Every person’s gender is a unique special snowflake. Including yours, cis person.
Hey cis people! I have some questions for you, about what your gender means to you. These questions are not intended to mock or provoke irritation. They are sincere, reflective questions that most trans people have to spend a lot of interior time dwelling upon, but which many cis people contemplate and benefit from considering, too. Here they are:
- What does it mean for you to be a [woman/man]?
- What makes you feel like a [woman/man]?
- Do you always feel like a [woman/man]? If not, what do those other times feel like?
- What stereotypes about [women/men] do you feel do not apply to you?
- How does being a [woman/man] impact your personal style, grooming, and other aspects of how you present to the world?
- Did you ever feel like being a [woman/man] kept you from enjoying gendered activities you would have liked to engage in?
- Growing up, who were important figures that illustrated to you what it meant to be a [woman/man]? How have you emulated them as an adult?
- What are some traits or preferences of yours that are consistent with society’s image of a [woman/man]?
- What are some traits or preferences of yours that are inconsistent with society’s image of a [woman/man]?
- How has your identity and your relationship to [womanhood/manhood] changed over the course of your life?
Your responses to these questions are probably complicated and diverse, and not consistently gender-conforming or gender-nonconforming. Even if you’re cis, being a woman or being a man is probably complicated business for you. It’s not all guns or glitter, hunting or fruity beach drinks. You’re a fully realized nuanced human, and you have observed the flaws of the gender binary before.
Cis person, you probably have characteristics — be they physical traits, personality features, preferences, or habits — that do not meet society’s expectations for what a “man” or “woman” should be. Maybe you feel insecure about that. Maybe you’re okay with it. Maybe even you love it. Maybe it depends on what the type of nonconformity is. Probably some of your gender non-conforming traits are precious to you. Some are probably subtle or kept a secret. It’s probably a melange of all of the above.
Cis person, you probably also have aspects of your gender that are more straightforward. Maybe you do conform to some of the stereotypes. Maybe you like pickup trucks or gossip. Maybe you do manspread or have weak upper body strength. Your feelings about your gender-conforming traits are probably, also complicated. Some of them you might love and take pride in. Perhaps you receive societal approval and validation for them. Maybe they make you feel like more of a woman or a man. But maybe some of them are shameful to you. Or they just feel kind of boring or trite. Probably a lot of them you never think about.
Cis person, what does it mean to be your gender? Does every person of your gender have the same presentation, beliefs, personality traits, or physical characteristics as you? Have you always expressed your gender the same way you do now? Were there ever things you kept yourself from experiencing — be it a manicure or holding the door open for someone or wearing a dress or rolling in the mud — that you felt you couldn’t do, or shouldn’t do, because of your gender? Have you ever overcome cultural baggage about your gender, and learned how to cry, or how to say no, or how to give or take an appropriate amount of physical space, and been the better for it? Has your gender been revolutionized by challenging social norms about what being a man or a woman is? After all of those challenges and changes and periods of questioning, did you remain confident nonetheless that you are a woman or a man?
What if I told you trans people are the exact same as you? What if I told you their experience of gender is just as jumbled and confusing and personal and radiant as your own is?
One really common criticism of trans people is that they reinforce the gender binary by embodying gender stereotypes. Never mind that reading easily as female or male brings trans people a lot of safety. Never mind that cis people, too, have internalized a lifetime of messages about what being a man or a woman “looks like”. The second a trans woman wears a pink, frilly dress, she risks being seen as an impostor, a pretender. Trans narratives about “knowing” one was trans by virtue of liking trucks or dolls are seen by some cis people as a thin mockery of what a complex, personal experience of womanhood or manhood really is.
At the same time, trans people are pilloried when their gender is too distinct from gender normative stereotypes to “read” easily to cis people. If a trans woman likes to wear jeans and flannel, cis people will accuse her of being a deluded straight man. If a trans man leaves his breasts unbound or puts on a slash of makeup, radical feminists will claim he’s just a girl who wants to identify his way out of experiencing sexism. And if a trans person puts a name to their gender that is as unique and idiosyncratic as all genders are, they will be labeled a total faker, a special snowflake.
