Is It Okay For Cis People To Use Trans Language?

Overlap. Lots of overlap. Source.

Commenting on a recent post, silencecanbeviolence asked an interesting question:

I do not consider myself trans, but I really hate seeing only male/female options on forms. I guess I would have to mostly classify myself as cis-female, but I definitely have a masculine side and enjoy gender bending and “playing boy” from time to time. I find it empowering and cathartic.

I like to catch people off guard by using vague gender labels from time to time. My Facebook is set up to use “their” rather than “she” or “he” as a small form of protest against the gender binary, and again partially just to try and confuse people, I suppose. Is it acceptable to use trans-related gender terms when I don’t consider myself trans?

This is a great question! I am going to assume that by “use trans-related gender terms,” silencecanbeviolence means using gender-neutral pronouns and similar things.

I find this a bit tricky, and I have to admit that at first, the idea made me a little uncomfortable. However, after giving it some thought and talking it over with Alma, I would say this is fine. Everyone has the right to express gender as they wish, and everyone wins when more people engage with gender in ways that feel right. I will explain why I initially felt uncomfortable, and then talk about why I think it’s a good thing for cis people to ask for gender-neutral pronouns if they want to, or otherwise defy gender norms.

I have encountered people off-line who use gender-neutral pronouns, not so much because of a core identity as nonbinary, but as a way to be a conscientious objector to the gender system. My first reaction was to be a bit miffed. This is because, for me and a lot of trans people, our genders are not a political statement of any kind. Many of us resent the fact that our genders are politicized by other people. The gender system politicizes our genders because they are taboo, and activists on both the far right and far left may interpret out self-expressions as political gestures commenting on gender roles broadly, feminism, etc.

This annoys the hell out of me, because it implies my gender is a chosen statement. I make a lot of political statements related to my gender–for example, I try to embody a nonviolent masculinity, and I consider that a political statement. But being a man, using male pronouns, and so on, is just the only way I can feel comfortable. It’s not inherently more political than anyone else’s gender. I want to make sure people understand that we don’t choose to be trans because of our beliefs about the gender system, that trans people can be conservative, moderate, radical, or anything else. We’re making a statement, but that’s because just being alive as a trans person makes a statement in this society. Our genders are politicized by other people, but not necessarily political statements on our part.

On the other hand, who is harmed if people who consider themselves cis want to mess with gender norms a little? It seems this can only benefit the trans community. The more people ask to be treated the way they prefer, the easier it will be for trans people to do the same. I think everyone should have the right to request the pronouns that work for them, period. There is no need for any kind of test to determine that someone has the “right” reasons for preferring certain pronouns. There is no such thing.

Transgender is a big umbrella, and we should welcome anybody who needs to get out of the rain. Somebody like silencecanbeviolence–who identifies as cis, likes to express different aspects of gender, and wants to use gender-neutral pronouns in some spaces–ought to be welcome.

The terms trans and cis are very useful–otherwise we get stuck with trans vs normal. But we should not let them crystallize into a rigid, absolute binary. They’re more like multiple overlapping fuzzy regions that blend at the edges. We should not police those borders. We should embrace the ambiguity as an opportunity for alliance.

What do you think?


Thanks to Alma for a great conversation that shaped this post.

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13 comments

  1. onlyfragments

    “But we should not let them crystallize into a rigid, absolute binary. They’re more like multiple overlapping fuzzy regions that blend at the edges. We should not police those borders. We should embrace the ambiguity as an opportunity for alliance.”

    I love this, and I love the points you make here. I think it’s important to recognize that terms like “cisgender” and “allosexual”, while meant to define a majority, aren’t static terms. Not everyone who falls under those umbrellas is alike, just like not everyone who falls under the trans or asexual umbrellas is alike.

  2. Lesboi

    Agreed! I like it when married straight people refer to their spouses as their partner or significant other. It’s a show of solidarity. It’s not just transgender folks who are constricted by the binary. People should do what makes them most comfortable and no one owns the pronouns so pick the one you like and use it.

