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I don't feel I “match” my gender, so what does it mean to be called cis?

Some people see gender as a galaxy of possibilities. I experience it as a trap, a network of prejudices rooted in conservative notions of complementarity and evolutionary purpose.

It's difficult to say exactly “what women are”. Gender can feel like a trap. Photo: Getty

Until my early twenties I was very, very thin. I didn’t have breasts or hips, and I didn’t menstruate. I liked myself that way and never wanted to change. My biggest fear was that one day, my body would rebel and I’d find myself walking the streets with bloodstains down the back of my skirt (I’d had two periods, aged ten, before starving my body back into submission). I developed a paranoid tic, constantly smoothing down my clothes and looking behind me to make sure I was bloodstain-free.

I’m not sure where the fear came from. I don’t know why that brief, early foray into puberty told me all I needed to know about how humiliating and intrusive owning a female body would be. I only know that later on, when I had to choose whether to eat or die, I was dismayed to find my anorexic self was right. I didn’t like the body that female adulthood gave me.

Breasts and bloodstains were an intrusion on my personhood. I felt diminished. I knew people – men in particular – looked at me differently. Without breasts, I could be pure thought; with them, I felt reduced to the passive bearer of womanhood and all the repressive values associated with it.

Perhaps I still feel this way, to a certain extent. I have enjoyed some aspects of having a female body – being pregnant felt empowering, suddenly putting all that wasted flesh to a purpose no one else could challenge. After pregnancy, however, I was desperate to shrink and stay shrunken. I am small and curvy and I long to be hard and compact.

Some people see gender as a galaxy of possibilities. I experience it as a trap, a network of prejudices rooted in conservative notions of complementarity and evolutionary purpose. I don’t believe my gender identity is female. I inhabit a female body, as opposed to a male or intersex one, and it does many of the things a female body is expected to do. My self – my identity – is something else. I possess some attributes considered typically female, others considered typically male. This does not make me special or unusual. I construct a reality in relation to my body – and the gender-based prejudices that come with having this body – as best I can. Isn’t that all any of us can do?

To break the stranglehold gender stereotypes have over human experience – distorting and restricting our experience of ourselves – should not involve telling whole swathes of humankind that they “match” their gender. Nonetheless, recently I’ve noticed certain right-on cis men have become terribly fond of saying this to cis women (and never without that slight “and now make me a sandwich” undertone). After all, what’s there to be afraid of? Matching cis maleness – the identity most closely associated with “being human” – must feel like winning the gender lottery. It’s not the same if you inhabit a female body. Who’d want the values associated with that? Yet that is what cis women are told they are stuck with. It is as though locating femaleness in one’s reproductive capacities is tantamount to assimilating femaleness as a gender construct. I don’t think this is fair. If there is no such thing as an essential gender binary, then there is nothing for a cis woman to match. The alternative – a trans or genderqueer identity – is another way of maintaining personhood in the face of a dehumanising social code. It should not become a means of reinforcing this code by exception.

The privileges enjoyed by cis people are vast and generally unacknowledged. Even so, cis privilege does not mean that for the vast majority of cis women embracing any form of gender identity is not a fraught, dehumanising experience. The relationship between our bodies, our assumed gender identity and what we know ourselves to be is difficult. No one should be judged on how they choose to negotiate it.

The idea that cis women implicitly identify with a female essence is little more than a rehash of patriarchal notions of “what women are”. It’s an acceptance that misogynists have been right all along; if you are born in a female body and accept the name “woman” then for you biology is destiny. You are not permitted the space to explore the relationship between perceptions of your body and an artificially gendered understanding of your mind. For you it is all or nothing. The very idea that the sexism you face is related to the body you inhabit is placed out of bounds.

This is especially problematic in relation to how we discuss reproductive freedom. Misogyny cannot be disentangled from a deep resentment of female reproduction (from a Judeo-Christian perspective what, after all, is Eve’s punishment?). The current drive towards de-gendering references to pregnancy and abortion thus strikes me as fundamentally anti-feminist. Anti-choicers do not seek to deny people abortions; they seek to deny women abortions. The needs of these women are dismissed not simply due to some abstract expectation of what people with wombs do, but due to an enormous matrix of highly gendered expectations. The gendering in this has to be acknowledged, otherwise how can it be challenged in any meaningful way? For the sake of both cis women and trans men it is important to identify the contested ground and to hone in on where the dehumanising impulses come from.  This requires an understanding of intersectionality as contextualisation rather than a shifting of hierarchies, something which is essential if we are not to mask structures of oppression in a desperate attempt to be non-specific.

Right now I see a huge amount of tension between trans activists and radical feminists. Calling for a truce is, I suspect, futile. As ever, the noisiest people tend to be the most unwilling to listen. There are few things more narrow-minded and repressive than deeming cis women to be “a waste of pussy” or in thinking it constitutes activism to misgender and doxx a trans woman. I think the people doing this know it. I also think – but I don’t know if I can be sure – that both “sides” are fearful of acknowledging how close they are to one another in pinpointing how dishonest the whole notion of binary gender is. It should be okay to find different routes to self-realisation in a patriarchal, gender obsessed culture. Nonetheless, we feel there is not enough space. We are greedy for one another’s words, eager to be more “real” than the other person. That we are all authentic, and all of us finding ways of dealing with the not-realness of gender, is something that gets lost.  

And yet our bodies are real. Our experiences and modifications of them – and the meanings these have in the culture around us – cannot be wished away. They can only be engaged with, openly and honestly. Only then can we give ourselves the space to grow into whatever people we want to be – rich, diverse, nurturing our bodies and allowing our imaginations to soar.