A Generous Orthodoxy For Feminism – Or Why This Issue With ‘Cis’ MUST Be Resolved.

In a [Western] society, where patriarchy dominates much of our daily lives, it is too easy to forget that there are also subtle (and not so subtle) web-like power structures which too many of us fail to recognise our own role in – the able bodied and the differently abled, people who enjoy stable mental health and those who don’t, white and black or colour, straight and gay/bi/queer, trans*gender and cis gender.

This a very simplified overview and there are of course many other variants, and interweaving hierarchy’s across all those and more. As we grapple with those concepts, peeling away the layers and struggling with continuously evolving understandings, working out where our oppressions and privileges are within those structures, there is often push back from those who have prefer their theologies more orthodox – more conservative.

Those with such staunch conservative tendancies do not tolerate ‘liberals’ (a word that is often spat out with some venom) – we are heretics, false prophets threatening what they believe with dangerously tempting ideas that put the mortal souls of the laity in danger, taking them away from the One True Feminism that will keep them safe, and their liberation far from jeopardy.  But like the fire and brimstone conservatives of the Christian Church, their refusal to engage with the deepening, enriching theologies is driving away and hurting the very people we should be embracing.

I want to take on the latest Glosswatch blog post on the term cis: in part because nothing rankles me faster than a false equivalency,  but more importantly because I think it is vital for cig-gendered feminists to call out the idea that the term cis is oppressive to women for the lie that it is.

I dislike being blunt about things: I would prefer that feminists could respect each other in their disagreements – but people are flawed and as we grapple with our understandings of ourselves as human beings, our identities and wrestle with these sometimes complicated ideas, there will inevitably be friction. I would like to hope that we can show each other  grace in that process more often. But sometimes we can’t and we have sisters hurting because of these lies.

In criticising (again) the use of the cisgender as defined by sociologists Kristen Schilt (Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago) and Laurel Westbrook who co-authored Doing Gender, Determining Gender this past year – GW demonstrates false equivalencies, flawed premises and, to be blunt, painful ignorance. What Glosswatch actually clearly demonstrates is what Schilt calls ‘gender panics’:

Transgender equality has never been more visible as a key issue than it is today and with the development of every new trans-supportive law or policy, there typically follows an outbreak of criticism.  In our analysis, we find that these moments, which we term “gender panics,” are the result of a clash between two competing cultural ideas about gender identity: belief that gender is determined by biology vs. belief that a person’s gendered self-identity should be validated. These gender panics frequently result in a reshaping of the language of such policies so that they require extensive bodily changes before transgender individuals have to access particular rights.

They point out that biological essentialism – which would segregate our trans*gender sisters from us in sex segregated spaces – actually reproduces the very beliefs about female weakness against which our conservative sisters – who would deny our trans*gender sisters their very identity – claim to rail.  The idea, therefore, that ‘cis-gender’ oppresses us is fallacious – it does quite the opposite. It not only allows us to stand in solidarity with our trans*gender sisters (both binary and non-binary), it begins to free us from the strictures of patriarchal oppression that would keep us its victims, weak and powerless. Further, by denying the term cis, we actively continue to oppress further our trans*gender sisters.

I would never deny that my conservative sisters desire our freedom – but I know they do not desire it for all my sisters and I do not believe that they can provide it. And there will be more thoughts on that later.



Yes Mean Yes – Why Cis Is Not a Slur

Very often I talk about feminism in terms that are critical of other feminists, most particularly of feminism that does not recognise it’s own colonial, transphobic structural flaws.  There are good reasons for that – feminism (at least for me) is about addressing complex systems of hierarchy within a patriarchal society, and is at it’s best when it can celebrate the victories of other women over some part of that system without fear or favour, cherishing women who value their hard won autonomy over their bodies and lives.

So when that doesn’t happen it is important to speak up and say – no, wait, hang on a minute.  Of course the reasons why that encouragement and support hasn’t been offered might vary: in the case of Sarah Ditum, who did not celebrate Laverne Cox on the cover of Time  because she wore sexy clothes, I suspect that it was very simple. (And I have a huge problem with this, but more on that in another post because the thoughts I have on this whole gatekeeping thing will need it!).

