[By chris the cynic, who apologizes if this isn’t as polished as an article should be. I’m dealing with serious tech problems that would make it difficult to go through the pre-posting beta reading and proofing that I’d normally prefer.]
Note that you can totally kip if you feel like it:
This previously appeared on Stealing Commas as two separate posts the first was a post of largely the same name (There are normal people and then there’s you.) the second was to clarify some points and described certain principles regarding the legitimacy of self identification outside of a group that definitionally includes you (Always punch up; never punch down.) Combining the two in a coherent readable fashion is the reason that it’s taken two years to adapt this into a Slacktiverse post. I kept on feeling like I wasn’t up to the task.
* * *
When I was little I was taught that there were two genders and that they were equal. I believed this, I internalized it, and for the longest time the idea that sexism might still be a thing was beyond my consideration. I didn’t reject the idea, because that would imply that I entertained the idea.
Instead I believed that boys and girls, and by extension males and females in general, were equal in everyone’s eyes. One of the various things this did was cause me to completely misinterpret a feature of language.
Things such as “gods and goddesses”, “actors and actresses”, “[almost any pair in which one of the words has an -ess/-esses suffix]”, “gay and lesbian” (then the common term), “mankind and womankind”, “firemen and -women” and so forth all, by definition, double counted the female members of the group. Even “he” and “she” the dictionary told me, was a pair of words where the first could include anyone and the second was “no boys allowed.”
This, at the time, seemed extremely unfair to me. That’s not wrong. But what I did get wrong was to whom it was being unfair. Boys and girls were clearly entirely equal, I reasoned, so why did girls get a special word? If two people are the same and you just randomly give one of them more, that’s not nice.
I didn’t think that boys should be able to be actresses, but I thought that if there were going to be a special word for “female actors” then there ought to be a special word for “male actors.”
With clothes, well… actually let me digress.
There’s a reason that I’m finally getting to revising this post and making it Slacktiverse-worthy now.
A friend of mine was looking for the original version of this post (then the only version of this post) because Lonespark had mentioned it (but not linked to it) when referring to an article that asked the question, “Why are ‘gender neutral’ clothes just boys’ clothes for girls?”
It’s a question I had as a child. It seemed clear to me that everyone should be able to wear all the clothes but instead there were clothes for everyone and clothes reserved for girls only. It didn’t matter that all of society was telling me that that was how things should be, I had a sense of justice that said everyone should be able to wear all the clothes and that keeping some of the people from wearing certain clothes was unfair. Silly kids, Trix are for everyone. At least I called that one right.
I missed the reason behind both it specifically and the larger pattern, but “everyone should be able to wear all the clothes” remains true.
And, in fact, in spite of completely missing who was being marginalized and who was being raised up with the language thing, my solution there would have worked too. Just not for the reason I thought.
I had started from the assumption that boys and girls were equal, I assumed that everyone thought they were equal, I thought the culture as a whole considered them equal in all things (I was young and stupid) and more things involving fucking equality, and then the unequal treatment seemed like it was being mean to the group not getting the special word.
It never occurred to me that people would encounter a word like “actor” which means “fucking person –genderless word here you assholes– who acts” and assume it meant, “male actor” unless they were specifically told otherwise. Because actor, without any adjectives, must mean (and does mean) normal actor. That’s how language works. And what’s not normal about a female actor?
Or, for that matter, a female god? Hera, Demeter, Persephone, Athena, Artemis, and so forth are just as normal as Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Ares, and Apollo.
What I didn’t realize is that if you don’t start with the assumption that normal obviously includes female people just as much as it includes male people, then there must be something not normal about female gods because otherwise the term “gods and goddesses” would be redundant. It says, “normal gods and female gods,” and the only reason that we need to make that distinction is if female gods aren’t normal.
The separation marks the female ones as abnormal.
Gods and goddesses is like saying, “people and women” except we’re talking about divine beings instead of human ones. Professions are worse because they’re talking about the people who surround us. “Actors and actresses” means “people who act and women who act” which literally leaves us with “people and women” as if the first somehow doesn’t include the second.
There’s a move away from the word “actress” because people can see that it’s bullshit. It doesn’t have to be though, if it were paired with another word that meant “male person who acts” then it would be less egregious, for example.
