Why We Are All Trans-(binary)-gender and the Myth of Cisgender

In many ways, this post seems at odds with recent psychology and coaching posts. However it’s really just a piece about how we think about the world and our inherent need to classify. Over the past few years I’ve noticed the word cisgender (and its variants used) and for a while have thought how deeply unhelpful it is. It is a flow of consciousness and no doubt will change over time. Constructive comments and insights are most welcome.

Defining cisgender

Cisgender offers a complement to transgender. It refers to people whose gender assigned at birth matches their own experience and sense of identity. The problem with cisgender is that it introduces yet another binary into how we think about sex and gender. It should also be noted that gender is not assigned at birth. A peek at the genitals is not gender. It’s a biological classification. It’s sex. They are different things.

Binary categories

Dichotomous thinking tells us very little of what is happening in the real world. It obscures more than it illuminates.We take a whole continuum of experence, turn it into binary opposites and throw out the middle bit. We then proceed to argue and explain how we can push everything from the excuded middle into our artifical socially constructed categories.

Transgender and its assumptions

Transgender is a description of when our gender identity (and experience) doesn’t match that assigned at birth. The question is, whose does?  The assumption is that transgender refers to the minority and cisgender to the majority. This is unhelpful and inaccurate. I maintain that we are all transgender since we all deviate from the norm to differing degrees. There is a spectrum of non-conformity. Cisgender can only refer to the illusive few who embody the traditional gender stereotype appropriate to a given culture (and their comfort with it). Cisgender is also heteronormative, since ‘normal’ gender is straight! So I question whether gay or bi people can be cisgender.

Cisgender obscures the fact that many ‘normal’ people struggle with notions of gender identity and gender conformity.  Many people do not live up to gender expectations. Many have grown up being bullied because they don’t ‘make the grade’ but don’t necessarily want to ‘switch sides’. I know some apologists for the term will argue that it’s intended to be neutral. The problem is that labels are rarely neutral and rarely used in the way ‘intended’. Once you apply binary categories, the grey areas are lost and (unfavourable) comparisons are inevitable. We have experienced diatribes about white privilege, about (biological) sex privilege and now we have cisgender privilege. To a person supposedly from all privileged categories who is still struggling to put food on the table, aerie-faerie academic-speak isn’t very helpful. Binaries always over-simplify.

Sex and gender are not the same thing

In 2009 at the time of the Caster Semenya World Championship controversy I wrote Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing! All Gender is a Drag!   The newspapers at the time, even the ‘quality press’ wrote about gender testing, when there is no such thing. Gender, as we know, is the social interpretation of biological sex. There isn’t really a test for that unless you count Kate Bornstein‘s questionnaire in My Gender Workbook and I hardly think that sports bodies will use that. They are more interested in chromosomes and hormones and the like, that is, biologcal sex. I was relieved that after taking the Borthstein’s test that I was designated gender outlaw. I was disappointed that I never made it to gender freak. However, I am reassured that I am definitely not cisgender! Although Bornstein’s test is rather facetious and the questions are all loaded, it makes some very important points. On a many occasions I got my students to complete the test. The strength of feeling that it provoked, especially among mature students was surprising.  Once they got the idea that the test was deliberately provocative, it challenged more hidden assumptions about sex and gender better thab any formal lecture could. The debates afterwards were always highly spirited.

More than two genders

Kate Bornstein and Martine Rothblatt were among the most influential writers for my doctoral research, alongside Alfred Kinsey, anthropologist Mary Douglas, psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Mark Simpson, the man who coined the term metrosexual. These are not names you find together everyday. As I was examining gender stereotypes, it’s not surprising that I looked to the work of trans* writers (Bornstein and Rothblatt). Interestingly Kate Bornstein was a trans woman (that is, male to female). However, more recently ‘she’ has stopped referring to herself as a woman. So this means it difficult to write about ‘hir’, unless I use the third gender term coined by Rothblatt.

In Bortstein’s scheme, there are not two genders. There are multiple genders, since the social interpretation of sex has so many variables to consider: sexuality, race, age, nationality, culture, class and so on. There is no norm except an illusive stereotype and how many people conform perfectly to that? More importantly, how many people struggle TO conform?

