Sisterhood, Not Cisterhood

I wanted to write an angry polemic about refuting people who are bigoted against trans people, who argued that those of us in the community shouldn’t have the right to access the bathroom that matches our gender or remain safe in gendered spaces. I even wrote up a draft about how these bigots misuse studies and have poor, inconsistent internal logic.

Then I realized: I’m never going to convince the bigots. My own humanity isn’t something I should have to make an argument for. It’s nonsense to think, likewise, that I’m going to convince anyone who is hell-bent on being anti-trans to reconsider their position, whether I approached it kindly or angrily. But what I can do is help the cisgender reader to recognize some built-in deep-seated bigotry in our culture and work it out. 

First: Question Yourself

Photo by Sarah Whiting

The first thing cisgender people tend to do when they encounter trans or non-binary people is try to work out how we could possibly arrive at our identities. The idea that “thinking about gender” is somehow confusing or strange is a very cis-centric way to look at the concept of gender identity. Many of us didn’t just wake up one day and consciously decide that we were trans or non-binary. Quite often, we knew something was “off” but didn’t have the language or concepts to explain it. I had to do so much reading before I came out about my identity. I wanted first and foremost to be an expert on myself and what my gender meant to me. Cis people in general haven’t had to do that kind of thinking. Many of them have not gone through a process of trying to find the right words and then eventually landing on “cis.” “Trans,” to many cis-identified people, has always been cast as the other, the abnormal, the different one.

I humbly request that cis people attempt to do the same work trans and non-binary people have done in thinking about themselves. Not just a feelings check but a real, deep inquiry. Take some time to write down what describes you, both gendered and ungendered. Ask yourself: Why do I believe I am a man? What makes me say I am a woman? Interrogate beyond the biology: Would I still feel like I am a woman if I lost my uterus? Would I still identify as a man if I got testicular cancer? What parts of myself do I see as vital to my gender? Question who you are, what made you cisgender, and attempt to put yourself, mentally, into a body that reads differently from your current one.

Second: Respect the Labels

During the pandemic of 2020, I spent most of my time in my 400-square-foot apartment. By June, I’d ordered a scanner and set up my book library on LibraryThing, a library cataloging system for my collection of books. My library numbers about 300 books, and they’re organized on my shelf by genre and then by author within that genre. But doing that work also meant that I had a few books that fit into multiple categories or didn’t quite fit in any of the existing categories. 

Every so often, I’ll study my bookshelf, look at the titles, and move around the books depending on whether or not my thinking on its genre placement is different that day. Sometimes the labels imposed upon a thing don’t make a whole lot of sense for those familiar with the thing itself — for example, my first two books frequently appear in two different parts of the bookstore, depending on who is stocking them, despite them both being broadly under the genre of women’s studies.

So I’m not surprised that cis people who have never really had to deal with minority genders are confused by a seemingly infinite proliferation of gender identities and labels when it feels like there should be just a few that each person fits into. Surely we don’t need all these options? Surely there are just a few people that can fit into them?

Not really, no. Asking someone to fit themselves into a certain specific label that’s only kinda sort of right will always not be quite right. People will find what works to describe themselves.

Understand that from the get-go, and any new label will strike you not as odd and confusing but as, “Oh, that’s a new one I’ve not heard of. Can you tell me more?” That’s it. That’s all it takes: basic respect that means you want to understand, not judge.

Third: Don’t Make Us Manage Your Feelings

Back when I thought I was cisgender, I struggled with pronouns if someone announced a change and I’d been accustomed to using a specific one. After mixing it up for a while, I also realized that it was unhelpful for me to keep apologizing every time I did, typically because my apologies drew attention to the fact that I’d made an error. I was forcing trans people to bear my feelings about my mistakes, begging for forgiveness each time. But the reason it kept happening was because I simply wasn’t taking the time to practice with myself. I still thought of the person as their assigned gender because I hadn’t mentally flipped over to their new name. And I was something of a jerk in not doing that.