  3. Milo

    I really hate the trans/cis binary because it limits discussions, expressions, and and dialogues like this one points out.

    And no matter how mad it makes us, gender -is- political at the end of the day, because ALL self-actualizing identities are ultimately political. All expressions of self are ultimately political. Everything we associate with masculinity and femininity are the result of politics. It’s one thing to want to not focus on the political repercussions of gender because that’s a self-care strategy, but it’s another thing entirely to say that politics is something that only ever happens “out there”.

    Trans people don’t have the patent on anti-cisnormativity. Everybody should be given tools to dismantle it.

    • rimonim

      Gender is definitely political. What I resent is the implication that my gender identity is a politically motivated choice–e.g., I just hate misogyny so much I decided to become a man! All aspects of gender are political in the sense that they are shaped by and inseparable from the sociopolitical context. At the same time, I experience a qualitative difference between my political views–which I am constantly challenging and changing in response to new information–and my gender identity–which has been stable over my lifetime and does not change (or at least, cannot be changed by an act of will or a really good book).

      An analogy would be, sexuality is extremely political, but individual people do not, generally speaking, pick out their sexual orientation in order to make a comment on the powers that be. They might choose the words they use in order to make a comment–such as identifying as pansexual instead of bisexual cuz of discomfort with the prefix “bi”–but the underlying inclinations, not so much. We don’t know how much political forces did shape those inclinations in all of us. But we do know that they are not consciously chosen or amenable to intentional change (changes happen, but they are involuntary).

      So to me it makes sense to make some type of distinction between those bedrock inclinations which we can’t alter on purpose, and ideological inclinations which IMO we should intentionally scrutinize, revise and improve, ad infinitum.

      To explain where I’m coming from here, this position is a reaction to stuff people said to me early in my transition, like “But aren’t you a feminist? What’s wrong with being a strong, butch woman?” As if my gender identity is a comment on gender roles, other people’s genders, etc. And of course, no one asks a cis man why he can’t just be a strong butch woman.

      • Milo

        I see you there, I do. But all I can say in response is that it isn’t always so cut-and-dry, this conscious choice vs. organic spontaneity thing. As a nonbinary person, almost all of who I am is the result of a series of choices I’ve made because, unlike you, a binary person, I have no idea what a “real” nonbinary person might look like, act like, dress like. I struggle with actualizing myself because this is a path I have to blaze all by myself. The pronouns I’ve arrived at, the situations and contexts I’d like them used, have been because of a long, hard, and very inorganic series of self-interrogations. It is a conscious choice for me to want “she” when spoken to/about, and “they” in writing, and it’s a conscious choice every time I’m given an option about pronouns. Do they feel more ‘me’ than not? I don’t know. But they are part political statement, and I own that. I use neutral pronouns in casual conversation whenever I can remember to. If a cis person asked me to use “they”, I probably would. Who am I to deny them that and insist that I know better?

        The social construct of gender is nigh irredeemable, IMO. It puts people into weird and arbitrary categories that, in an ideal community (or world I guess), would have no reason to exist. I have committed myself to building a world where there are no trans or cis people; where anybody can use whatever pronouns they want; where there are no rich and no poor because there is no capital, and so on. Yes, the world right now is miles away from that, but personally, I don’t see how being emotionally invested in things that don’t serve that vision, that can’t exist within that vision, can be productive.

      • rimonim

        Thanks for sharing your experience with this choice vs spontaneity thing as a nonbinary person. I can see that, though my experience was clear-cut in a particular way, the larger phenomenon is a lot more complex that that, and of course my experience is just one experience. You have given me a lot of food for thought here!

        Can you clarify what you mean by,

        I don’t see how being emotionally invested in things that don’t serve that vision, that can’t exist within that vision, can be productive

        ?

        I share your vision of a world where no one would be trans or cis, rich or poor. But I’m not sure what you mean with this or if this might be where our views diverge.

