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Cis – a site of conflict
[This is a short extract from a powerful new book by a former Menwith Hill peace camper, grounded in dozens of interviews with feminist activists around the UK. Radical Feminism provides a guide to the development of the women’s liberation movement since the 1970s, deals with the challenges of queer theory, and centres itself in the history and politics of the Reclaim The Night marches against male violence against women.
We’ve chosen to print this section on trans inclusion in the women’s liberation movement because it is one of the most hotly-debated topics in feminism today, having a direct impact on day-to-day feminist organising, as Finn Mackay points out. - eds]
Another area of disagreement between activists and within the feminist scene generally is on trans inclusion. Again, it is difficult to explain to readers not immersed in feminist activism just how controversial this topic has become. Feminist conferences are being picketed and boycotted when they are not open to trans women – meaning transexual women, and others are being attacked for perceived exclusion or lack of welcome. Some feminists refuse to include trans women in women-only space and some trans people disagree with women-only space at all. RTN [Reclaim The Night] marches are being counter-protested, with alternative marches following formally organised ones and regular calls for boycotts of certain RTN marches appear across feminist blogs, publications and commentary in mainstream media.
There are insults and harsh words on both sides, with some activist organisers and feminist commentators receiving death threats and rape threats from queer and trans rights groups and individuals on the grounds of transphobia.
Many RTN marches today are explicitly advertised as trans inclusive or as open gender. This means that it is made clear in the publicity and advertising materials that those who identify as trans men or trans women, as transexual or transgender, or those who reject any sex or gender label, are welcome on RTN, and in women only spaces, all ‘self-defined women’ are usually invited. As I stated in Chapter 5, there is a difference between the terms ‘transexual’ and ‘transgender’.
In this book, I use the term ‘transgender’ to refer to those people who identify as non-binary and who cross the lines of socially constructed gender. I use the term ‘transexual’ to refer to those people who are legally and socially recognised as the opposite sex to that which they were labelled at birth.
The term ‘trans’ has however become a shorthand to refer to both transgender and transexual people, and indeed anyone who considers their presentation and identity to be non-gender normative. In my mapping of RTN marches over the years from 2004 to 2012, I recorded that 20 marches made explicit statements about trans inclusion generally. In all the discussions I had, I identified three key arguments which were raised in favour of explicit trans inclusion on RTN – usually referring to transexual women, but sometimes referring to any transgender or non-binary-identified people, including people identifying as men, male or as trans men.
1. Trans women are disproportionately affected by violence and harassment, at least as much, if not more so, than women who were assigned female at birth. Given their experiences of street harassment and violence, the RTN march is highly relevant to trans women.
2. Trans women identify as women and have likely experienced discrimination on the grounds of their identity as women. As such, they should be welcome on RTN to protest against sexist discrimination and harassment.
3. Trans women are women; RTN should be inclusive to all women. To exclude this particular group of women would be bigoted and prejudiced.
None of the activists I spoke to stated explicitly that women who identify as trans women should be barred from RTN. However, there were a small minority of activists who raised concerns about trans inclusion. It was common for there to be tensions around this issue generally though, regardless of personal view or stance; and these tensions were most often raised by organisers who struggled to build a mass march and appeal to an audience of many different political standpoints. Activists themselves sometimes used terms such as gender queer or non-binary to refer to their own sex or gender identities. Some also used such terms to refer to their politics. When discussing trans inclusion, some activists used the term ‘cis’ to describe their identity too. They used this term to refer to women assigned female at birth who still currently identify as women and as female. The term ‘cis’ was used to differentiate between trans women and non-trans women, by which I mean between transexual women and women who are not transexual. The use of this clarifying precursor subjects the category of ‘woman’ to the same treatment as that of ‘trans woman’, requiring a defining term before any reference to the category of ‘woman’ at all.
The use of the term ‘cis’ is also intended to highlight the supposed privilege of women who have been recognised as female since birth. Such women are not seen as generally having their sex or gender questioned in daily life or in official contexts. This is in stark contrast to trans women, who may experience such questioning regularly. For many queer-identified activists, the terms ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ carry the same meaning of hierarchy as the terms ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. That is to say that cis is to trans as straight is to gay.
Judgements about our sexed identity are made by others about us based on a very quick reading of our gender presentation. These judgements are often made in a nanosecond, and they involve a brief scan for visible, recognisable gender stereotypes. Tick tock goes the brain of the viewer and beep beep go the ticks against various gendered features as others read our gender. Short or long hair, trousers or skirt, make-up or not, these are the sort of signs people scan for in order to make a snap assessment about our sex and gender identity. These are often harsh judgements, and they are not always right. Sometimes we do not get correctly read by others as the sex or gender we identify. This can happen to anyone of course, but it is generally seen to affect trans people in particular.