Cis people can choose freely from the gender conformity and gender non-conformity box, and their genders are never questioned. Their gender expression can shift and evolve over time and they are never accused of mockery or confusion or begging for attention. A cis person can have a hard-fought, personal relationship to their gender and never be expected to explain it. Trans people, on the other hand, constantly feel the pressure to prove that their gender is real, and recognizable, but they must strive to do so without ever slipping into a gender-conformist cliche.
I think you, cis person, might be a lot more accepting and empathetic towards trans people if you trust that their genders are just as fraught and nuanced and ever-changing and personalized as your very own gender is. I also think you could personally benefit from seeing your own gender as a one-of-a-kind creation, comprised of many things that sometimes fit together, and sometimes do not. It might be freeing to realize that your gender is a special, bespoke snowflake, even if you’re cis.
Cis people sometimes turn their nose up at the term “cis”. There’s this inference that when trans people call you “cis”, we’re saying you’re all the same. That you’re some unevolved, unexamined pantomime of a gender norm. That you conform to the gender you were assigned at birth because your are a sheep, or because you’re a less complicated person than trans people are.
That’s not true. Your gender is unlike anyone else’s in history, and it is informed by your wealth of life experiences. And it matters to you. And it deserves to be respected.
It’s just that, well, so do trans people’s. You’re gonna have to trust us on that. It’s easier if you explore your own gender as careful as we do ours.
So if you haven’t yet, reflect on it: what is my gender? What makes it up? What does it mean to me? Do I feel like my gender? What does that mean? Trans people answer questions like this all the time. But cis people could stand to explore them too.
Your gender might involve how you dress, what media you like, whom you identify with, whom you admire and want to be more like, which traits of yours you love and hate, how you see yourself and your role in your family, how you feel in your body, how you relate to the people you find attractive, how you occupy and move through space, how you relate to other people, and yes, how you feel inside. Or maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe it is only apparent to you when you listen to that one song or look at yourself in the mirror or get that one haircut you love, or read about the accomplishments of women or men in history. I don’t fucking know. Playing Zelda is important to my gender, so I’m not going to judge what makes you feel like you.
You know what feels right, and you probably know what feels wrong, too. People have probably made assumptions about you based on your gender that were dead wrong. They’ve probably used words for you that were gendered that felt off. Maybe you were insulted by being compared to another gender, or mistaken for a person of another gender, and it felt weird and off. Those feelings are part of what knowing your gender is. Trust that trans people have had a lot of those wrong-feeling experiences. Sometimes we find out who we are just by fleeing from a lifetime of those wrong feelings.
You will probably gain some insights from thinking about your gender in this way. You might even realize that some choices you make, or behaviors your engage in, do not feel right to you. Maybe some of your instances of gender conformity brought you zero joy. Maybe, for you, being a man means shaving your legs and armpits. Maybe, for you, being a woman means having a beard. It can be liberating and deeply enriching to discover what makes you feel self-actualized and fully realized. You can do all of this even if you’re cis.
So dig into it, and see what you find. YWhat it means for you to be a woman or a man is probably very personal and nuanced, and distinct from every other cis person, as well as every trans one. Your gender, and what it means to you, is probably a unique and very personal constellation of factors — specific personal preferences, internal traits, physical characteristics, media influences, cultural traditions, aspects of your upbringing, pivotal experiences, and developmental revelations. It’s not cookie-cutter pink vs blue pageantry. You don’t have to be trans to be complex.
Your gender is complicated, and self-contradictory, and might change over time. How you express it or think about it has probably evolved over the course of your life. But whatever it is, and whatever mess of baggage and individuality makes it up, it is yours and it’s important to you.
Trans people are the same. They are not mimicking a gender stereotype or rebelling for the sake of rebellion. They’re not co-opting a new identity or fleeing from an old one. Their gender expressions are no more false or simple than any cis person’s is. And despite how confusing and inconsistent each trans person’s gender might be, they are just as much that gender as you are your gender. They’re not confused. They’re not making it up.
Gender is more than a binary, and more than a spectrum. The number of categories and labels for gender cannot ever be expanded enough. No taxonomy can ever fully capture the array of diversity that is observable, because every individual person is a phenomenon of gender all their own. I would be thrilled to see more cis people exploring what their gender means to them, and expressing their relationship to that gender in all its nuances. I’m nonbinary, but I have no investment in my gender being special. It’s one of a kind, but so is everyone else’s.
All I ask is that, in return, cis people trust that every trans person has a gender that is just as subtle, confusing, deep, and holy.