        In my utopian vision, I imagine people still doing gender–enjoying the rich communicative potentials of masculinity/femininity/androgyny as culturally-specific yet ever evolving expressive tools. One might say that gender as we know it is so bound up with power and violence, the vision I describe isn’t really gender anymore. I think that;s true, from one angle; yet from another angle, I see this expressive dance I’m calling “gender” as something very human that underlies/is exploited by the gender system.

      • Milo

        I get it, and I get that it’s a lot more clear-cut for other nonbinary people too.

        To clarify my point a little bit more there:

        Generally (or at least, consciously now, more than before) I ask myself two questions about a concept or situation that I want to analyze through my political lens: 1. who benefits from this thought/action now? and 2. who benefits from this thought/action in my ideal world? If I answer honestly, this actually tells me a lot.

        So to take your question of whether we should limit what pronouns cis people are allowed to use:

        Who benefits from this now? (I would argue that neither trans people nor the cis people in question, because it fundamentally upholds a number of gender binaries that I believe, if dismantled, would allow for more personal freedoms and less anxiety surrounding the subject than we have now. And upholding these binaries, even rhetorically, lends them strength and contributes to the real problem, which is commodification and regulation of gender.)

        Who benefits from this in my ideal world? (Again, nobody; except that in this scenario, there would have to be a mechanism in place to regulate this mis-use of pronouns. Who would do that? What social structure? How would that structure deal with people who refuse to obey the custom? I see this as replicating the system of oppression that already currently exists, just under a different type of social organization.)

        There’s a good word for something similar to this: reactionary. A reactionary belief/praxis is one that seeks to replace a dominant structure with a minority structure, but allow it to function in exactly the same way as the current one. Radical feminism is a pretty decent example; it’s good to want to overthrow patriarchal systems of power and oppression in the world, but it’s reactionary to want to replace them all with matriarchies.

        You get me?

        Here’s a good quote from an essay called ‘Politicizing Gender: Moving toward revolutionary gender politics’:

        “For many anti-authoritarians there may be the temptation to “smash gender” or “destroy gender roles.” This may seem logical to some. However, I believe this too leads to an alternate form of authoritarianism… a gender revolution will only be meaningful if it substantively empowers everyone… Gender must be liberated, but we all must have a voice in what that means, not from an abstract pre-determined theory, but a synthesis of real people’s experiences. From this I believe we will see that many people find gendered roles liberating, while others experience serious oppression through these roles. Any strategy toward liberation must maintain the integrity of all our experiences and be willing to question how different communities can accept divergent and antagonistic needs without creating an atmosphere of punishing silences and real violence.”

  4. Tea With Ess

    In Finnish you only have one pronoun for all and in Swedish we have three different ones ; he, she and them. Them are used both as a personal pronoun as well as an alternative to “he/she” or when gender doesn’t matter. Like when you talk about something a customer said or did. “What would you do if they told you…”

  5. Sam Hope

    all good points – I think the trans umbrella is very wide indeed, and it may be that some of the people who are experimenting “politically” are also naturally a part of our community anyway in some way. I know it was my political self that pushed me out of the closet at a time when I would have happily settled for passing as cis and keeping my silence. As long as all of us under the umbrella remember our relative privilege and give room and voice to others, it’s all good

  6. Jamie Ray

    Many cis people play with gender norms all the time but no one pays attention at all to it. For example, lots of women wear men’s jeans (e.g. Levi’s) – some men have long hair in a pony-tail. Some men are stay at home dads, some women are auto-mechanics.
    I don’t think cis people should have to hold onto anything associated with their birth gender that feel inauthentic or oppressive. They is an inclusive pronoun, it doesn’t mean neither male nor female – it means pronoun without attaching a gender to the person. I think the more people who use they the better – maybe finally people will get used to it and ask (outside of an LGBT event) what pronoun I use and not trip over themselves using they.

  7. Pingback: 5 Tips For Changing Your Gender Pronouns | Today I Am A Man

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