Having been brought up in the gender binary world – that the patriarchy requires us to live in because it supports the power structures – and having been so conditioned by that gender binary, I suppose the idea that gender is fluid, that gender exists on a spectrum, should have been anathema to me.  But once I had reconnected with my feminism, and begun to develop a broader and more nuanced faith and political language for it, one thing seemed so strikingly obvious that I wondered how I had not seen it before: the political, social, economic and physical dominance that the patriarchy has would lose at the very least a good deal of it’s power if the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’ were not pre-eminent – i.e., if the binary poles of gender were simply part of the rich tapestry of the gender spectrum.

I cannot (nor should not) try and speak about the experiences of those who are transgender, or gender fluid: there are some excellent blogs, articles and books by writers who live this reality and experience. Some of them, like Roz Kaveny or Janet Mock might be names you know: others like this list of transgender writers might be less well known to you, but you should acquaint yourself with them if the idea of fluidity of gender is new or strange to you.

What I can talk about however are some of the words or ideas which feminists might resist or find offensive,  which brings me to ‘Cis’ gender, why I use it to describe myself and why I disagree utterly with feminists who insist it’s a slur. Because it isn’t.

Having just spoken about gender fluidity and how that would affect the power balance of the patriarchy, you might wonder why I am happy to claim a term that is applied to the very binary I increasingly reject. I think it’s important in the first instance to say that I am a cisgender woman because other women are trans* gender. Or as it states here:

Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal.  Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people’, but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.

In other words, not all women are simply called women. Until all of my sisters are simply my sisters, one way (but not the only way) that I can support them and value them for who they are is by using such a simple descriptive.

Because that’s all it is – a descriptive word. On the rich tapestry that is gender, it is one thread within a multiplicity of threads; one colour amongst many within that tapestry.

But also this: I say that I believe transgender women to be women and my faith reminds me that my ‘yes has to mean yes’ – that my actions must support my words or my words would not be truthful.  So I would ask my fellow feminists  who say that they accept transgender women as women but who reject the descriptive term ‘cis’ as a slur – step back. Think again.  Are your words of acceptance for transgender women entirely truthful?

I am not suggesting that you have to use the term cis to recognise your transgender sisters as full sisters – it is only one way of showing that you do. But if you cannot celebrate Laverne Cox’s victories without accusing her of being a tool of the patriarchy (which was shockingly disrespectful!) then do not be surprised if the truth of your words are questioned.

Sometimes I am Rage – Sometimes I am Grace: My Feminism and the Myth of Shared Girlhood

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”  ~ Vivian Greene

For those few of you who follow this little blog, you may have noticed an inconsistency in what I write (as well as in how I write), particularly about feminism: sometimes I write from a place of grace, and plead to my fellow white cis feminists to listen, to open up our minds and ears to different ideas and perspectives -and perhaps even grapple with the idea that our over loud voices could be stilled in favour of women whom we have helped to silence.

At other times I have been angry, and have felt the need to push back at what has felt like a movement which constricts us all with its demands to conform to a single homogeneous type, which forces a false sense of unity, and that can seem only to celebrate individuality on the surface – which brings me to the subject of ‘shared girlhood’.

It’s sounds like such an innocuous phrase. It’s really not.

My own premise is simple: I do not believe that holding to a notion of ‘shared girlhood’ is required to be a feminist, and feel that my own feminism is the richer for not believing in, or holding to, such misplaced ideology.

It really doesn’t take much imagination to recognise that the lived experience of my girlhood was not the same as the lived experiences of young girls in India, China or a dozen other cultures and countries, and young trans*/transgender girls around the world – and frankly was not the same as the lived experience of most of the young girls I grew up with. Growing up with MRKH I am sure will have meant a girlhood very different for those who have that condition, to my own experiences growing up with endometriosis and adenomyosis. Whilst still at junior school, one young friend struggled with the early development of her breasts, and 9 is a young age to require adult bra’s. None of us knew what she felt – how could we? We were all still at least three or four years away from even needing to think about such things.

The lives of young girls everywhere are rich and varied – each story that these different experiences speak of brings some new, brighter, better understanding of who we are. In the tears, in the joys, in the struggles and the victories of those stories there is an abundance of strength and wisdom, some of which can be shared ~ but some of which should be shared only with those who have a similar story to tell.

