Author Julia Serano defined cissexism as “the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people.” Cissexism, therefore, isn’t the outright hatred of transphobia but it in many ways it is more dangerous as it pervades society and often goes unnoticed.
So what is cissexism? It may be something as simple as saying “ Hello, Ladies and Gentlemen” or “welcome boys and girls”. There is in these actions an implicit discrimination amongst those who fit into neither of the binary categories.
The most common form of cissexism is to label cis-people as “normal” and trans/non-binary as outside the normal behaviour and hence “abnormal”. This, unfortunately, is typical of social identity behaviour. Groups attempt to maintain their social identity by keeping their higher social standing over other “out-of-favour” groups. As the historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted, this behaviour perpetuates the marginalization of groups through differences. This marginalization has been applied to many groups over the years; woman, black people, homosexuals and of course trans and non-binary people. It is easily spotted in today’s political climate on both sides of the Atlantic.
Cissexism starts at a young age with the blue for a boy and pink for a girl stereotype that automatically classifies children into the binary stereotype as well as enforcing a rigid gender on each child. This blue/pink stereotype, that many see as fixed, was only developed in the 1920s and 30s in the USA as a marketing ploy. The binary (girl/boy) is reinforced through clothing and behaviour both at home and school. After all everyone wants a “normal” child — one that fits the imposed stereotype. We have all seen the outrage on social networks when someone dares not to conform. Unfortunately, cissexism carries over into adulthood. Take the use of personal pronouns, calling a transwoman “he” instead of “she” for example. What about deadnaming — the use of the person’s previous name or official forms that have two tick boxes, one for male and one for female?
As a transwoman one of the biggest cissexist pressures is in how I look. If I dress in beautiful clothes, do my makeup and hair I can get close to passing as a woman, a tall broad-shouldered one, but a woman nevertheless. When a trans woman “passes” there is often one of two responses. The first, generally from feminists, is that by looking “glamorous” we are reinforcing the patriarchal stereotype of a woman. Something to be frowned upon. The second, normally from men, is that we are trying to “trap” them by luring them under false pretences into a relationship. Hence, transwomen are often called the derogatory term “traps”.
Of course when a transwoman doesn’t pass and doesn’t conform to the female gender stereotype she becomes a subject of pity and of laughter. How many people have sniggered behind the back of a trans person because of their makeup or dress sense? Commonly we get smeared with the derogatory term “tranny”.
Much of the problem relates to the media portrayal of trans people and in particular transwomen. Just think about how many transwomen, for example, you see in the media, on TV or at the cinema or theater. I suspect many people’s only interaction until the recent media sensations of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox with transgender people, is either with drag queens or with the pantomime dame — hardly a positive stereotype, just another man-in-a-dress to be laughed at. One positive is that at least transgender awareness is on the rise, whereas non-binary or genderfluid people aren’t even recognised and certainly not understood by many people.
Cissexism is, thus, a class of microaggressions targeted at culturally marginalised groups that arises through groups trying to keep their perceived social identity. Unfortunately, the power of social groups generally lies with the most privileged. In our society this tends to be white males — so we see a society dominated by that specific group. When any group feels threatened they will tend to marginalise other groups, normally those with little or no power. History is littered with examples of marginalisation: women, black people, the poor, immigrants and the LGBT+ community.
Despite the history of marginalisation it seems that we learn little and repeat the same mistakes with every marginal group. In the end what will make the most difference is to ensure that all minorities (and by that I mean everyone not in the controlling privileged group) are adequately included in the social structure of the country. Sadly, this hasn’t even been achieved for women — hardly a minority in a numerical sense. For example, it is not expected in Europe to have equal pay for men and women for another 257 years. So what hope for equality (or anything close) for trans and non-binary people?
Let us all make a start by eliminating the microaggressions that litter our everyday interaction with other people. Let us start by finding out more about our fellow human, you may find you have more in common with them than you think.