allow trans athletes to compete as their identified-with sex, rather than their biological sex, I suspect it will be only a matter of time before some nation fields a team of somewhat tall men as nearly impossibly tall women.

You can talk about muscle mass and estrogen all you want, but—once again—reality stares right back with objective, real physical differences that cannot be erased through verbal games and political doublethink.

As NCAA protections for women (you know, the ones who start as girls, discouraged to play sports) erode in favor of “gender-based” protections, remember who’s being protected … and who’s being left behind.

We Are All Winston Smith Now

“Trans women are women.”

 

Among the most important themes explored in Orwell’s 1984 is that of language and its relation to oppression.

One of the most compelling moments in that book describes the protagonist, Winston Smith, realizing that the most valuable freedom of all is the freedom to tell the truth.

Later on, he is tortured for the thought he had—the idea that freedom means the ability to tell the truth, to be able to say that two plus two equals four.  His torturer, hired by the state to break his will, seizes upon this idea:

 

“Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When  you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an  effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.’

He paused for a few moments, as though to allow what he had been saying to sink in.

‘Do you remember,’ he went on, ‘writing in your diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”?’

‘Yes,’ said Winston.

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.

‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’

‘Four.’

‘And if the party says that it is not four but five–then how many?’

‘Four.’

The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.

‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Four.’

The needle went up to sixty.

‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!’

– 1984, George Orwell

 

It’s a powerful scene. So powerful, in fact, that at least two science fiction television shows have used the same concept.

In the Babylon 5 episode, Intersections in Real Time, a government torturer works to destroy Captain Sheridan’s sense of time, but more than that, to get him to agree that time—one of the most measurable, readily perceived concepts available to human consciousness—is malleable to the will.

 

INTERROGATOR: This is really excellent corned beef. You have to get just the right mustard. The brown with the seeds, not the yellow kind. And not too much of it. If there’s too much, it irritates the corners of my mouth.

Oh, would–would you like some? I know they haven’t fed you since you got here. That’s at least two days. Besides, it’s lunchtime. Isn’t it? Isn’t it lunchtime? You just said it was morning. Well, you can’t have a corned-beef sandwich for breakfast. It would upset your stomach. Corned-beef sandwiches are for lunch. If it’s morning, you can’t have it. If it’s lunchtime you can. Is it lunchtime?

SHERIDAN: I’m sure it’s lunchtime somewhere.

INTERROGATOR: Excellent answer. Here. I ate half of that myself. Killing you does nobody any good. I told you, I’m here to ensure your cooperation. And I can’t do that if you’re dead, now can I? It does prove, though, how everything is a matter of perspective. You think you see daylight, and you assume it’s morning take it away, you think it’s night. Offer you a sandwich, if it’s convenient, you’ll think it’s midday. The truth is fluid. The truth is  subjective. Out there, it doesn’t matter what time it is. In here, it’s lunchtime if you and I decide that it is. The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be and other times what you decide it to be. My task is to make you decide to believe differently. And when that happens the world will remake itself before your very eyes.

— Babylon 5, “Intersections in Real Time”

 

Star Trek: The Next Generation borrows even more liberally from Orwell in its episode “Chain of Command: Part II,” even re-using the numbers four and five as the basis for the torture.  Picard’s captor insists there are five lights on a ceiling which, objectively, has only four.

Picard doesn’t yield to the torture—he’s rescued just in time.  Smith does, and is executed by the state once he truly loves Big Brother.  Lest anyone believe that starship captains are simply made from sterner stuff than a Winston Smith-style bureaucrat, the episode’s most poignant moment comes from its coda:

 

PICARD: One thing I didn’t put in my report… at the very end, he offered me a choice… between a life of comfort… or more torture… all I had to do was say there were five lights.

Troi regards him for a brief moment.

TROI: You didn’t say it…

PICARD: No… but I was going to. I was ready to tell him anything he wanted… anything at all. But more than that, I was beginning to believe there were five lights.

— Star Trek: The Next Generation (Chain of Command: Part II)

 

And therein lies the real lesson of all three works.  The goal of the torturers, in all cases, was not simply to urge the profession of belief.  The ideal party member, in Orwell’s 1984, is capable of a rather neat mental trick known as doublethink.

When a person doublethinks, they simultaneously believe something to be true and not true.  The government in 1984 tells its citizens, over and over, that “war is peace,” and “freedom is slavery.”  This enables editors like Winston to more readily change history, since people are more likely to accept being at war with a nation one day and at peace the next, for instance, if they believe that the two concepts aren’t really all that different.

Which brings us to a four-word statement:

 

“Trans women are women.”

 

I’d like to unpack this statement a little bit.

I’ve now asked a number of people making it to talk to me about what it means.  Specifically, I’ve asked them what “woman” means, in this sentence.  I’ve gotten the same answer repeatedly from trans advocates:

“A woman is a person who identifies as a woman.”

This is a statement that is literally devoid of content; a semantic nothing.  When one identifies “as a woman,” what is one identifying with?

When I have asked this question, the answers change drastically depending on the person I am speaking to.  Sometimes, I am told of boys who longed to have “the feeling of a hole between my thighs being filled” and who insist on surgery to correct their feelings of bodily wrongness (even when told that girls don’t feel a “hole” where their vaginas are), or who believed that a vagina, being cleft, would enable them to do the splits in a way their scrotum would not (just in case you’re reading this, V, splits are easier for girls because of their ligaments–not their vulvas).

