Commentary

Is ‘cisgender gay man’ an oxymoron?

It was a hoot to hear boy after boy say some permutation of “He or she, I don’t care.” When it was the trans woman’s turn, she said that she does care, and everyone made supportive sounds when she expressed her preference for “she/her” pronouns.

My take on cisgender people is that they really care about what pronouns people use when referring to them. Calling a drunk frat guy “she” is an insult that can lead to violence or laughter, depending on how it’s executed, but it’s not considered an acceptable way to describe him.

This reflects the way I interact with gay men generally, who I often call “girl” or “ladies.” I’ve been referred to with “she” lots of times and I sometimes call my partner “she,” depending on who I’m talking to.

I once met up with my straight brother after hanging out with the gays and accidentally said “Heeeeeeeeey girl!” Fortunately he just thought it was a weird joke.

Getting personal, I’ve always been uneasy when people call me a “man.” When I was in my 20’s, I just thought that I was uncomfortable with the idea of being an adult. But it’s not going away.

I once did a workshop that was for gay men, and the facilitators’ language was very “man.” Like “Look at the men around you” and “Feel the presence of the men next to you” sort of thing. I freaked out and almost left. Fortunately I talked with one of the facilitators and he effectively gave me permission to mentally replace every instance of “man” with whatever term I wanted. It came up in the group because I was far from the only person weirded out by that.

And it was a great workshop and the facilitators are beautiful people, I don’t want to take away from that.

I’m really gung-ho about the term “cisgender,” but I’ll admit that I’ve been mentally defining it as “not transgender.” Having a word for not being transgender that isn’t stigmatizing to trans people is a great idea.

But now I see the definition changing – or maybe I just never really thought about it enough. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” What does “correspond” really mean? What level of comfort is required to say that my gender identity “corresponds” with the sex I was assigned at birth? Or maybe it’s the implication that everyone has a stable, definable gender identity that makes this definition seem off?

Another person (don’t know the original source) defines cisgender as people who have “a gender identity or perform a gender role society considers appropriate for one’s sex.” Well, that’s definitely not gay men, since a major part of the “gender role society considers appropriate” for men is loving and being attracted to women.

If you haven’t noticed at this point, I’m friends with a lot of old gay hippies, and I’ve had to explain the concept of being non-binary a few times. Two times a person who I had always thought of as gay men responded with something like “Oh, that sounds like me! I never felt like either a man or a woman.”

Who am I to tell them what they are? I asked one of them which pronouns she prefers, and he said they didn’t care.

Here’s a passage I found from a queer feminist writer in her definition of “cisgender“:

According to some people, however, cisgender is a problematic, perhaps even self-defeating, term because it can be interpreted as suggesting that those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, for example, but not as transgender, experience no mismatch between their own gender identity and gender expression and cultural expectations regarding gender identity and expression.

Unfortunately, that’s all she says about that.

Dividing sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression into three separate categories is a system of thought, theory applied to observed reality. There is no “truth” or “falsehood” to saying “sexual orientation and gender identity are separate” in the way that saying “the car is blue” would either be true or false. The former is a conclusion someone can come to based on lots of subjective factors; the latter is objective reality.

Noting that it’s theory and not a direct observation doesn’t deny that it can be useful (why would we think up theory if it wasn’t useful?). And having this theory handy gives some people the language necessary to express their desires, which makes them feel better.

But there are always downsides to applying a defined model to an amorphous and chaotic reality: 1) the model will always simplify a complicated situation, making some things stand out while hiding other things, and 2) the system of thought is a product of the culture that produced it and so not everyone is going to accept it.

Big Freedia, Liberace, David Bowie, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson could all have their gender identities described as “cisgender man.” I need more nuance in my life than that.

None of this is meant to imply that the term “cisgender” is useless. Since many people unfamiliar with this subject think that being transgender is a sexual orientation, then it’s a good thing that there’s a simple way to explain that no, it’s not.

What I’m getting at is that people had it backwards before: transgender isn’t a sexual orientation, but gay is a form of gender diversity.

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