The reality of perpetuating some idea of one experience of girlhood shared by all is so easily seen in what happens when someone dares challenge the needless dogma we white feminists so thoughtlessly push. Let me be clear – wanting, and needing to know that we can share our experience with someone is a good and human thing.

Erasing someone else’s experience and trying to force yours on them, is destructive and dehumanising.

A little background. An excellent blog by Black Girl Dangerous hit twitter late last year called ‘The Myth of Shared Female Experience and How It Perpetuates Inequality.’  I really suggest that you read it, firstly because I am not going to quote from it and also have not had permission to do so.

And the first reaction of a white woman to it? Yes, you’ve guessed it – the white woman took upon herself to tell the black woman why her feelings and opinion were wrong. Via the hashtag #sharedgirlhood it should have become clear very quickly that whilst white cis women were saying that shared girlhood was real and needed, women, trans*/transgender and of colour were loudly saying otherwise. And perhaps not surprisingly, those women who would insist that trans*/transgender women should essentially drop off the face of the planet (or at the very least, stop breathing) used the conversation as an excuse to once again abuse and negate those women and their lives.

Even less surprisingly, the receipts from the ensuing mess were collected by a woman of colour – in this case the excellent Flavia Dzodan: you can read that on her blog here.  (Oh, and whilst you are there, read the rest of her blog too because it is brilliant and you’ll get an education).

We cannot ignore that women are saying that they do not feel their girlhood is shared with all girls everywhere, we cannot watch how it inflicts pain and hurt on other women – and yet still insist that shared girlhood is both real and vital to the dismantling of the patriarchy. It’s exactly like sticking your fingers in your ears and going ‘la-la-la’ at the top of your voice.

But there is something else too – as I was scrolling down through the conversation there was this from @Artemissian.

I’m personally deeply troubled by how some seem to define “girlhood” in terms of oppression? Does this mean that w/o oppression…

we’re no longer women? No! We still are. I feel that when #sharedgirlhood comes to mean just & only #sharedvictimhood we might…

…be internalizing the definitions of womanhood that the kyriarchry enforces, & give up our right to self-define who we are?

It articulated some of my other mis-givings, and  highlighted a further problem. Some white cis feminists push the idea of shared girlhood because they believe we all in some way share the experience of living under patriarchy, and by treating our girlhoods as a shared experience we are stronger in the face of it against the patriarchy.

When in fact the opposite is true – n0t just for each of us as women white or black, trans or cis, able bodied or differently abled; shared girlhood is just another tool to take away our right to self define.  And as a movement, that does not make us better or stronger, but weaker. A movement that is incapable of celebrating the individuals within that movement will founder. A movement that does not recognise the individuals within that movement will not succeed in empowering and improving the lives of everyone it seeks to support.

Oh… the frustration! I can see how glorious it could be.

And so oft times I rage, and also love with all my heart. And in the midst of the storms that occur as we struggle to understand, and grasp, and better and change – I will embrace the thunder. And dance in the rain.

I would like to thank both Flavia Dzodan at Red Light Politics and Alicia (@Artemissian) for allowing me to link to, and quote, them.

Am I Being Naive.. Isn’t An Ism Always An Ism?

Shouldn’t be as simple as this:

  • If a Person of Colour (PoC) says that something which has been said, written or done is racist – then it’s racist.
  • If trans*/transgender person says that something which has been said, written or done is transphobic/cis-sexist – then it’s transphobic or cis-sexist.
  • If a physically or mentally differently abled person says that something which has been written, said or done is ableism – then it’s ableism.
  • If a LGBTIQ person says that something that has been written, said or done is homophobic/queerphobic – then it’s queerphobic.
  • If a woman says that something which has been said, written or done is sexist – then it’s sexist.
  • If a Woman of Colour (WoC) says that something which has been said, written or done is both racist AND sexist (intersectional) – then it is, and further more if she also says that we white women need to stop using the word we should respect that.

I will grant you that this is awfully simple stuff. Which is why some might see it as naïve, or be able to provide a whole smorgasbord of reasons why some those might not always apply.. but really – shouldn’t it actually be as simple as this?

Isn’t anything else just an excuse?