A different kind of move has been seen regarding non-straight people. The adjective pair of my youth (gay and lesbian) has been replaced by a noun pair that marks no one as abnormal (lesbians and gay men.) The reason that gendered language is being abandoned in one area and refined to be non-fucked up in another has to do with an important thing that we’ll get to in greater depth later.
The quick three paragraph version is that sometimes the special word is created to keep the people considered abnormal or subnormal separate from the people considered normal. A woman who acted was seen as something so strange, different, and weird that a word had to be invented for it while men who acted were so normal that they got to use the word that means “person who acts” without modification or limitation.
Sometimes, however, the people considered abnormal or subnormal are being excluded and the special word is created or adopted not to further that exclusion but instead as a way to explicitly say, “We’re including these people too.”
Also, being excluded can sour you on a term that technically includes you and leave you wanting a more specific term. Thus the use of “lesbian” (adjective and noun alike) was in part a response to men who thought that “gay people” meant “gay men and gay men only.”
We’ll have more on when a word is part of a struggle for inclusion as opposed to a means of exclusion later, though.
Right now the important thing is that then there’s a word for people and another word for women, that marks women as being different, strange, abnormal, possibly even subhuman. I didn’t understand this when I was little because I thought that women were obviously normal people (because they ARE normal people) and didn’t consider that separating them out said that they were not.
The extent of “normal people and women” wasn’t driven home until 2012. I knew that there were products marketed to all kids and girls, I might have realized that there were products marketed to people and women, but it took a picture of two books to really drive home that even when we do have two equal words, one for male and one for female, we still don’t fucking use them.
The picture, which I saw on this post by Fred Clark but originally comes from this post at the Ms. Blog, is of two books. One book is subtitled, “Just how big can a little girl dream?” Next to it is a book that appears to be identical except for one thing: the main character is a boy instead of a girl. Same author, same illustrator, same company, same style, same title except for the gendered name needing to be a boy’s name instead of a girl’s name. Is it subtitled, “Just how big can a little boy dream?” No. It’s, “Just how big can a little kid dream?” One for kids, one for girls.
The opening paragraphs of Fred’s post are a great summary of the phenomenon:
The Ms. Blog offers a collection of reader-submitted photos of products marketed to people and also to women.
Not to men and to women, but to people — normal, legitimate, regular people, and to women — abnormal, subordinate, irregular not-quite people.
And while that is horrible, that’s not even what this post is about.
* * *
The original iteration of this post was one that I decided to write after learning that “cis” is “social justice porn” and realizing that that was one of the nicer descriptions of the term I had heard. It has also been labeled as hate speech by some.
For those who don’t know, “cis” and “trans” are Latin prefixes that form a complete set. Anything that is not trans is by definition cis. Anything that is not cis is by definition trans. “Trans” is the more complicated of the two because trans means across while cis means not-across, and there are multiple ways to be across.
Cisalpine Gaul is the part of Gaul that is on the same side of the Alps (as the Romans.) It is in one place and stays within the assigned borders. Transalpine Gaul does much the same thing, but it’s across the Alps (from the Romans.)
A lot of people think that the definition of trans ends there. The reason that “trans” is sometimes written as “trans*” is to remind people that the definition doesn’t end there and thus, hopefully, prevent people from being excluded.
Even without asterisk we know that there are other ways for things to be trans.
A transcontinental flight isn’t one that always stays across the continent from some fixed point of reference. It’s one that starts in one continent and moves across at least one border (usually an ocean but sometimes an isthmus or, in one case, the Urals) to end up in another.
A transnational corporation refuses to stay on the designated side of the border in a different way entirely. It exists on multiple sides of the border at once.
The same meanings of trans apply when talking about gender. Anyone who isn’t strictly staying within the borders of the societally defined appropriate context of the gender they were assigned at birth is by definition trans. But we have to remember why “trans*” exists. In spite of some types of people being included, by definition, in “trans” they’ve been left out and some people those groups aren’t satisfied with just an asterisk to indicate that they count.
