I’m not going to claim any kind of ownership of the term, as it’s sort of evolved out of a discussion where the component terms were uttered by someone other than myself. I put forward a notion, briefly, which appeared to resonate, so I’m fleshing it out here without the flippancy.

Some folks don’t like being referred to as “cis-gendered”, and also aren’t particularly inclined to want to identify as anything, gender-wise. Gender labels come with gender expectations, and these constitute impostures of one form or another.

The objection is more than simply wanting not to be pigeon-holed (as the trope goes), or otherwise classified without consultation for the purposes of political engagement. “Cis-gendered” does come with more connotations than just “not-trans”, and these connotations don’t always gel well with what purportedly “cis” people actually think about gender, or with how they experience it.

The definition of “cis-gendered” that asserts that “cis” is simply not “trans”, doesn’t often stay simple for very long under any degree of scrutiny. Further discussion will often end up with the explanation being delivered that while trans-gender folks have an internal experience of gender identity that doesn’t line up with their physical sex, the internal experience of gender identity experienced by “cis-gendered” people does. This presupposes at least two things that are contentious; that you can just assume that “cis-gendered” people have an internal, intrinsic experience of gender identity at all, and that this gender identity can line-up with their physical sex.

The first of these two assumptions will present itself as a problem to you if you try to reconcile it with the convention of not telling people what their internal experience of gender is like. While this convention shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule, and while there certainly should be discussion of what gender is, and is like, generally, it’s another prospect entirely to address an individual directly to declare to them what their personal experience of gender is. I’ll leave the discussion of the epistemology of this kind of thing aside – but given the pretty standard objections to calling people things they don’t self-identify as, there’s potentially quite a few people flinging “cis” around who’ve adopted an inconsistent standard somewhere along the line. (And don’t get me started on the self-identified “cis-men” who’ve broken their own “shut-up and listen” rule to tell “cis-women” what’s what).

This however, isn’t necessarily the biggest, or at least, deepest-rooted problem.

The second of the two assumptions – that internal experiences of gender can line up with biological sex at all – raises questions. Particularly, by what criteria does a person measure how gender lines up with sex? Where do these criteria come from and are they arbitrary? Are they reasonable? Are they sexist and are they harmful? To the point; how does one assume that gender can line up with sex without also assuming gender essentialism?

This is to say nothing of who and what powers are deciding upon these criteria – media concerns and other vested interests come to mind. If gender is innate, and personal and important for some people, do they really want to have a taxonomy imposed upon them by clickbait media outlets or the sex industry?

(I’m not going to go into DiQuinzio’s 1993 criticism of how non-intersectionalist feminism uses essentialism to exclude transgender women – I’ll spare both you and I that – other than to say that it makes pop-intersectionalist forays into essentialism seem ironic).

I’ve not seen anyone answer this. Maybe someone has, and maybe I’ve missed an implication in the bits and pieces of theory I’ve skimmed over. It all seems like warring essentialisms to me (pop-intersectionalism included).

At any rate, here’s why this pans out as a problem; the people in my circles who’ve been objecting to the label “cis-gendered”, who are happy to say they’re aren’t trans, don’t exhibit an affinity for any brand of gender essentialism – broadly they’re either explicitly against essentialist gender politics, or they express sentiments in that direction. Without forethought, and without serious modification of the connotations of the term, expecting people to happily accept that they are “cis” is also to expect them to implicitly accept the term’s inherent gender essentialism.

In practice, what I’m seeing is people who’d either never admit to being gender essentialist, or who’ve never shown any visible signs of giving the problems of essentialism a single thought, expecting anti-essentialists to adopt an ill-defined form of gender essentialism, all without further discussion. This is, in addition to a bunch of other things, incredibly absurd.

“I don’t even know if I accept the idea, but you must!”

I really didn’t have a problem with the term and used it amply myself until this particular penny dropped, and it’s not as if I’ve ever really given a shit about whether or not it’s a slur (one of the perks of male privilege, I guess). It’s just that I can’t affirm the assumptions it comes bundled with. I’d be lying if I did. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this last respect.

Maybe folks should just learn to love gender essentialism, or at least accept it as inevitable. Maybe this can all be settled. I doubt it, but if it can it won’t be before a lot of open, intelligent and honest discussion. Until then we could insist that people use “not-trans-gendered” instead, but to the credit of “cis-gendered”, “not-trans-gendered” is as clunky and unusable as all fuck. Go down that road and you may as well demand people only address you when they have a mouth full of marbles.

Enter “vanilla-gendered”; so bland you can’t fucking taste it. Not a default; just tasteless.

If ever there’s a t-shirt of “this is what vanilla-gender looks like”, the text will be in the same colour as the shirt. It’s not meant to stand out.

Identifying as “agendered”? Too outré. Identifying? Missing the point.

Vanilla-gendered people won’t put “vanilla-gendered” on their profiles except when being ironic, and then only as a response to questions or assertions they’d rather not have been bothered with in the first place. It’s gender ambiguity, but not in a David Bowie kind of way because that stuff’s exhausting to pull off – it’s more of a “you can’t tell because I’m hiding behind the curtains doing something else I actually care about” kind of ambiguity.

But most importantly, “vanilla-gendered” doesn’t assume the need for essential gender criteria. “My what lines up with my biological sex?”

Zero. Gender. Expectations.

I’m not going to aspire to identify as either “vanilla” or “cis”, but if there has to be one or the other, it’ll be the former – I’d prefer to be called that, if either. I have to say though, I’m growing increasingly inclined towards avoiding conversations where I’d have to choose at all.

Increasingly. Fucking. Tedious.

~ Bruce