Jun 25, 2021 • 12M

We need to talk about cisgender

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The Overthinker's Guide To Sex is a sex and relationships newsletter written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney. This is the audio version.

At the start of the month a story came out that Stonewall had (amongst other things) recommended that employers signed up to their Diversity Champions scheme replace the word “mother” in their HR policies and internal communications with more inclusive language. Suggestions included “pregnant parent” and “parent who has given birth.”

When I first saw the headlines, I almost didn’t click. Like many LGBTQ+ people and trans allies I had a feeling "Oh, Jesus, what NOW?" But eventually I took a deep breath and went in.

This is just the latest in what feels like a neverending slew of aggression and paranoia from “gender-critical” commentators, academics and overly-platformed celebs. Actually, it’s not even the latest. This week the Royal Academy climbed down from its position that it would not longer stock Jessica de Wahls’ work in its gift shop (the artist made transphobic comments in 2019 which she stands by). But for whatever reason – the fact that I am a mother and a parent who has given birth, the fact that it’s Pride month – I decided now was the time to write about it.

I’ve shied away from discussing this directly in the newsletter before largely because, as a cis woman, I don’t want to speak on behalf of trans people. But as time has gone on I’ve started to realise that most people don’t actually need the trans experience explaining to them*, what they really need to do is unpick the cis experience. Because to my mind that’s where the problem lies: in imagining that cis womanhood (or cis manhood for that matter) is a fixed category in the first place.

To a certain extent, I get why people might feel rocked by the increasing acceptance that sex and gender are mutable. Most of us grew up not knowing that sex and gender were even up for question! And yeah, it can feel destabilising to realise the world isn’t neatly locked down but is in fact wide open for exploration and interpretation. So I try to remain empathetic. 

One of the arguments trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) make is that accepting trans people erases the struggle of cis women. It doesn’t erase it. But it does add nuance to it. It’s true that women have been historically oppressed and continue to be oppressed on account of (statistically significant, if not universal) sex-based differences, in particular their perceived reproductive function. But I say “perceived” deliberately because, as we know, not all cis women are able to have children and not all cis women want to have children so already we are talking about a huge group of people who may or may not fit the criteria on which they are oppressed.

The oppression and marginalisation of women as a group is not actually dependent on whether individual women have the ability or desire to carry children. So there’s no reason why trans women can’t be included (luckily there’s no shortage of oppression - plenty to go round, folks!)

There’s also an argument that the existence of trans people props up the notion that gender is binary and men and women are irreconcilably different. The implication is that trans people ought to simply live and express themselves within the context of the gender they were assigned at birth. The idea that they can’t seems, to some, anti-feminist.

“Why does this person need to be a man, why can’t they be a butch woman,” is the implied question. Quite apart from being a very unkind attitude (why would you demand that someone live a life they don’t want?), it speaks mostly to a lack of understanding.

There’s no doubt it’s difficult for cis people to empathise with gender dysphoria. I find it difficult, of course I do, it’s something I’ve never experienced. But I’m reminded of this:

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The gender spectrum is vast and whether cis or trans, fixed or fluid, there are myriad places on which to fall. Everyone’s journeys towards gender congruence will differ in length and complexity. As Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele point out in their book Gender: A Graphic Guide, “Do we not all experience shifts in gender identity, experience and expression to some degree over the course of our lives?” Instead of thinking about trans people as though they are “switching sides” we can perhaps appreciate that they are just making larger, more tangible, shifts.

Which brings me to the key point, really: There’s no version of “being a woman” that fits everyone. There just isn’t. Womanhood already exists on a spectrum and on top of that spectrum are layers and layers of other identities, some social, some biological, some given, some acquired. If we can accept that there is not one homogenous experience of womanhood on account of culture, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, body diversity and disability, surely we can accept the trans experience too.

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*This isn’t always true. Plenty of people struggle to get their heads around it – that’s what my reading list below is for.

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Trans rights are human rights

I’ve barely begun to touch on the issues that trans people face or the transphobia we see in the media on a near-daily basis. And I’m aware I’ve largely talked about women. But I wanted to share some thoughts with you, and also, some resources. Moreover, as we come to the end of Pride month, I wanted to dedicate this newsletter to trans and non-binary people and send my love and solidarity.

I just can’t even imagine how it feels to be the subject of such toxic “debate”; the anxious writhing over semantics, the drops of poison injected into any gap in the argument they can find, it’s grotesque and I’m sorry. I’m sorry you have to put up with this. Please know I am always, always with you.

The Overthinker’s Guide To… Understanding Trans Experiences

I had the idea to put together a reading list but as I thought about it I realised that most of my understanding of trans identities and experiences has come through talking and listening to trans people. Now, I realise you might not know any trans people and if you’re not a journalist, sliding into someone’s DMs to ask for an interview is kind of a no-go (it’s also something you need to be reasonably sensitive about even if you are a journalist) but you CAN go follow a bunch of trans people on social media and listen and learn that way. In fact I’d probably recommend this far more than any books or documentaries because this is how you get to hear people talk about their lives and experiences in their own words. But I will also share some of the media I’ve enjoyed too because why not. As always, this is not a definitive list, it is merely a starting point and I welcome any suggestions of links and resources to add.

  • I recommended Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby to you in my last newsletter but I am recommending it again because it is that good.

  • I’ve also recommended “Disclosure” (on Netflix) before but it really is a wake-up call when it comes to the ways in which gender non-conforming people have been treated and presented in TV and film. Prepare to have all your childhood faves cancelled. 

  • I just bought Transgender History by Susan Stryker which is absolutely fascinating and thoroughly debunks the notion that being trans is somehow “trendy” or new!

  • On that note, this might be a controversial one but I actually think “Paris is Burning” is a crucial watch, if only to see some of that trans history in context.

  • One more for the history geeks! I haven’t read this but I’ve had Trans Britain, edited by Christine Burns, recommended to me on good authority so I’m including it anyway.

  • I already mentioned Gender: A Graphic Guide by Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele but here it is again. Like all their books, the illustrations are amazing and the text is really succinct and accessible.

  • Definitely check out Hannah Witton’s interview with writer Juno Dawson on the last series of Doing It. Dawson’s memoir(-ish), The Gender Games is also widely acclaimed although I haven't managed to get to it yet.

  • It would be remiss of me not to mention my own podcast episode, “Sex... and Transition” which discusses sex as a trans woman.

  • For more on trans and non-binary experiences of sex, try Queer Sex, by Juno Roche, which serves to deconstruct cis-centric notions of how sex is supposed to work and what it’s supposed to be.

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The Overthinker’s Guide To Sex is written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney.
To read more of my work, or to get in touch with me go to frankicookney.com. You can also find me on Twitter, and Instagram.
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