Also, “trans” isn’t the most descriptive term for them anyway. Like the two parts of Gaul, people who are single gender conforming are easily understood with just the use of “trans” or “cis” but genderqueer, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, and indeed all trans people who are not trans men or trans women are not adequately described, in many contexts, by the accurate term “trans”. Thus certain people who are definitionally included in “trans” don’t identify as such. I’m going to have a big section on why that’s fine and how it in no way contradicts what I’m about to say regarding the term “cis” at the end of the post.
For now though, I want to talk about “cis”.
* * *
“Trans” and “cis” can be used as adjectives (thus full words) or word elements. Cis woman and ciswoman are both acceptable, for example. That however, isn’t the point. The point goes back to definitions. That which is not trans, using the complete definition as sometimes signified with the asterisk, is by definition cis. If you’re not transgender you must be cisgender. The same can be said of “transsexual” and “cissexual” except that there’s a lot of baggage there and this post is already on the heavier side of acceptable flying weights. If you’re a woman who isn’t a trans woman you must therefore be a cis woman, and if you’re a man who is not a trans man you must therefore be a cis man.
It’s what the words mean. Like I said, it’s a complete set so if you’ve got the trans and the cis you have all the things. That doesn’t even have to do with gender, but the application to gender issues is really fucking important. So, to make sure that we’ve beaten this into the ground enough to form a firm foundation, let me point out that: trans women + cis women = all women. And if I replace “women” with “men” that still holds true.
We don’t always use both prefixes/adjectives because we don’t always care about things equally. We don’t, for example, care about gressions in general. It’s not even a word. Regressions, progressions, aggressions, and transgression we care about. Cisgressions not so much.
But when we’re talking about people there’s an important thing to note: if we don’t use both terms then we end up with the same problem seen above with “people and women”. We end up, in our language, at the level of of either adjectives or prefixes, saying that we have normal, legitimate, regular people and abnormal, subordinate, irregular, not-quite people.
If, instead of “cis women and trans women,” we have, “women and trans women” then we’re saying that there are normal, legitimate, regular women, and then there are trans women who are abnormal, subordinate, irregular, not-quite women. Or, as some people would have it, not at all women.
That’s why we need the prefix cis to be there. It doesn’t need to be there all the time of course because the fact of the matter is that most of the time when we talk about women it doesn’t fucking matter if they’re cis or trans so there will be no prefix. It does need to be there when the two groups need to be separated for whatever reason because we can’t let the words be, “women and trans women” without saying that trans women don’t count as women. It has to be “cis women and trans women” in such cases because otherwise our very language makes us assholes. It hurts people.
There’s a reason I’m using women as the example, by the way. There are people fighting to brand the use of “cis” as socially unacceptable and I mostly see it from women. It’s possible that this is just because of my own limited knowledge of the world.
Maybe there are articles about how horrible it is that real true boys have to share restrooms with trans boys who, the articles insists, are really just “confused girls”. Maybe there’s an entire movement out there saying we as a people need to protect our normal sons from trans boys who might use the same restrooms/changing rooms/locker rooms/and so forth if we have laws against discrimination.
Maybe there are “Men born Men” spaces and I just don’t know about them.
Maybe there are loud organised gay men who say that gay trans men are just straight women trying to pass as men so that they can have sex with the ever elusive and highly coveted gay men that straight women want so much.
Maybe all of this shit and more. But I haven’t seen it.
Instead what I tend to see is cis women claiming that calling them cis women is a crime against their self determination and dignity and that “cis” is equivalent to a horrible slur. When men weigh in, which they often do, they also seem to be concerned primarily with women on the grounds of protecting wives, sisters, and daughters from the scary trans women and/or trans girls.
A lot can be said about the bullshit of “Womyn born Womyn” spaces. The entire concept is to keep out trans women, but it doesn’t say “Cis women only” and that “y” isn’t there to indicate that they’re a different group from “women” as a whole.
Discussion about those toxic spaces could even bring up interesting and important questions about the solidification of gender identity. Not everyone who is trans knew from birth that they weren’t cis. It makes a nice sound bite to talk about being born in the wrong body, but it only applies to certain trans* people.
That exploration of trans women who were clearly trans from birth and trans women who were born without a strong gender identity and only developed one later is something that needs to happen and needs to happen visibly because right now even people who are trying to be decent human beings are getting tricked by sound bites into being insensitive jerks sometimes.
