Fight back: do we need a new definition for ‘cisgender’?

Jonas Weaver

I'm eighteen, Christian, and it just so happens that I'm gay. I love writing. I tend to be opinionated about theology/religion and its interaction with the world we live in. I'm slightly grumpy and blunt. Otherwise, I’m a pretty dull person.

The inspiration for this post is twofold.

On the one hand there’s this article by Marc Barnes which posits that there exists ‘a possible match’ when it comes to gender. That those who identify as cisgender exhibit an ideal fulfilment of harmony between their sex and gender. But I don’t think Marc Barnes has ever encountered a punk diva.

Laura Jane Grace

The second reason for writing is this interview with Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the band Against Me!, in which she states, ‘Kids would call me faggot and beat me up. I liked that punk was about fighting back, as opposed to just taking it.’

Punk has always meant something special to me, at least. It’s been about pushing against walls, burning down buildings, and discomfort. More importantly, punk has always been a safe haven for LGBT kids, especially genderqueer or trans kids. Punk is for the freaks of society not for normal people. Punk is an ideal expression of everything Marc Barnes fails to understand.

Together, these two things got me thinking. Do we have to re-evaluate the definition of cisgender? Is it worth rehashing and reclaiming? Bear with me as I try to explain my reasoning.

The definition of cisgender generally goes something like this: identification via felt experience (emotional/physical/spiritual) of your assigned sex/gender such that the two – felt and assigned – align with little disruption.

Seems fair. But Marc Barnes is right, I think, when he unpicks this definition a little more:

‘[If cisgender identity] alone is that type of gender identity described as a match, an identity essentially described as a harmony, then its existence is an implicit claim that all others are a disharmony, a mismatch.’

The notion that there is a match, an alignment, also assumes a preference (an arguable claim itself) for harmony. And if cisgender is harmonious then obviously there is a problem if one is not cis. Put bluntly, Barnes argues that those who identify as trans, by the very definitions of the words, assume a disharmonious identity.

But there’s more to the diagnosis than Barnes lets on. In fact, he misses a major point, a point which punk makes abundantly clear.

The system is the problem. And, too often, it seems, we say things like ‘cis’, assuming that everyone knows already that the system of sex/gender assignment is a crock of lies. But do people really appreciate the power of the system? I’m skeptical. Sceptical enough to present a modified definition of cisgender.

Cisgender: when experienced sex/gender aligns with the gender/sex assigned to a person by society.

I think this definition, at least tentatively, provides a better understanding of gender identity and assigned sex/gender. It removes the possibility of Barnes making the claim that cisgender has killed gender theory by its own definition. It takes on, quite clearly, the social nature of sex/gender. And by acknowledging the social nature of sex/gender assignment clarifies that it is extremely arbitrary. Finally, it fights back a la punk’s very nature.

So, fight back, reclaim words, screw the system over. Or under, whichever works best.

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