Op-ed: 'Freaking' Cis People

By Riki Wilchins

Originally published on Advocate.com April 12 2013 5:00 AM ET

One of the pleasures (and occasional pains) of writing a column online is reading the comments complete strangers leave. It wasn’t even in response to something I’d written, but rather to another commenter, that Rufus Rufushy Ulrik wrote the two-word imprecation I can’t get out of my mind: “Fucking cispeople.”

Only that. Nothing more.

To my ear, it’s even more effective than Danah Gaz’s “Die Cis-scum,” which has an over-the-top edge of goth hostility to it, a take-off on a Ross Meyer 1960s trash flick, “Faster, Cis-Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”

But “fucking cispeople” resonates with me in ways I’m still coming to grips with, right down to its note of plaintive resignation. No exclamation point, no caps. More of a sigh than an expletive. It crystallizes something I’ve been feeling for a long time but couldn’t put into words.

You see, I have struggled with my fair share of those twin demons of all despised minorities who have the misfortune to be nomadic, wandering in search of a cultural heritage and a geography of acceptance: shame and self-loathing.

There is, after all, no transgender section of any city. Even in New York City, I can find people like me, but unlike other minorities — Lubavitchers, African-Americans, gays, Italians — we have no place we can call our own, where we are the norm, where we see ourselves constantly reflected in eyes of others. So I wander through other people’s lands as Other. Even my presence within the LGB and sometimes T community is remains highly contested.

And before my status as trannie, there was transition. Practically the first thing my doctors did was make sure I really wanted to be a cisgender woman, because what other kind of woman could I want to be? I couldn’t very well tell them I wanted to be a transgender woman or a genderqueer one. Being a “true transsexual” was defined  by the very act of wanting not to be one.

When I was prompted to explain that I felt “like a woman, trapped in man’s body” (thanks, no, I’m just trapped in the wrong culture) I was explaining that my deepest identification — the one that had driven me to give up family and lover and jobs and, yes, body parts — was with those whom I was not: cisgender people.

Having established that I wanted to be a cisgender woman, my doctors then rushed to assure me that I could not be one.

For instance, I would have something called a “blind vagina” (which curiously did not move me to inquire if my new vagina would need a seeing-eye dog – perhaps a faithful black Lab).

I was to have other “shortcomings” cisgender-wise: I wouldn’t lactate, drop eggs, menstruate, get pregnant. They enumerated a veritable cis-copia of things I was supposed to desperately want yet could not have.

To be fair, I think they did this not to drive me from depression to suicidal depression (a journey for which I had already packed my bags and hardly needed their assistance) but rather to insulate themselves from my claims of malpractice when I was inevitably disappointed with hormonal and surgical outcomes that failed to liberate the inner, true cis-me.

And then, of course, there was, as always, passing.

Passing as a cisgender female — what else? — was the grand finale. To be truly successful, I should look like what I was not, a cisgender woman. Moreover, real success meant the audience (and trans people never lack for an audience, no?) observing my little gender performance never realizing that I was succeeding. If they became aware that I was succeeding, then I had just failed.

So I entered my transition with both an overwhelming desire to succeed — a yearning to be what I was not and could never be — and a growing suspicion laced with not a little resentment that the cosmology I had bought into had embedded me in a conundrum from which there was no escape and no possibility of redemptive self-esteem.

We end up in this contested space where we’re supposed to look up to and want to be cispeople, also accepting all the terrible things they think about us. Our bodies become the ground for cispeople to work out all their craziness and discomfort and fear around gender. They get to use their standards and appearance to define the bodies and identities to which we are allowed to aspire and then judge us on how well we do at approximating them.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: We’re also dependent on them for things like housing, jobs, and (often) partners. If they don’t like us, we don’t get a lease, or they don’t hire us, or they fire us, or we never get a date. Lovely system.

Which gets me back to “fucking cispeople.” I don’t hold it against cisgender people that I swallowed all this crap for a long time — hook, line, and sinker. Or that it’s taken me so long to purge my system of it, as if it were a particularly diffuse, slow-acting poison. After all, they were playing the game the way they were taught it, just as I was.

What I do hold against them and continue to find appalling is that all the insulting and soul-decaying things I believed about myself had cis-fingerprints all over them.

There are very nasty notions in the cultural ether about transgender people, and my friends, they do not originate with us. To put it bluntly, there is nothing positive in the cisgender world about trans people.

Not. One. Thing.

It’s as if the cosmology of cisgender society is toxic to trans people, like kryptonite to Superman.

Nor is it only the wing-nuts who think this way. How about that hipster, post-ironic, post-modern icon, South Park? The show has an endearing way of puncturing the great and mighty, so it can stick up for the weak and oppressed, like gay people, but not us. Liberal America laughed right along as it compared sex change surgery to being surgically altered to be a fish. That’s how ridiculous we are — changing a man into a woman? Might as well try to turn him into a fish! What could be funnier than watching a man waddle around on flippers because he felt like a fish trapped in a man’s body? Just think of all the transgender kids out there, getting the shit kicked out of them in school each day, who get to tune in at night and see this. Gosh, are we trannies funny, or what? And here I mean not only “funny ha-ha” but also “funny peculiar.”

And what about the transphobic reader comments that will inevitably materialize below this piece, if the past is any guide?

Like the commenter who kept referring to me as “that bitch,” as in, “that bitch ought to have her children taken away from her.” Or Bethany, who asked “Which part of Riki is female exactly? The inside-out penis?” (Original riposte, Bethany!)  Or Nick, who observed that I’m “delusional and can’t accept biological reality.” Or Anthony, who recommends that we all just “drop TB form LGBT and get back to the original” (rat on, bro.) Or Cathy, who calls me “this prick” and pines for a real lesbian who can counter my “woman-hating bullshit” (by this she means a “cisgender” woman, of course).

These are just a small sample from the posts that weren’t removed for being aggressively hostile, profane, or transphobic, and we’re talking about The Advocate, the leading magazine for the progressive LGBT community. I was thinking I might be preaching to the choir here, but a lot of it turns out to be the Moral Majority in drag.

Being part of cis society is very complicated, not to say borderline abusive. They don’t really get us. Even many of our friends.

Perhaps, when your mind is so strictly bordered by male and female with nothing in between, you simply can’t. You just don’t have a space in your head for “transgender and woman” or “transgender and man” or simply for “genderqueer.”

Sometimes it’s like having a mother you really wish would like you, but who instead constantly withholds acceptance and tells you you’re not enough and keeps pointing out your perceived shortcomings. Which is to say, sometimes it really, really sucks.

Well, I didn’t always get along with my mom all that much either, bless her heart. She didn’t get me either. Sometimes it’s just time to leave home. Alas, we all have a life sentence here in Cis World.

F*cking Cis World.