On cis/trans* dichotomies

Nicki Smith


A. Finn Enke‘s ‘The Education of Little Cis’ is a piece on trans* theory that I keep on turning to. I use the terms cisgender, cisprivilege, cisnormative etc. because I believe that naming stuff is an important part of resisting it, but I also worry about the risk of reproducing neat binaries between ‘cis’ and ‘trans*’. Two of my favourite-ever feminist scholars, Laura Shepherd and Laura Sjoberg, have written: ‘Cisprivilege means never being asked if you’re sure you’re in the right rest-room, never fearing that you’ll spend a night in a jail-cell after a routine traffic stop because your gender performance doesn’t match your ID’. This brings to life very powerfully the violences and oppressions that trans* people face across the world every single day, and it brings to light the everyday privileges that cis people experience too.  But I think it’s also important to consider how being or feeling ‘trans*’ doesn’t always mean being, or wanting to be, ‘out’ as trans* and how the gender performances involved aren’t always ‘outward’ performances (or even, for that matter, performances that are expressed on and through the body).   What does it mean, for instance, to identify as ‘trans*’ and yet to position oneself, and to live out one’s life, as ‘cis’? Conversely, what does it mean to identify as ‘cis’ and yet to feel profoundly unidentified with, and disconnected from, one’s own birth-assigned gender? Where does one fit along the cis/trans* binary then? I worry about the hierarchies that are imposed when we think of trans* and cis only in terms of outward embodied performances or explicitly named identifications, and I don’t think that oppositions between ‘genderqueer’ and ‘trans*’ can help us with that either.  And I think we need to make more space to think about different gender and sexual subjectivities that might not be expressed in terms of physical bodies at all – I believe that online spaces such as fan fiction sites, for example, involve the emergence of new forms of disembodied subjectivity. What all of this means, for me, is that it is crucially important to recognise the sovereignty of trans* subjects but this doesn’t have to rely on notions of sovereign trans* subject – and this might mean rethinking the way we approach trans*/cis dichotomies in order to make space for ‘new imaginaries that might not even call themselves transgender at all’ (Sryker and Aizura 2013, p. 10).

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