I am not cis. I am not trans, either.
Current theory in the LGBT community would have you believe that gender, biological sex, sexuality, romantic attraction, and more is all a spectrum, with each of us identifying on a unique part of that spectrum. The only thing that isn’t a spectrum is whether you’re cis or trans.
But, the truth is, many of us are neither cis nor trans. This binary is also a false one.
I am not cisgender.
The story of my life sounds so much like transmasculine people’s stories, and when I hear transmasculine people speak about themselves, I see so much of myself.
I was assigned female at birth, but even as a child, I did not prefer your stereotypically feminine things. I have a distinct memory of being at my own sixth birthday, opening presents and feeling distinctly dismayed the Barbies I unearthed; all I wanted was Pokemon cards, but all I got was dolls.
The next year, at seven, I begged to have my haircut like my cousin’s boyish bowl cut; once it was done, I never went back to long hair. I loved keeping my hair short, easy, and masculine well into high school and college. During Halloween, I only ever wanted to dress up as boy characters. I picked boy characters to represent me every time I played a video game.
As a child, I relished in being a tomboy. I liked being tougher and dirtier than other girls, and shunned anything I thought was too girly.
These sentiments followed me into young adulthood, though with a short reprise. At some point in college, having just come out as liking women, I tried so hard to be femme. I bought stereotypically feminine clothing and painted my face with makeup as if it was something I enjoyed.
It was as if being anything but straight was too gender non-conforming. I defied the rule of heterosexuality, but I had to prove I was a woman — somehow. So, I pretended to be femme. It was a short lived rouse.
There was something deeply disconcerting for me about my feminine performance. I never could figure out what to do with my hair, no matter how many tutorials I watched. I shaved my legs, but they felt as if they belonged somewhere else, on someone else’s body. My breasts, in padded bras, formed embarrassing lumps under my thin, floral shirts. Worst of all was the makeup; without fail, I felt like a clown when wearing it, but felt I had some kind of feminine responsibility to do so.
Femininity was not only a performance, but an uncomfortable and embarrassing one.
I have finally eschewed these things I hated doing. I cherish the slick hairs on my legs and under my arms, and I traded in my padded bras for the comfort and flatness of sports bras. I found clothing I was more comfortable in, most of them gender neutral. When I cut my hair off, at long last, it was if taking off a wig and coming home to the head of hair I was hiding all along. When I threw away my makeup, it was as if I was coming out all over again — happily, fully. The only word to capture the joy of this process is liberation.
Like I said, my story is not unique. So many trans people’s experiences of gender are nearly the same as my own. The discomfort felt as a child, the embarrassing and awkward stage of trying to conform to expected gender roles, and — at long last — coming into a body that feels like home. The similarities of experiences have led my mind back again and again to one question: am I cisgender?
A person is cisgender when their gender identity and the gender they were assigned at birth align. On its face, it appears to be a simple definition, but (perhaps because of its simplicity) it is a poor definition that belies the experiences of so many people.
When interrogating myself about my gender, a few questions surface for me: Do I identify as the gender I was assigned at birth? What does it mean to have a gender identity? Do I feel or act how I am expected to as a woman?
I do not dress like women are expected to dress. I do not wear my hair as women are expected to wear their hair. I do not sit, talk, groom, or eat in the ways that women are expected. I do not love the people women are expected to love, and I am seeking a career from which women have been traditionally barred from entering. What could I identify with in womanhood that would make me a woman, given my preferences and personality?
In discussions of gender identity, an “internal sense of gender” is often discussed. Is this a gender identity? If it is internal, surely I should feel it when I am alone. But, here in the privacy of my apartment, I do not “feel” like a woman. I do not reflect on my womanhood unless prompted. The only times that I am aware of my gender is when I interact with others, and the discomfort of being a gender non-conforming woman in the world, or when I am thinking about all the expectations I can never happily fulfill.
As I confront my masculinity, my butchness, my gender non-conforming nature, I am forced to ask myself what it is makes me a woman. But, the only answer I can give is that I am a woman because I was socialized to be one. I was born female, and destined (doomed?) to womanhood — to its stereotypes and limitations, and the cruelty that women endure everywhere.
