A Call for Cisgender Action
Creating gender-inclusive spaces and moments in everyday life
The gradual push for marriage equality in the U.S. has created a lot of buzz around queer culture, specifically around gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities. These communities have gained mainstream visibility within straight and cisgender culture. You can get a Human Rights Campaign Visa card from Bank of America. Corporations like Nike and Microsoft now march in gay pride parades, laminated in sleek rainbow decorations and logos. However, inclusion for gender identity and variety is happening at a much slower pace, and it often comes at a higher price.
So What’s Cisgender?
This question comes up a lot in both queer and ally groups I’ve worked with. Everyone pretty much knows what “straight” is. You can mention “straight” or “gay” at the office, at school, and at home, and most people will know what you’re talking about. But “cisgender” isn’t part of everyday use.
Cisgender means that your gender identity matches your assigned-at-birth sex. Generally, cisgender means that you are not trans*, intersex, or gender-variant. I really like the word “cisgender,” because it names what most people deem to be “normal“ and calls it into question.
The word “cisgender” serves as a reminder that:
- not everyone identifies with their natal sex, such as trans* people.
- some people cannot be medically categorized within the neat (and problematic) “boy” and “girl” boxes, especially in cases of intersex births.
- “Man” and “Woman” don’t account for the great variety of gender identities out there, which span different cultural traditions and histories. Examples include genderqueer, two-spirit, and fa’afafine.
Why Does Gender-Variance Matter?
Since mainstream culture is currently fixated on sexuality, many gender-variant people in the LGBTQIA community live in silence. Often, the “T” and the “I” parts of our acronyms get sidelined — the trans* and intersex communities. “Trans” is often stuck on as an afterthought, and intersex is almost completely unheard of, even in organizations dedicated to queer awareness. I find it odd that intersex people are overlooked so often. Medical experts say that only 1 percent of the world’s population are born with ambiguous sexual characteristics. Well … that’s actually 70 million people who don’t fit into the medical binary of “male” or “female” at birth.
New York Times writer Michael Schwirtz acknowledges the push and pull of the gender visibility struggle in his article, “Embarking on a New Life, Transgender Woman Has It Taken Away.” As he chronicles the brief and vibrant life of Islan Nettles, Schwirtz writes, “And though the leaps toward equality made by gay men and lesbians in recent years seem to have left transgender people behind, they have become more visible in politics, entertainment and sports.”
It’s true. Gender-variant people sometimes get to step into the media limelight, as celebrities … or as hate crime victims. In fact, GLAAD estimates that 53% of LGBTQ hate crime victims are transgender women. How can we prevent this type of violence and phobic behavior? Well, we can start by making everyday environments more gender-inclusive and encourage respectful discussions.
How Cisgender People Can Help
Change in everyday institutions, such as your school, office, home, church, and non-profit organizations won’t happen overnight. However, you can speed up that process by showing peers, colleagues, and bosses that gender inclusive environments are important to everyone.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are some ways cisgender people can help.
- Introduce yourself with your name and preferred pronoun.
“Hi, my name is Loraine, and I go by ‘she’ and ‘her.’”
Starting a conversation with your preferred gender is very different from asking someone their preferred gender. It’s more inviting, and doesn’t put an individual on the spot. Sure, it’s gonna feel weird the first few times. It’ll raise eyebrows when you share preferred pronouns with new coworkers at the office or friends at the pub. You might get some strange reactions. But it’ll also serve as an invitation for others to share their pronouns. Just having the option to define your identity with greater precision can be a great freedom.
If you’re feeling daring, you can try out new pronouns for yourself. There are so many! Being playful with gender can take away some of the seriousness that leads to transphobia or anger.
- Encourage Sharing During Group Introductions
If you are facilitating a group discussion, consider asking everyone to share their preferred name and gender, along with all those other icebreaker questions. This is already happening in some classrooms and learning environments in the US. I attended a writing class hosted by the BENT Writing Institute in Seattle that did an excellent job of using preferred pronouns during introductions.
- Create Unisex Spaces
Barbara Walters hosted a 20/20 special called “My Secret Self,” discussing the pressures transgender children face in social environments, like school, where they are expected to adopt strict gendered styles and behaviors. Some of these tensions can be relieved by not forcing binary color coding (pink for girls, blue for boys) on signage or name tags. Unisex bathrooms, dressing rooms, and other facilities create comfortable settings for non-binary folks and those faced with the question, “Which bathroom should I use?” When it comes to language, avoid gendered titles and roles such as Miss / Mister, waiter / waitress, etc.
- Avoid Intrusive Questions
Calpernia Addams has an excellent video online called “Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual.” While I found myself bursting into laughter at some of the questions, like “Did your surgery hurt?” I was also horrified by the thought that people actually ask such intrusive questions. It’s hard to tell you exactly what to avoid, since some people may be very open and forthcoming with their gender identity. If you want to ask someone a gender-related question, be very respectful, and think about whether anyone would be comfortable answering it.
- Naming Transphobia
One of the most powerful things a cisgender person can do is name transphobia when they see it happening. Writer Eli Steffen suggests using a direct statement, such as “That was transphobic,” to help people reassess the impact of their words and actions. When it comes to bullying behaviors, many people fall into a passive bystander mode. Think back to arguments or schoolyard brawls when words like “sissy” or “tranny” are thrown around. Naming transphobia can help snap people out of complicity and serve as a reminder to be respectful.
I hope this list serves as a good starting point for creating safe environments and encouraging discussion. I would love your feedback to make this a better list. I’ll be experimenting with these methods and posting updates on how they work out. Feel free to share your own experiences by saying hi on social media or contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.