Cis/Trans – a new restrictive binary?

I’ve been contemplating a question arising from a seminar I was present in recently, which (although worded better than this) asked whether the concept of cissexuality/transexuality implies a false dualism. The focus of the question, I suspect, was to highlight the potentially hypocritical nature of gender theorists binarising in this way. If we reject male/female, straight/gay, etc dichotomies then surely we should reject cis/trans dichotomies?

There are some strong arguments to be made in favour of using the language of cis+trans sexualism. Here for example, the point is made that, in short, labels can work for good. Declaring that those who stick to a default position on the gender spectrum are “cis” gives us an alternative, non-pejorative term to use in place of colloquialisms with far more offensive potential connotations (“normal”, for an obvious example.)

A comment which can be found here (see specifically the comments below article) puts forward an alternative justification – our instinctive resentment at the idea of a cis/trans binary is predicated on a straw man argument: that the use of the term cissexual implies that people who are cissexual are to no extent genderqueer. “Shiva’s” point appears to be that this ignores the distinction between cissexual and cisgendered – as such, somebody could be cissexual (“I have no desire to change either the primary or secondary sexual characteristics of my body”) but transgendered (rejecting archetypal gender norms). Transsexual, then, would refer to the far more specific (“medical”?) phenomenon of dyspraxia. The (potential?) problem is that this entire discussion still takes place in the essentialist language of male/female. The automatic inference in asserting that somebody can even actually be “cissexual” is that there exists, somewhere, a normal male/female essence. Right?

It could be argued that cis/trans are relational terms indicating adherence to “the established norm” – as such, to be “cis” does not necessarily entail accepting gender essentialisms, simply that a perception of these essentialisms exists, and that it can be adhered to or rejected. The problem with this is, I suspect, that given nobody absolutely adheres to one rigid map of “male”/”female”, claiming cissexual to be a form of pseudo-objectivist adjective is misguided, leading us straight back to the “drawing the line” dilemma.

The question is, is all normalising discourse inherently bad? Hmm. These are speculative thoughts about a topic I became aware of a mere 24(ish) hours ago; I would love to hear any views.


About Jon Robinson

Lefty ex-politics student turned med student, interested in current affairs, economics, gender politics and health issues. Occasionally pretends to understand philosophy. @jon__robinson

2 responses to “Cis/Trans – a new restrictive binary?”

  1. suzannahrobinson says :

    This is really interesting, and something that definitely needs to be explored. Many feminists used to resent mtf transsexual and transgender people and drag queen culture because of the specific portrayal of female clothing and behaviour that these groups tended to favour. If we succeed in rejecting the male/female dichotomy we may succeed in viewing this type of appearance and behaviour as simply one of many on the grrl, femme, butch etc spectrum. Good post!

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