If your true identity is not the identity you were given at birth, you may identify in some other way, including transgender, gender non-confirming, gender queer, or non-binary (TGNC for ease of reference.) In all cases, you do not identify as cisgender. Cisgender means you identify as the gender identity you were given at birth.
To identify as cisgender means that you live with cisgender privilege, whether you are aware of this or not. Cisgender privilege means that you do not have to endure the overt and covert discrimination experienced by many people who are TGNC. Cisgender privilege means you can assume you will not be denied work, a home, healthcare, a place to worship, a family to love, or your personal safety, because of your gender identity. Cisgender privilege means that you don’t have to remind people (even your loved ones) of your pronouns, and/or your name (for example, you are not dead-named).
Seemingly innocuous moments in everyday life can symbolize cisgender privilege, which basically assumes a binary construct of gender identity. Examples of these everyday moments are set out below:
· You fill out a form and it asks you to tick the box ‘male’ or ‘female’. There is no box for people who identify as TGNC
· Your friend is pregnant and holds a gender reveal party with ‘Pink or Blue?’ on every single decoration, including the cake and balloons
· There are only two bathrooms, one labelled ‘male’ and one labelled ‘female’
· The same goes for other public facilities including locker rooms in gyms and changing rooms in clothes stores
· Waiting to board a plane, the airline announces that only women and young children can board first
· There are role models in the media and in the political arena who are cisgender
· There are rites of passage, public ceremonies, and other traditions based around the binary concept of male and female
· You register your child for a sports class and the instructor asks your child to get changed in the girl’s locker room, and join the girls group
· You go to a high school graduation where everyone is told to sit in two sections: The male section and the female section
To pretend that there are only cisgender males and cis gender females in society is to pretend that parts of our population, the GNC community, do not exist. To do this is offensive, and it can leave a lasting impact on someone’s mental health. “40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, and 92% of these having attempted suicide before the age of 25” (Trevor Project). In addition, 86% of transgender individuals reported sexual or physical assault. Here are some accounts from a Human Rights Watch report:
“Alexander S., a 16-year-old transgender boy in Texas, said: I started getting a lot of anonymous people telling me to kill myself, that it wasn’t worth living. I called the school and told them what was going on and they didn’t do anything.”
“It was “like a little mental pinch” when teachers used the wrong pronouns. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but eventually you bruise”, 17-year-old transgender student in Utah.”
So the biggest cisgender privilege is to live a life where you are less likely to commit suicide, and less likely to experience sexual or physical assault.
Less obvious forms of discrimination include microaggressions, which are everyday slights, snubs or insults that communicate hostility (whether or not they are intentional). GLAAD ran a photo campaign to highlight this issue. Here are some examples from that campaign –
· Seven, a transgender man, was asked “Did you transition because you thought you were an ugly girl?”
· Jacob, who is gender queer, was asked “When are you going to really transition?”
· Tyler, who is agender/queer, was told “you need to shave if you’re trying to look like a girl”
· Tiq, a trans man, was told “I would never have known you used to be a girl”
· Shane, a trans man, was told “You understand what it’s like to be a woman”
To acknowledge all of this, and the privilege of a cisgender man, is not to deny the suffering that cis gender men may experience as a result of another aspect of their identity. For example, if a cisgender man is also a gay man, it is likely that he would have endured his own experiences of overt and covert discrimination, including microaggressions, verbal abuse, and assault. But to acknowledge the suffering of one group of people does not take anything away from the suffering of another group.
If we are to truly understand the concept of privilege, we cannot stop at gender identity. For example, a white transgender man will experience white privilege that a black transgender man will not. As the American Psychological Association points out, each of our “social identities contributes uniquely and in intersecting ways to shape” how we experience and perform our lives (APA Guidelines, 2018). In turn, this has an impact on “relational, psychological, and behavioural health outcomes in both positive and negative ways”. In the next article in this series, we will look at other forms of privilege, including white privilege.
In the meantime, we will close with some tips on how to address cisgender privilege –
· Raise awareness about the privilege of being cisgender
· Stop making assumptions about people’s gender identity. If in doubt, and it seems appropriate, ask. If not, use ‘they’ rather than ‘him’ or ‘her’
· Normalize the concept of identifying gender, including a person’s pronouns, and include your own pronouns in your email signoff
· Gender identity is a personal matter. How you identify, and how much you share that with another person, is up to you
· Challenge the overly simplistic division of the human race into the binary fiction of ‘men or women’. We really can do better. Gender is a spectrum as varied as any other components to a person’s identity. The binary ‘man or women’ option has never, ever reflected reality, so isn’t it high time we caught up?
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC