Readers who saw my last column will recall its focus on treating trans* people respectfully. One important concept I did not explain, however, is the asterisk on “trans*.” Before addressing some contemporary trans* issues in upcoming columns, this terminology must be addressed. Understanding the semantics is essential to grasping both the concepts that I will raise in the next two instalments, as well as the issues that trans* people face today.
Most non-trans* people are unaware of trans* theory, if not generally ignorant of trans* issues. The theory is a framework within which to articulate and understand issues surrounding the topic, and solving these issues is impossible without understanding it. For us to talk about these problems, therefore, we must become acquainted with this jargon.
First, let’s look at “cis.” A cis person is someone whose gender is very close to the sex assigned to them at birth. They define themselves as male or female. “Cisnormativity” is the situation in which cis people are considered more normal or natural than trans* people. This is what all of us, cis or trans*, are raised to believe. Cisnormative indoctrination is not just personal, but systemic.
A trans* person is one whose gender is different to that which they were designated at birth. Often, trans* people are forced by others to present themselves as the gender assigned to their sex, even if this causes dysphoria. This imposition of gender roles on the child is harmful to both cis and trans* individuals.
The most widely-known examples of trans* people are male-to-female and female-to-male, as opposed to non-binary trans* people. This partial conception of trans* people, in accordance with blogger Ellie June Navidson’s definition, may be called “trans*normative,” meaning it privileges some genders as normal and others as abnormal.
At this point, all these asterisks are probably starting to bother you. They exist to differentiate this term from its origin, “trans,” as it is applied largely to trans*normative people. Trans* is an umbrella term, referring not only to trans*normative genders, but non-normative ones, like those of genderqueer persons, who generally identify as both male and female.
Trans*normativity is possible because those who fit into this particular gender narrative have slightly more privilege than non-normative people. A trans* person who looks cis (or, in trans*normative terms, “passes”) is often granted more privilege by cis people than a genderqueer person. Because they “pass,” a cis person may mistake them for another cis person. In doing so, the cis person extends their privilege to the trans* person, albeit unwittingly.
What makes these terms so odd? I believe it is a problem within the English language itself: it is colonial, fundamentally hostile to trans* people. As the victors write history, they also shape our language. If cisnormative language does not shape our thoughts, it at least makes conceptualizing a more inclusive world difficult, particularly one that is not trans*normative.
In coming installments, we will venture deeper into the internal conflicts facing the trans* community. The next article will focus on the expectation of trans* normativity, a definition that hopefully even cis readers are now familiar with. Maneuvering around a language apparently seeking the erasure of non-normative genders is awkward, but the result is an easier time preventing this erasure. Augmenting a hostile language means conceptualizing, and consequently has the potential to create a better world.