We in the gender-expansive community don’t need to be your feelings manager or your pronoun police. When you misgender us, we can usually tell if you were doing it deliberately or as a mistake. All we ask in that moment is for you to correct yourself and move on. Don’t grovel or apologize or talk about how terrible you feel. Don’t make us manage your emotions about your inability to remember our pronouns. Correct yourself, move on, and then when you are not around us, practice. Go home and say to yourself, “This is my friend Dianna. They use ‘they/them’ pronouns. They take the bus. They shop at Target, and they like dark roast coffee.” Practice saying normal sentences describing your friends with their new pronouns, and your brain will start moving them over into the new category.

Fourth: Don’t Be So Serious

One of my favorite Twitter accounts nowadays is the Gender of the Day. It’s a bot account that randomly tweets, “Today’s gender is . . . ” followed by a random collection of things. “Today’s gender is a flamboyance of fearsome narwhals,” reads one. “Today’s gender is a shimmering caribou,” reads another. This delights me because it’s often absurd and serves to highlight — at least for me — the nonsense that is gendered experience. It’s a fun little laugh in the midst of a timeline that’s usually yelling about the latest political event or disaster. 

And the more I’ve talked with and become a part of the trans community, I’ve realized just how deeply important humor is to our existence.

For trans and non-binary people, just living through every day is sometimes a rough prospect. We face misgendering, potential violence, and fear in going out in the world as our authentic selves. So a lot of us have learned to make jokes about our lives to lighten ourselves up and laugh. Sometimes these jokes get very dark — gallows humor is part and parcel of the trans experience. Other times, these jokes are about cisgender people and “gender reveals.” Lots of times, the jokes are lamp-shading the concept of non-binary, pretending to be confused by our own genders (let’s face it, sometimes it is confusing!).

Fifth: Ask Questions (Just Not Those)

One benefit that the increased visibility of trans people has had on our culture is that we now have an etiquette available to us for when a friend comes out. We know — from embarrassing incidents with Katie Couric and Laverne Cox — that asking about surgeries and genitals is a no-go. We know there’s no reason to ask for a person’s dead name. The AP has style guides for talking about us in professional journalism, for goodness’ sake. We’ve made it!

But sometimes cis people read this as “you can’t ask any questions.” Like any interpersonal relationship, that’s a pretty unreasonable standard. Coming out is a big change, and it’s natural to have questions. If you’re close enough to a person, you can usually feel out if a question is okay. One of my friends texted me to ask what his kids should call me as I’ve been acting as a proto-aunt to them for years. We talked it through and decided on Entle. My sister-in-law texted me about whether or not this new identity means I’m trans. I explained to her that sometimes it means “transition”; sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know that I want to take testosterone. I do know I might want top surgery at some point. Does that make me trans? I don’t know right now, and that’s okay.

This is, of course, not a definitive list, because the queer community is not a monolith. It is a general guide for how to be better people around us. My last bit of advice would be to make sure we don’t have to always fight our own battles. This can be done in person or online. It takes a lot for us to simply survive, and having someone who is willing to stand by our side and either help us fight our own battles or fight them for us is a big boon to getting through the day.

Your choices can make the world better for our community; your complacency can make it worse. We aren’t going anywhere, but sometimes we’re just tired of having to be our own advocates all the time. You must stand in for us when we cannot stand for ourselves, hold the line when we are failing, and be willing to take on just a small bit of the risk we take in living our authentic selves every day. Love only wins if we fight for it. 

Reprinted with permission from “In Transit: Being Non-Binary in a World of Dichotomies,” by Dianna Anderson copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books. 

Dianna E. Anderson (they/them) is a nonbinary writer with a master’s degree in English from Baylor University and a master of studies in women’s studies from the University of Oxford in the U.K. Their work focuses on the intersections of gender, history, religion, and theory, and they have been published in Rolling Stone, Cosmo, Bitch Magazine, Dame, and many others. They live in Minneapolis.