Third Place: The Power of Cisnormativity in Academia

Textbooks are powerful. The stories, facts, and phenomenon we see represented in the pages shape the way we interact, write, and speak about ourselves and others.

What does it mean, then… if the stories of trans people are written by cisgender people? What should we make of such literature?

Although I am a transman, I’m hesitant to throw out such literature. Such literature is an artifact of our time. It is representative of how deeply silenced transgender people are. We are the “exotic others” that must be studied, examined, and it is the cis who do the translation of our experiences.

It is not because we are inept. It is not because we are unable to write our own stories and get publicity.

So… why does academia still give into cisnormativity in the politics of publishing? What purpose (or rather, benefit) does this provide?

If the answer is none, then the solution is simple. We must not publish the work of cis people who wish to tell the stories of trans people.

If the answer is to problematize any potential binary between trans and cis people, we must acknowledge the differences in experiences we have.

When I meet scholars who are cisgender that want to write about transgender people, it is usually out of good intentions. Most of the time, they are lesbian or gay scholars who want to be more inclusive.

They themselves identify as gender variant in some capacity. Naturally, they think they have a space in trans communities. But realistically, performing drag on half-off Tuesdays is not the same as coming out as transgender at work, to your family, or navigating the streets as a trans sex worker. All of these experiences are more in-tune with the experiences of most trans people.

And since transgender activism and trans studies is based on creating spaces where everyone is welcome — cis queers who take our stories are often allowed in. We purposefully choose not to reproduce the same exlcusionary politics the ancestors of straight, gay, and lesbian people enacted.

But what are the theoretical limitations we enact when we do not have people from “the community” speaking and writing for “the community”?

What does it mean that cis queer people write the stories of trans people?

Many trans people already know the answer. We know that cisnormativity is the reason why we need a therapist’s letter to get surgery. Whereas cisgender people can have as many boob jobs or hormones they want — without having to prove they have a mental disorder.

We know that particular extra step is symbolic of the power cisgender men and women wish to impose upon us (regardless of their sexuality).

One of the small ways I notice cisgender people write about transgender people is that gender is always listed.

For example, straight folks will write: women and LGBTQ+ people (as if LGBTQ+ people aren’t also women).

Cisgender queer people write something similar: women and trans people (as if trans isn’t a type of womanhood).

What deeply fascinates me… is why do cisgender people hold onto this ranking system? What about it is important in the construction of cisgenderism?

Even further, how do cis queer people benefit by masking gender variance under sexuality (instead of vice versa)?

I think this is a productive question in many aspects. Firstly, it starts to answer some of the deep seeded transphobia in queer communities.

And if it is not important that we are ranked at third place linguistically — why can’t it be switched? Why can’t it be trans and queer people? Why can’t it be non-binary people, women, and men?

This is a very basic artifact of our sense making processes as academics. But it is symbolic of larger structures.

Structures that placed “female crossdressers” under their assigned gender at birth — a label they would not have prescribed to themselves.

It is one thing when straight and cisgender communities do this violence to us. But how do we make sense of queer academics doing this violence?

Why must they take our history, our stories, and our love lives?

I once came across someone who claimed trans people did not have culture. We did not have anything to be stolen by cisgender people.

I thought such a claim is ludicrous. Cisgender people model themselves after trans and gender variant models. Cisgender people steal make-up ideals from gender variant drag performers. Cisgender people steal our sex lives. Cisgender people steal our artwork. Cisgender people steal our bodies. Cisgender people steal our stories.

Cisgender people steal our lives.

I used to think that as a marginalized group — transgender people never produced anything as a collective sub-culture. But… if that is the case, why must cisgender people steal our stuff?

Why must cisgender people write our stories for us in a paternalistic manner? Why must cisgender academics write about trans victimhoods and suffering?

One of the most isolating narratives I am taught, as a transgender person, is that I have no history. I am even separated from my own whiteness and the blood on my ancestors hands.

I am expected to have no history…. “there hasn’t been anyone like you here…”

I am expected to have no culture. My culture is placed under middle class whiteness and queerness — there is no culture produced from gender variant people like me.

As “intellectuals” we can do better than this. We must unmask our desire to speak for trans people.