Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cis Gender, Ipso Gender

Last week, the Oxford English Dictionary, revered by many as the arbiter of the English language, finally added the term "cis gender." Many, like Slate's Anna Diamond, consider this an important step forward. Others, however, resist using the word. Some are overtly transphobic, and insist that they just be called "normal." Others claim to be allies, but insist that the term cis gender is just too strange or clinical or academic for the general public to ever use. The Guardian's Paris Lees says that it fails "the hair salon test."

I find this claim that "normal people" can't be expected to use the term cis gender ridiculous. My daughter was all of eleven when she started to use the term cis gender in conversation. By the time she was 13 or 14 she was having discussions with friends in which she could clearly articulate that she enjoyed wearing boxer shorts sometimes because messing around with gender expectations was fun, but that this activity did not make her any less a cis girl. When she was fifteen, she started dating her partner, who is genderqueer.

We do not live in San Francisco or New York--we live in the staid Midwest.

For kids growing up as digital natives, puberty involves surfing the internet and reading about a wide range of identities. The idea that the term "cis gender" is used only by academics and gender theorists and not hair stylists would make my daughter and her peers chortle.

For me, the struggle I'm involved in is not to get people to learn the term "cis gender," it's to get people to understand how that term does not apply in the way often presumed in the case of intersex people. I want people to learn about the term "ipso gender"--because that's a term that really is not widely known.

The term "cis gender" is often defined--I would say incorrectly--as having a gender identity that matches the sex one was assigned at birth. So, in standard usage, if your birth certificate says "F", and you identify as a woman (whether feminine or masculine in presentation being irrelevant), you are cis gender. If it says "F" and you don't, because you identify as a man, or as genderqueer, or as agender, or as anything other than a woman, then you are trans.

In the popular imagination, a trans person is someone "born in the wrong body," meaning they have a gender identity that conflicts with their physical sex. Trans people have been shifting the conversation away from the framing of trans experience as a gender identity/sex characteristic conflict, and toward framing it as a conflict between gender identity and sex assigned at birth, for understandable political reasons. Transphobes often present physical sex as binary, natural, and determinative of "reality." Trans advocates battle this by pointing out that physical sex is actually a spectrum, that binary sex is coercively imposed (see intersex people), and that gender identity determines one's reality. 

The problem is that this argument, which is conceived of as centering intersex experience, actually renders invisible much of my intersex community's experience with violence and gender identity. And that's because it refers to a person as "cis gender" when they are born with primary sex characteristics that are intermediate in nature, but are surgically reassigned to conform to a binary sex ideal, if they grow up to identify with that assigned sex. Calling someone who has essentially undergone a forced sex change in infancy "cis gender" is extremely problematic. This is something that intersex people have been justifiably protesting for years (for example, see gender fluid author and intersex activist Hida Viloria).

So, when speaking of intersex experience, what I hope people will do is to recognize that primary sex characteristics do matter, and we can't just talk about binary sex assignment on one's birth certificate. I urge people to define someone as cis gender if they have a binary gender identity that matches the one expected for people born with the primary sex characteristics they had at birth (genitals, gonads, chromosomes). For intersex people, being born sex-intermediate, a cis gender identity would be a nonbinary identity of some sort. A trans gender intersex person is one who gender transitions to the binary sex they were not forced into at birth. And a person who is born intersex, then medically and legally assigned to a binary sex, who then grows up to identify with that sex is ipso gender. (Ipso gender borrows from the prefix used in chemistry to refer to a substitution in the same place, as cis gender uses the prefix meaning "on the same side" and trans gender uses the prefix meaning "on the other side.")

So, for those of you who are fully familiar with the term cis gender as it is typically used, I'd like you to please consider rethinking it a bit. Because the majority of intersex people today do identify with the binary sex we were assigned, typically surgically, in infancy. The percentage of intersex people who gender transition is high, comparatively speaking (estimates vary widely, but the percentage is higher by at least a couple orders of magnitude in comparison to individuals who are not intersex by birth). Still, the majority of my intersex sibs do not gender transition from the sex they were assigned at birth. Yet great violence was done to my ipso gender siblings in forcing an assignment, rather than letting them grow up to assert their own identities, and to make their own decisions about what surgery, if any, to seek. Infant sex assignment surgery often robs a person of all or some capacity for sexual sensation, and leaves many feeling mutilated. Calling an individual who has endured this "cis gender" makes the pain and violence involved invisible.

I do want to point out that a cis gender intersex person, who has a nonbinary gender identity, suffers in the same way that a trans gender intersex person does, because they were assigned, typically surgically, to a sex with which they do not identify. For intersex people, cis and trans, this often means having to cope with two gender transitions--the first imposed in infancy, and a second one we consent to later in life. Ipso gender people at least have the privilege of not having to gender transition again. But we need a term to center the fact that imposed genital surgery in infancy, along with other unconsented-to medical interventions in later childhood, are a form of violence, even if a person does grow up to identify with the sex assigned at birth.

I hope people will familiarize themselves with the term ipso gender. Thanks!


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  2. Mutilation of children’s genitals is and will always be just as wrong whether they are cis or not. Suggesting that your pain, or any distress becomes invisible the moment you get declared cis-gender is incredibly hurtful. Sounds you imagine cis-gender means polarized system and all the norms and expectations the second someone looks at you gotta be good for you and benefit your mental health, making you some kind of winner who owes the world to be quiet and leave the space to someone whose complaint is relevant.