This is why the term ‘cis’ has come to have such resonance, because it is seen as a privilege to be able to go through life and not have one’s sex and gender identity questioned or misread on a regular basis, be that in daily interactions such as shopping or when engaging with institutions such as banks, local authorities, health services or schools. However, the usage of this term, ‘cis’, has become another site of conflict between some trans activists and some feminist activists. There are many feminists, including many radical feminists, who simply refuse to use this term, and I am one of them.
It is quite normal at feminist conferences or meetings though to hear someone stand up and describe themselves as White, straight and cis, for example, meaning that they identify as White, as heterosexual and do not identify as transexual. The term is also in common usage on feminist blogs and online magazines. It has almost become taboo not to use it, with those of us who refuse the term often labelled as transphobic and urged to ‘check our privilege’.
As I mentioned earlier, when the term ‘cis’ is taken to have the same hierarchical relationship as the latter in the straight/gay dualism, refusing to use the term is likened to a White person refusing to accept their complicity and benefits in a White supremacist society, or a heterosexual person refusing to accept their privilege when compared to a gay or lesbian person in a heterosexist culture.
I do not believe such analogies hold and so, despite such assertions, I personally still choose not to use this term for two main reasons. Firstly, the usage of the term unfairly and incorrectly implies that all non-trans identified individuals are some sort of Stepford Wives – gender-normative conformers who have no trouble with the current binary status quo.
In actuality, as I have already discussed, most people struggle to fit into the narrow requirements of gender and this can cause great distress for many people, women and increasingly now, men too. As a result, women diet, self-harm, spend hard-earned money on plastic surgery and vast arrays of cosmetics. Men also diet, abuse steroids and develop injuries or disorders through overtraining, struggling to look like the models on the cover of men’s health magazines.
Secondly, given that women face a gender pay gap, underrepresentation, epidemic levels of sexual violence and regular harassment alongside objectification in the media, being assigned female cannot be seen as some sort of privilege for non-trans women. While not being challenged about one’s sex and gender identity in interactions is a privilege of sorts, compared to those who do face this, it is not a privilege by default enjoyed by all non-trans individuals.
Because my gender presentation is more masculine than most women for example, I am often read as male. Added to this, I look a lot younger than I actually am, and as a result of my appearance, am often read as a young man or teenage boy. In most of my daily interactions, I am not read as a woman. I regularly get questioned in women’s toilets, I have also been questioned in doctors surgeries and hospitals and run into problems when navigating such health institutions. I have been stopped at passport control because staff did not believe I was using the correct passport, I have problems using identification and bankcards with gender pronouns and I have experienced harassment and violent assault, both verbal and physical, because of my non-normative presentation.
These arguments are rarely considered by those queer and trans activists who casually label, reject and dismiss feminists who protest this widespread and often enforced adoption of the term ‘cis’. To reject this term is a political standpoint; it is not transphobic.
However, around the UK, activists are experiencing abuse and harassment, and are having their activist work discredited simply because they have political problems with using the term ‘cis’. It is a difficult position to take for feminists around the country, including those who are organising RTN marches which they wish to make as inclusive as possible. This is yet another example of where theory moves beyond abstract debate and actually impacts on activism and activist organising.
Although these topics may often seem removed, and may seem more suited to a gender studies syllabus, they are actually at play currently in activist’s daily lives and indeed have impacted on my own activism. I have been involved in organising inclusive mixed events for example, where it was clearly stated that all self-defining women were welcome and all people of any sex or gender identity were welcome, including men. I have also organised women-only events, advertised as being open to all self defining women. Yet after the mixed events, I have been questioned about why trans men were not made to feel more welcome for example, or why the space was so unrepresentative of people with no sex or gender identity. Just like too many of the RTN activists I interviewed, I also have felt a sense of frustration, a sense that nothing will do; a sense that any women-only space at all is by default seen as reactionary in some way, as out of date and out of time.
I refuse to call time on women-only space. I applaud the efforts of those volunteer activist organisers who prioritise the creation and maintenance of rare women-only spaces and events, often at great personal cost to themselves and under great suspicion and hostility. While in general I support the opening up of women-only feminist space to all women, including trans women, I also believe in the political right of self-organisation for all oppressed groups. In summary, I believe that women assigned female at birth have a right to organise in progressive political spaces should they see a need to do so and I would not dictate to activist groups who they should and should not invite to their own events. Likewise, trans women have a right to self-organisation in their own groups and spaces.
I have witnessed hostility and stereotyping by feminists towards trans individuals, as well as outright prejudice and bigotry against trans people. I have also witnessed anti-feminism from trans and queer-identified individuals and groups, including rape and death threats and misogynistic insults. None of this aggression is acceptable, from either ‘side’. It also seems a desperate shame and a distraction when queer theory and trans activism has borrowed so heavily from early feminist theory, a debt rarely acknowledged, and when feminism too shares a deadly enemy in the binary Western gender system.
Finn Mackay, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement, 224pp, £14.99 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).