Other times, I’ve heard of people feeling forced out by imposed sex roles.  “I always empathized more with women.”  “I have a softer side and abhor violence.” “I think I was supposed to be a dad, not a mom, because of the way I interact with my child.”  Many of these people profess to have little or no actual genital dysphoria, and are upset at the idea that such dysphoria is considered necessary to change sex on government forms and so forth.

In other words, when someone says “trans women are women,” they may be saying one of several things.  It can be, for instance, a statement that means “trans women have female brains.”  In this instance, “trans women are women” is being used cover for a much more controversial statement, one that forces the person saying it to agree with the notion that there is “brain sex,” a badly outmoded and anti-feminist idea.

Other times, “trans women are women” means “trans women feel they fit in better with women’s social roles.”  Again, this uses a deceptively simple four-word sentence to cover a much more problematic truth.

“Trans women are women” is a statement that means a hundred different things to a hundred different people, and it all hinges on this question: what does it mean to identify as a woman?  Simply saying that there is only one answer to this question (no matter what that answer is) will yield accusations of transphobia and cause in-fighting.  So the only safe statement—since more clear and unambiguous statements will lead to disagreement and strife—is the four-word mantra, “trans women are women.”

Yet this simple statement has worked to serve another purpose, as well.

In 1984, as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5, counterfactual statements are used to wield power.

“If it’s lunchtime, you can have a sandwich.” It isn’t, of course, but you haven’t eaten.  So you agree to the counterfactual, starved and not caring.  “If there are five lights, we’ll treat you well (and if you don’t, they’ll torture you).”  There aren’t, of course, but you’re so tired, and the lights are so blurry…two plus two might equal five, mightn’t it?  Of course, it doesn’t, but does that matter when simply saying so will make the difference between captivity and freedom, between contentedness and suffering?

Consider the statement “trans women are women” again. This time, think about how this statement is actually used in online activism circles, rather than how people explain its definition when pressed.

When women refuse to toe the line on the trans mantra, they are harassed, threatened, guilt-tripped.  Women—many of them abuse or sexual assault survivors—are told that any statement contrary to “trans women are women” is not simply rude or even untrue, but actually violent, because it could cause transgender people to feel suicidal.

Women are told that violence is unacceptable, time and time again.  When women are accused of violence because of “misgendering,” they often change their tone nearly immediately.  It doesn’t seem like it matters much whether there are four lights or five, after all.  What’s the difference?  And if it’ll stop me from getting accused of unfeminist behavior, if it’ll stop me being no-platformed, if it’ll stop all of this—if I can come back into the feminist fold—who’s to say two plus two hasn’t been five all along?

I used to use “she” to describe MTF trans people.  I used to use “he” to describe FTM trans people.  I will no longer engage in this practice, except for when directly speaking to trans people who could conceivably direct violence toward me.  Make no mistake, trans folks: many people outside your movement, even the ones who nod in agreement with the statement “trans women are women,” don’t really believe it.  When they are women, they have been trained to spare your feelings and to avoid potential conflict with males—especially those who are backed up by other males with violent tendencies.  I hope your pronouns feel like a hollow victory, wrested as they have been from the mouths of women who know the wrath they face for saying any other words but the ones you told them to say.

Remember this, when you’re told that misgendering is “violence”: “trans women are women” is a statement that is meaningless at best and is used a power exertion over women almost always, since they are not able to disagree or even clarify the speaker’s definition without being viciously attacked.

Do what you have to do, in order to get through your day.  But two plus two is never five.  There are always four lights.  And that corned beef sandwich he’s offering you is poison anyway (seriously, look it up).

 

[[A note to my readers: I expect my next post to be about the NCAA, Title IX, normal distributions, and exactly why “trans-inclusive” athletics policies fail.  I don’t know when I’ll have it out, but you can expect it to be sometime in the next couple of weeks.]]

“I’m not like those other girls.”

I haven’t updated in a long time. I was busy being depressed. So sue me.

Recently, I was watching the sketch comedy show Inside Amy Schumer, which is often one of the most subversively feminist shows on television.  It was while watching the sketch I’m So Bad — which riffs on the way many women act as if eating high-calorie food were worse than actual immoral behavior — that I started to realize something.

Over and over, Inside Amy Schumer presents a vision of interpersonal relationships among women that is written by women.  And it shows.  It’s only after watching it, after seeing the observational detail that women can pull from their interactions with other women, that I began to understand what is wrong with even most of the media that passes the Bechdel Test.

I hear from women a lot that they feel alienated from other women.  Hell, I’ve felt alienated from other women.  I wonder, though, as I watch this show, how much of that alienation is actually an alienation from media representations of women.  The way “best friend” women talk in movies and television is poorly observed and poorly written, and many male comedians make ugly assumptions about women’s conversations with friends being shallow and cruel. Key & Peele, also with a standup/sketch hybrid show on Comedy Central, don drag and display massively misogynistic caricatures of women–women as envisioned by men.

I wonder how many of the women I hear who say that they don’t feel like they fit in the category “woman,” that they’re now “genderqueer” or “genderquestioning” or “agender” or “neutrois,” are really responding to the feeling that the conversations they see, the ways they see women interacting with each other, seem foreign and irrelevant to their lives.  “If that’s how women talk/act, then I must not be one.”

I wonder how many of “those women” that we all profess to be like are just shadows–shadows created in the minds of men.

 

I’ll be back with more content, hopefully before the week is out.  My next topic: language, and why I’ve changed my mind about the “pronoun issue.”