But “Womyn born Womyn” doesn’t mean, “You’re only allowed in if you strongly identified with the concept of girl since birth.” In fact, a lot of the time we can see people who say that gender identity is bullshit and we should strive to break free of the entire fucking concept of gender in these spaces and supporting their trans exclusionary policies. Those are the ones that give us the term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.)
The reason that the spaces and the people who run them don’t say “cis women only” is because they don’t want to be labeled cis. They don’t offer up some other term of their own invention that they prefer, they just want to be women, or womyn depending on context, which brings us back to the point.
If we don’t use the term “ciswomen/cis women” then we’re left with “women and transwomen/trans women” which marks trans women as strange, different, sub-women or we’re left never bringing up trans women at all which means they’re left out entirely as seen by things like the fact that they’re not even allowed to take a shit without laws that specifically say they do, in fact, count as women.
(On that subject, somewhere I have an anonymous guest post about the right to take a shit that I need to get around to posting here because I think it’s been languishing for a year or more at this point.)
When people fight against being labeled so that they have claim to the unmodified noun while another group is stuck with the modified noun, as with the people who don’t want to be “cis” thus leaving us with “people and trans people” what they’re actually fighting for, even if they’re not fully aware of it, is oppressing the other group at a linguistic level.
Sticking with “cis”, “trans”, and “women”, if we cut out cis and thus end up up with “women and trans women” and there’s only one thing that makes that construction make sense. The only way to make it so what comes after the “and” isn’t a redundant repetition of a proper subset of what comes before the “and” is if we view “trans” as a negation. It’s only if we see it as “women and fake women” that it really makes sense.
Women fighting against being labeled cis aren’t trying to make it so the word “women” means, “female people which obviously includes trans female people and would only ever not include them if specifically stated to not include them,” because they’re not fighting for people like them to be labeled “women who don’t happen to be trans” they’re fighting for people like them to be labeled “women” as opposed to those other people who are “trans women”. Which makes “trans women” not “women”.
So, point stated five thousand times, is if cis women get to just be called “women” with no modifier regardless of context that means that we can’t talk about trans women without labeling them as strange, different, and somehow less than fully women. And there are people who are fighting to make sure that’s the case.
And it’s not just that.
Remember what I said about trans including people other than trans women and trans men. Remember also what, or rather who, the asterisk in trans* is there to remind you not to forget about.
Genderqueer people exist, whether others like it or not. Whether others admit it or not. The alternative term is genderconforming. But if you use that some people will think you’re evil or you’ve gone too far or you’re a bigot against them because “conforming” is a dirty word. Why, liquid conforms to its container and this house conforms to the building codes and people generally conform to the laws. See, it’s HIDEOUS! Clearly the alternative to genderqueer is just plain NORMAL and there’s no need for any word for it.
Or so the argument goes.
Genderfluid people exist. The alternative would be genderstable/genderstatic or something like that I suppose. I’ve not heard it used.
Moving away from trans* we still have this problem in discussions of race even though it became unpopular to be an openly racist asshole well before it became unpopular to be an openly transphobic asshole (actually, see: TERFs, it’s still just fine, popularity-wise, to be an openly transphobic asshole.)
A lot of white people are quick to say that we don’t need labels and we should just all be people, which leaves us with people and people of color. That, or we just don’t talk about the issues that specifically affect people of color. Either way, people of color are getting screwed by the way the label rejecting white people try to frame discussion.
* * *
And now we come to this part.
This is, sort of, the part that’s really been keeping me in a state of intending to revise this post for inclusion on the Slacktiverse yet never actually getting around to it.
Because, as noted at the top, in the original go I needed two posts, and how to fit in that second post is … difficult.
First off, I guess, more from the original post, but it’ll be cut down so the new material isn’t overly redundant.
Again it’s worthwhile to return to genesis of special words. Sometimes they’re created to linguistically enforce separation, and generally done by people outside the group being labeled in order to keep those people out of the normal category. I’m guessing (though do not know for sure) that words like “actress” and “poetess” had their origins with men thinking that female actors and female poets were so strange and different and weird that there needed to be a special word to separated them from normal actors and poets.