Metrosexuality is all about gender

Mark Simpson’s notion of metrosexuality is interesting because it’s really all about gender. It is about ‘heterosexual’ men who adopt the fashions and stylings of the ‘modern’ ‘homosexual’.  David Beckham is the poster boy for the metrosexual whose career as football player (alpha-career) allows us to ‘forgive’ him sitting around, pouting in his underpants wearing nail polish. The average ‘normal’ traditional man working in as less glamorous job might not be so easily forgiven.

A sprectrum of gender

In a previous post (Never Mind. . . the Great Procrustean Binary Gender Swindle) I referred to a trans woman blogger who had a lot of thought provoking things to say about binary gender. Unfortunately the blog was met with abuse from some trans people and it closed. She was saying pretty much the same Kate Bortstein is today. The main cut and thrust was that whereas many trans people decry the binary gender system, they are still advocates for it. If gender is a social interpretation of biological sex, how can you have surgery on your gender? Quite simply, you can’t. Is there not a third or fourth space we can occupy? Is there not a whole spectrum of gender?

All gender is a form of drag. It takes lots of plucking, posturing and preening and can be performed independently of genital arrangements. Many people have chosen to live as intersexed, third gender roles. None of this is a criticism (or judgement) of individual experiences. It is a criticism of how we construct sex and gender debates. These inform the many ‘hoops’ that trans people have to navigate in order to make a transition. Speaking recently to trans people they suggested that it is easier to get through the system if they present as ‘traditional types’. This trans men (female to male) wearing eyeliner get a tougher time than those in football tops.

The gender binary system is the epitome of idealism. For as long as we keep imposing binaries we obscure alternative viable options. I’ve analysed data from needs surveys for trans* people and worked with trans*people in coaching and workshops. What struck me most was the range of genders on display. Some more traditional and some more alternative with a spectrum of difference in between, From the needs analyses, it was sometimes difficult to summarise representative viewpoints. One of the overriding factors was individual experience. The commonalities were the need for respect, fairness, courtesy and acceptance. You don’t have to be transgender or cisgender to appreciate this.

Intolerance of ambiguity

Else Frenkel-Brunswik devised the concept of Intolerance of Ambiguity.  In essence it describes our varying need to apply binary categories and control for uncertainty. The critics wo say that we cannot function without labels are perhaps a little more intolerant of ambiguity. However in gender terms I fail to see how ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘transgender’ and ‘cisgender’ are helpful. What do these labels tell us? Yes, they allow us to point at things and name them out loud but what else? What of the ‘middle bit’ where the real people reside? Why should linguistic convenience override phenomenology. In gender terms, ambiguous means trans-normative.

Cisgender, no thanks.

As a term, cisgender came into being as an alternative for non-trans. Some writers prefer non-trans as it centres trans as the norm. Now while I agree that trans is the norm, I have a much broader definition of what trans means.I appreciate that we have to use linguistic devices to highlight the embedded assumptions in gender, it has merit but not at the expense of denying individual experience. Language frames our understanding of the world and we have to work within its limitations.However, I for one, deny that cisgender has anything meaningful to say about my experience. Give me ‘gender outlaw’ any day! Thank you Kate Bornstein.


Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. His PhD was entiled ‘Attitudes to Sexuality, Gender Stereotypes and Intolerance of Ambuiguity. The ideas found their way into his first book Sex, Lies and Stereotypes.



Never Mind. . . the Great Procrustean Binary Gender Swindle

After publishing my Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine post, I checked the things automatically linked to it by WordPress and found a fascinating and brave post. I was going to add a comment of support, but the comments had been turned off. Not long after the whole blog disappeared. The writer, a trans woman, had a lot of thought-provoking things to say about binary gender. Unfortunately the blog had been subject to a lot of abuse, surprisingly from other trans people. I found a draft of this post languishing in the nether regions of my blog and decided to finish it off. I have lost contact with the blogger, so if you read this, please drop me a line.

Many people, trans and otherwise, criticise the binary model of gender. It used to irritate me no end at university when students designed experimental studies and just threw in ‘gender differences’ without justification. This underlying assumption that men and women do everything differently was rarely challenged in our psychology department. I began to disparagingly refer to such gender differences as ‘counting shirts and blouses’. I took great delight in challenging fellow PhD students looking at gender differences. My own PhD was on gender stereotypes and intolerance of ambiguity. Knowing full well what the answer would be I’d ask ‘Are you taking a social constructionist view of gender?’ On one occasion, one student became very animated as he karate-chopped the air shouting ‘No!Men and women! MEN AND WOMEN!” This tale was retold often in later lectures and tutorials, and much to the delight of one of my colleagues Dr Petra Boynton.