If I have to identify as a woman in order to be cis, but I have no internal sense of gender, then I am not cisgender. It’s taken me a long time to be okay with that, but here I am, declaring: I am not cis.
So, now what?
The theories (or dogma, depending on how you see it) of queer scholars would dictate that if I am not cis, if I do not identify with the gender thrust upon me at birth, then I must be trans. It’s the only binary allowed in the LGBTQ community: if not cis, then trans. If not trans, then cis.
But, I am not trans, either.
I do not experience gender dysphoria (it’s not being a woman that makes me feel queasy — it is femininity that does). I do not want to transition (either to being male or being non-binary), go by a different name, or change the pronouns I go by. But, these explanations seem to fall short of explaining why I am not trans.
Recently, definitions of being trans have become so broad that they hardly mean anything at all. This video, for instance, implies that anyone who is even slightly gender non-conforming is trans — and this definition would include me. Because of this, it can be hard to explain why I am not trans, as it feels as if it is a moving target.
For example, some would say that my lack of gender dysphoria does not mean that I’m not trans. Others still would say that my lack of desire to transition would not disqualify me, either.
Some might insist that I do in fact experience gender dysphoria; after all, I do not feel comfortable in stereotypically feminine attire or with feminine expectations. They might also insist that I did “transition” in some sense of the word when I stopped performing femininity.
But, these two understandings of my experience with gender (the first, that I can be trans without experiencing gender dysphoria or wanting to transition, and the second that not performing femininity makes me trans) are steeped in gender essentialism and sexism.
The first understanding of gender — which states that neither dysphoria nor transitioning are necessary to trans — brings up some big questions. If there are people who are trans who neither experience dysphoria nor wish to transition, what does it mean to be trans? Is “trans” simply another word for “gender non-conforming”?
This would be a radical redefinition of both the concept of being trans and being GNC. Are all butch lesbians or twinky gay men trans, if trans simply means GNC? Hell, are all same-sex attracted people GNC, given that same sex attraction is a gender nonconforming behavior? And, if being trans and GNC are still indeed different things, how the hell can we define being trans in such a way that it does not include every single GNC person?
The second understanding of my experience with gender — which insists that I am, indeed, trans and experience dysphoria and did transition when I stopped my charade of femininity — is perhaps more consistent and well thought out, but it also supports essentialist and sexist ideas about gender.
We live in a male-default world. Maleness is often defined by its lack of action, a person’s natural state. When I do not shave, for instance, this is a non-action, but it is considered to be masculine.Femininity is defined by the performance, by action: putting on make-up, shaving, and dieting are just a few examples of the things women are expected to do to remove ourselves from our natural state and enter into a feminine state. To make matters worse, the things that become feminine are almost exclusively those things that undermine our ability to move freely (tight, uncomfortable clothing), are an expensive financial burden (makeup), are downright unhealthy (dieting), or pit women against one another (gossiping, female rivalry, cattiness). The things considered feminine are usually those things that men want to see in women, rather than things that women want to see in themselves.
More often than not, femininity is a tool used to oppress women. Are we supposed to believe that the vast, vast majority of female people simply naturally gravitate towards their own oppression? Are we meant to think that female people who are made uncomfortable and unhappy by this oppressive structure are not women? And what female person is happy with patriarchal oppression? Aren’t all female people trans under this worldview?
This understanding of being transgender ignores the lived experiences of female people; the violence, the murder, the lack of opportunities, the addictions, the belittling, and the assumed right to our bodies and minds. Current gender theory ignores the fact that, in this world, many females would do anything to cease being women or girls, not because we are all trans, but because girlhood and womanhood are so harmful that one must survive them — regardless of whether one is feminine or not.
So, I am not trans, either. To claim that for myself would be to live a life defined by gender essentialism and misogyny, something that I cannot stomach.
It took me a long time to become comfortable here, in my liminal, gender nonconforming body. It often feels as if I am being told both by the straight world and the LGBT community that my experience of gender is wrong.
But, finally, I have learned, it is not my experience that is wrong, but instead it is others’ theories about gender that are limited. Not on a cis or trans binary, but instead on a spectrum of gender conforming and gender nonconforming behavior, lies my experience of the world, and so many others like me.