Sometimes, however, special words are created for the purpose of inclusion. In this case the label is usually created or adopted by the group it describes because it’s needed.
The term lesbian has been around for as long as there’s been an island of Lesbos, and has been associated with non-straight female sexuality since Sappho (who died circa 570 BC.) But the reason that it sees its modern usage has little to do with that and loads to do with the fact that without the Sapphic term women were getting left the fuck out.
There were plenty of gay men who thought that gay people naturally meant “Gay male people” because misogyny is not the exclusive domain of heterosexual people. Unless something for gay people specifically said it included lesbians there was a decent chance it was male only even if it wasn’t advertised as such.
There are similar problems with trans people who are neither men or women getting included in “trans”. Yes, they are included in trans by definition, every bit as much as lesbians are included in “gay people”, but that didn’t mean they were being included in practice. It still doesn’t, unfortunately. Thus: agender, genderfluid, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer, and so forth. Without a name that specifically pointed to them, they got left out.
And that’s a step beyond the title of the post. Yes, “women and trans women” is a bad construction that says that trans women are set apart from women a some kind of strange, substandard, or outright fake women, but there is a step further. If we remove labels altogether then we can’t even talk about trans women. You can’t say, “This is supposed to be for all women but trans women are being left out,” if you don’t have a term for trans women.
You can’t talk about the challenges genderfluid people face if you don’t have the word “genderfluid”.
And for plenty of people that’s a feature, not a bug. There are lots of people who would prefer never to think about people other than themselves. At the time of the original post I didn’t even know “Black Lives Matter” was a thing since it wouldn’t break through my bubble until the death of Michael Brown in 2014. But the response of “All Lives Matter” seems relevant here. “All Lives Matter” isn’t about setting up a contrast between normal people’s lives and black people’s lives. It’s worse. It’s about ignoring the existence of black people entirely.
If every time you try to talk about the (lethal) problems facing black people you’re drowned out by people demanding that you think about all people, then you can never actually deal with the problems facing black people. They become invisible and the things that affect predominantly them aren’t able to be raised as topics to be considered, addressed, and hopefully fucking solved.
And that’s the choice that the people who reject labels want everyone else to be faced with. Either you can accept that there are normal people on the one hand and you on the other hand, or you can never ever talk about the shit you specifically have to deal.
Either accept that the construction of “normal people and you” or never talk about the problems you face as someone who isn’t male, who isn’t cis, who isn’t white, who isn’t gender conforming, who isn’t binary, who isn’t … whatever quality it is that allows privileged people to claim that they need no label.
And here’s the reason that the title includes “you”: it isn’t just one group. Whoever you are, wherever you are, and and whatever you are, unless you sit at the intersection of all forms of privilege approved, socially and linguistically supported things (which no one does) then there’s some formulation in which there are normal people … and then there’s you.
If the language supports the idea that maybe you are normal after all, then there’s someone fighting against it saying that while it may be ok to label you (and only might, maybe you aren’t worthy of a label) it’s totally not ok for there to be a label that applies to people not like you because that would apply to them and that’s fucking hate speech or turning actual social justice into social justice porn or whatever it fucking takes to make sure that instead of there being a pair of words for “people like you” and “people not like you” the only two words are the ones for “normal people” and “people like you” thus demonstrating at a linguistic level that they’re normal and you’re a freak.
* * *
Twice I promised to get back to something, the reason it’s here at the end is because it wasn’t adequately covered in the original post, which is why a second post was needed for clarification, and also what little I did have covering it came at the end of the original post anyway, so sticking to the pattern would put it here.
This whole post was and is in response to the fact that there are cis people rejecting the label “cis” even though it includes them by definition. My hope is that by looking mostly at that specific example I’ve created something that can be generalized to many other things, but it was and is in response to the rejection of “cis”.
I argue that that is bad and harmful. I would say the same about straight people rejecting straight and heterosexual and all other labels that mean the same thing in favor of being label-free normal. Ditto for white people who claim they’re just people, utterly colorblind and thus never, ever, under any circumstances should they be labeled as white.
Hopefully that came across above.
But there are people who reject “trans” in spite of it including them by definition and I generally don’t have the same argument.
So what’s up with that?
Well, there are two things. The first is that what’s being done is, in fact, different regardless of context. Genderqueer and genderfluid people, for example, who reject the identification as “trans” aren’t arguing that they shouldn’t have a label because they’re normal and cis people are strange and different. Yes, like the “don’t call me ‘cis'” people they’re rejecting a label that includes them by definition, but unlike the “don’t call me ‘cis'” people they’re providing an alternative.
They aren’t marking themselves as the normal ones and everyone else as strange. They are definitely not rejecting “trans” in such a way as to set up the construction, “people and cis people” and thus are not marking themselves as normal and all others as aberrations.
Or for a really short version: it’s not about keeping other people down. It’s about being recognized with everyone else rather than being recognized over everyone else.
That’s sort of related to the other thing. The second thing is about something I learned from Fred Clark:
Just follow this one rule: Always punch up; never punch down.
Note that both parts of that are an ethical obligation. Punching down is immoral. So is failing to punch up.
To sum up the entire post above this really quickly:
I brought up the fact that everyone is by definition trans or cis in response to the fact that a hell of a lot of privileged cis people are trying to kill off the term “cis”, sometimes going so far as to label it as hate speech. If they succeed then rather than having people divided into cis people and trans people the division will be “people and trans people” which marks trans people as somehow subhuman.
Me using the definitions against those privileged people who are acting to oppress the already oppressed by twisting language to mark themselves as normal and those whom they seek to oppress as abnormal is me trying to stop the people above from hurting the people below.
It’s me trying to punch up.
However, using definitions against, for example, genderqueer or genderfluid people to claim that they’re not allowed to say they’re something other than trans would be different. A big part of the reason that those two terms, and ones like them, exist is because there are assholes everywhere and some of those assholes were and are trans male and trans female people who either pretended that people who fit the genderqueer et al. labels didn’t exist at all or claimed that those people weren’t really trans but instead weirdo aberration freaks.
It’s not just that by giving themselves labels instead of rejecting labels they’re not trying to claim normal for themselves alone, though that’s part of it. It’s not just that the labels in question are more descriptive of them and thus more useful when talking about them than the umbrella term trans*, though that too is part of it. It is also that fighting them for not accepting “trans” as applying to them is punching down.
They’ve been oppressed by people who, in any decent world, would be their allies and insisting that they apply to themselves the same term to themselves as is used by their oppressors isn’t some blow for justice or linguistic purity. It’s oppressing the oppressed, afflicting the afflicted, and generally kicking people who are already down.
That’s a no-no. That’s immoral.
It’s almost certain, though always leave some wiggle room for hedging, that any technically trans person who doesn’t want to identify as trans but instead and exclusively something more specific is even more marginalized than the people who do identify as trans alone and that some of the people doing that marginalization to them are self-identified trans people.
This isn’t an Oppression Olympics thing though. It’s possible that you have it way worse than such people, but if you’re not one of them then you almost certainly don’t have it way worse than them on this particular topic. I definitely don’t. So me attacking their decision to not call themselves trans but instead call themselves [insert whatever they do call themselves here] would be textbook punching down.
As a human being it is your job, mine too, to work to make it so that fewer and fewer groups are oppressed and any oppression that can’t be done away with by your actions (which, unfortunately, is most or all of them) is at least lessened. It is, it should be noted, not your job to overwork yourself in this capacity. Nor is it your job to get depressed if it doesn’t seem to be working. It’s a massive group effort and shouldering all the burden yourself is just going to hurt you and help no one.
But the point here is that you’re supposed to be helping the marginalized, not hurting them. Don’t punch down.
If you should find yourself lecturing a genderqueer person on how, regardless of what they prefer to identify as, they are in fact transgender then the definition is on your side but morality is not. Put down the dictionary, recite rule number one (try not to be an asshole) to yourself 15 times and then, you know, apologize. After that go and sin no more.
Language is important, and sometimes you need to bring definitions to bear, but if you’re bringing definitions to bear in a disagreement, remember which way you’re punching. It can, in certain circumstances, be immoral not to use them to punch up. It is immoral to use them to punch down.