Some of the key influences on my early research were Martine Rothblatt and Kate Bornstein (both trans writers) and Mark Simpson, the writer who coined the term metrosexual. As an undergraduate I’d quoted from a Simpson piece in Deadline magazine (in 1994) with the provocative title ‘Coming Over All Queer’. It raised a few eyebrows in our rather conservative degree programme. These writers more than any helped me to the conclusion not that there was more than binary but perhaps more importantly, we don’t necessarily have to put a label on it.

I’m a natal male and I spent my formative years in a state of gender confusion as I described in Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine. Much of the ‘confusion’ caused me distress but I came to I interpret it and my lack of conformity as something special whereas no I realize that it was quite ordinary and quite common. We are all gender deviants because ‘true gender’ does not exist. Bornstein is on record as saying that she might not have made the transition from male to female had she known at the time that there were other options. This was also what the trans blogger was saying.

At a certain point in our cognitive development we achieve gender constancy. This is the certainty that boys become men and girls become women. Up until then, it’s quite ordinary to assume that people can swap back and forth between genders. The milestone is on average around five to seven years. So we can’t count as reliable evidence, any early childhood memories of gender identity confusion or discomfort. It happens to us all.

Confusion surrounding gender is exacerbated because the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are so often interchanged, when they are not the same thing at all. Sex is the biological designation based on physiology, whereas gender is the social interpretation of sex. Gender is not natural. Further problems occur because we deny any other options but binary gender. However, if we examine the biological evidence, there is not a neat divide between the sexes, there are definite shades of grey. This greyness is intensified when we consider the social interpretation of gender. Do all men have the same gender? Do all women have the same gender? Don’t factors such as age, ethnicity, education, upbringing, socio-economic class, sexuality all colour our gender to varying degrees?

We all have the right to feel comfortable in our own ‘gendered’ skin, but the chances of being able to do this are limited simply because we have limited options. It’s not gender democracy if you only get to vote for two parties in the same system.    Maybe the reason why I shelved this heretical piece was that I couldn’t figure out a way to word it without sounding like a homophobe, transphobe orbiphobe. In truth, I am a binariphobe. I think the rights of people transcend socially constructed boundaries. I don’t believe in homosexuality or bisexuality or heterosexuality. Fundamentally because I don’t recognize the either-or imperative. Biology has not produced a dichotomy. We did that. Reproductive differences and genital shape do not make a gender. Real life is much more complicated than (karate chops air) ‘Men and Women. MEN AND WOMEN!’

The trans blogger made the point that many trans people decry binary gender because they were born into the wrong one. It’s a challenge to suggest that maybe they weren’t. Maybe the gender you got was your unique gender.  Many people have made the choice not to succumb to the Procrustean system and inhabit a gender place in  the ‘grey area’ (or ‘Technicolor area’). Some people have become their own immaculate conception. Their gender, sexuality and physiology do not line up according to the black-and-white rule. They have made a decision to occupy the middle-ground, which is, after all, where we all are anyway. I think it’s more important to respect and value people’s spot on the gender continuum rather than fight for a system that limits diversity and our options.

After completing Kate Bornstein’s gender quiz in My Gender Workbook, I was thrilled with my designation of gender freak. Throughout the quiz I was dreading the prospect of being ‘normal. It’s a shame that the trans blogger was ‘persuaded off’ the blogosphere by a few people who see it as their ‘god-given’ right to police binary gender boundaries. It’s a great fear that if we let go of labels we will all disappear. Without gender binary divisions the concept of transgender would be less meaningful. Making a transition from one state to its polar opposite reinforces binary gender as much as it challenges it. Again the same applies to sexuality. We can only swing both ways if there are only two ways. Sometimes we fight for something that’s at the root of the oppression.

I recognize that I am still more traditionally gendered than I would like to be. I’m still working on it. There are still options open to the ‘other side’ that I would like to enjoy. However the barrier has much more to do with social convention  than it does with the shape of my genitals.


Kate Bornstein’s Memoir: Queer and Pleasant Danger

Poem: Anatomy of Doubt

Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine