50 Examples of Cisnormativity

April 3, 2015

Nearly twenty years ago, comedian Bryan Regan extracted as much humor as possible—and then, unfortunately, some more—out of getting a stranger’s gender wrong on the street. “Sorry, sir—ma’am—ma’amsir,” he stammered, perhaps reminding us of a “simpler” time when gender conformity was mandatory.

Today, we are not so naive. Gender and sexual identities are as numerous as the people that hold them, and at least the socially liberal environment of the college campus encourages, even requires, acceptance of the full spectrum of human behavior. We are closer than ever to the ideal of complete freedom of gender and sexual identity.

Yet, I will argue that the specter of those outdated social norms is just as strong as ever and now cleverly manipulates its opponents to fight against themselves. This is the force of normativity, zombified as “new” genders.

A recent event organized by the queer student association at my university aimed to educate the student body on transgender (and other gender-nonconforming) people and how to interact with them non-offensively. Like many similar programs, it began with an airing of genders: participants were encouraged to choose their gender identity from a long list of options, each of which were defined.

This approach to the topic is not at all unusual. An internet search for “gender identities” or even just “gender” will find numerous lists of different options. The acronym formerly “LGBT” gains new letters quarterly in a futile attempt to remain inclusive. About a year ago, Facebook expanded its list of genders to over 50 options; later it gave up entirely and provided a free-form text field.

In the case of Facebook, the expansion to some 50 options and the later expansion to infinite options were each lauded as major steps towards complete equality. To a curmudgeonly engineering student, it is hard not to draw parallels to the problem of digital sampling of an analogue world: no matter our resolution, there is some real situation that falls through the cracks. “Representation error,” this phenomenon is often called, and few things are as difficult to represent as gender.

Some of the “new genders” strike me as rather difficult. “FTM,” for example, an acronym of “Female to Male” as in a transgender person, has an uncomfortable relationship with the more conventional gender “male.” Is a person that is FTM somehow less male than someone who is male at birth? Assuming the answer that any progressive person would give, how, then, are FTM and male different? Should physicality really be a prerequisite for a gender identity?

Are people who select “genderfluid” the only people entitled to shift in their gendered behavior? How do pangender people differ from the genderqueer? Are non-binary individuals the inverse of their bigendered compatriots?

A fixed system of gender identities creates these questions and more. Genders, like people, are inherently complicated and will defy all attempts at normalization. It should become clear that naming and listing gender identities is a Sisyphean task. Much like the uncountability of the real numbers, any attempt to enumerate every gender identity can and will be foiled by just one person who feels differently.

The set of gender identities is at least larger than the set of words to describe them, and given the tendency of humans to behave inconsistently, attempts to define genders thoroughly will inevitably result in contradictions. This is true even amongst people who adopt the same label, which is perhaps the primary driver behind the excess of labels that are difficult to tell apart exactly.

This creates a fundamental practical problem with the scheme of new genders. For most people, gender is one of the key ways in which they identify themselves. Bryan Regan’s joke hints at this fact: misgendering is at least embarrassing to the transgressor, and is often taken as offensive to the subject. This has not become less true with time, a cursory review of discussions on gender identity reveal that misgendering is a major concern.

In this way the community is unintentionally setting itself up for failure. The number of discrete gender identities will only increase the rate of unintentional misgendering, and misgendering that is unintentional on the part of the speaker is often taken as intentional by the audience. Perhaps ignorance is no excuse, but non-ignorance is becoming more and more difficult.

I believe that the scope of the problem is far beyond just the impracticality of labeling new genders, though. I believe that the development of new genders is harmful to the long-term interests of the movement for acceptance of gender-nonconforming individuals.

The underlying problem is one that I call “implicit marginalization.” The very venture of enumerating gender identities is predicated on the notion that there is a finite set of “normal” possibilities. The concept of “erasure” is often discussed, as in “trans erasure:” when people refuse to acknowledge that transgender people even exist.

It seems like there is no erasure more profound than the inexistence of a word to describe your identity. Yet, this desire for a label is itself a product of the adoption of specific gender labels by society, not least of all the very movement that encourages free gender expression.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that gender appears to be a “long tail” problem—that is, there is a large number of very small minorities, down to single individuals that feel that their gender identity is inconsistent with others. As a result, attempting to label gender identities marginalizes a remaining minority, creating a de facto set of “normal” identities and relegating those who do not conform with them to a smaller but still very much real class of “wrong,” or erased, genders.

This effect is not new. Examples of the same consequences of labels are readily visible in the case of sexual orientation, where even now bisexuality is contested in popular culture. Mainstream acceptance of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” left little room for anything in between (or elsewhere), creating the popular belief that bisexual individuals are really just halfway-closeted—today’s bi man is tomorrow’s gay man. Add to this the ongoing issue of asexual erasure and debate over the meaning of sexual orientations in regards to gender-nonconforming people and you can see that labels do not create freedom.

There are greater costs to this phenomenon as well. I recently became aware of a Tumblr conversation on the fact that asexual and aromantic individuals can indeed be victims of unhealthy relationships—even if this might initially sound counterintuitive. Here we see another group of people victimized by the label they have chosen, cut off from support that their category is not expected to need.

There is, to some degree, an attempt to counteract this problem from within the groups creating new gender identities. Many of the new genders, such as “genderqueer,” are broad in scope and intended to be inclusive of all atypical gender identities. However, the mere existence of multiple of these “miscellaneous” identities indicates a failure of this goal as they fracture into defined subsets, creating once again a sense of the “outsider.”

Acceptance of a label—of a category—has negative implications as well as positive ones. Despite the best efforts of those advocating for freedom, acceptance of a label will be viewed as restricting. In this age of acceptance, restriction is not a good thing.

The basic problem is that the creation of new genders in order to accommodate the gender-nonconforming is an endorsement of the historic system of rigid, normalized gender identity, it is a rejection of the ideal of gender identity as a spectrum, and it is a tool that history uses to subjugate us today.

The assumption that each individual must hold a single gender and be conformant to a definition of that gender is itself the status quo, the evil against which we are fighting. The new genders are not a true innovation in gender identity, they are an admission to the expectations of our parent’s culture. 50 new genders are 50 examples of cisnormativity.

The correct direction for society is away from gender entirely, and not towards more genders. Implementing this is a difficult problem, although not one that is radically more difficult than the current solution of seeking mainstream acceptance for a significant number of new genders.

We should not teach anyone, let alone ourselves, that people in the real world can be expected to comply with one of a finite set of gender identities—even implicitly. This is wrong, and it is harmful. The only true lesson is that any given individual cannot be expected to comply with our concepts of gender, not even if those concepts are many and varied. This is true not just of gender, but also of sexuality and other complex aspects of identity. It is potentially harmful—dangerous to the cause—to teach people such a set of expectations.

There are practical challenges with this approach. Yes, parts of our language and culture (most notably pronouns) force the declaration of gender, but there is already a substantial movement within the gender-nonconforming community to resolve this problem, although it must be stressed that this should be resolved through genericization of pronouns (that is, gender neutral pronouns) and not through the creation of new pronouns.

It is sometimes useful to know the gender of an individual at a glance, as a physical description or as a partial indicator of romantic or sexual eligibility. Certainly labels are useful in this regard, although even now their utility is limited. It is acceptable to preserve gender names for this purpose, although it must be stressed that these names are general, and I suspect that the set of useful labels for these purposes is much smaller than the set of gender identities provided by, for example, Facebook: for most purposes it seems to be limited to male, female, and androgyne, as these are the only identities around which we currently have preconceived expectations (even these labels will likely become less useful in the future as divergence from norms becomes more common).

While we may retain labels for convenience, everyone must understand that these labels are items of convenience only and are not binding in any way. We should not teach more labels, rather, we should focus on unteaching the significance and reliability of the labels that have already been learned.

At the university awareness event, one of the options for gender identity was “ask me.” This was wielded by some as a conversation starter, and I suspect that it was a more profound one than they realized.

I believe that the long arc of culture bends away from gender and sexuality as key elements of individual identity. In the future, a person’s gender will be described with just as many details as necessary when it is necessary to do so. Gender will not be a one-line field in a social media profile, but something that might be described in a prose biography if the user wishes.

In general, gender will be remarkably unimportant.

This is a post-gender society, in which gender expression is dictated not by social norms but by personal choice. Much like the often discussed post-racial society, it is likely an unachievable goal, but this does not excuse failure to work towards it. We must think about our interactions with gender and reshape them with an eye towards the future, not with the quick-fixes of developing new identities to suit.

What this requires is not more, but radically fewer labels. And this problem is not limited to gender: I have already illustrated the same problem in sexual identity, and in many places where social expectations place a limited set of unjustifiable expectations and restrictions on individuals. We must destroy these limitations, not diversify them.

The goal is to free ourselves from the shackles of society, not to invent a few more to try on for size.