A recent conversation with a dear friend of mine elucidated a thought pattern I had long found myself trying to articulate. On the topic of gender as a social mechanism with several constituent parts, it was posited in this conversation that each of these parts was wrought by and displayed through an accompanying arena of relevance. The specific idea that emerged, prominent, from thinking through gender as an axis of social purpose is the observable dichotomy that regards gender as a structure that is constructed both publicly and privately; this generally happens through a simultaneous negotiation of what feels authentic to someone’s self-image and what feels legible enough to dictate, to others, how that person may like to be seen or regarded. Put simply (at the risk of sounding reductive), gender typically refers through an internal paradigm qua lens that frames incoming treatment from the world and colours outgoing requirements and preferences dictating how a gendered subject would feel at home existing in that very world. Through this schema, it could be said that “gender” refers to the internal site where one forms, concretises and espouses these convictions about one’s self and “identity” encompasses the labels, explanations and markers a person uses to signal, societally, their internal inclinations or the lack thereof. What this means, essentially, is that gender belongs to the self through privileging creation and identity belongs to the wider society through privileging requirements.
Requirements and creation, though, under colonial cisheterosexist bioessentialism, are often conflated by the coercive process of assigning “gender” at birth. It is within the superstructure of this normalised coercion and with the goal of disentangling the unnecessary enmeshment of gender as creation and identity as requirement that transgender people undergo the social and/or medical process(es) of transition. For transgender people living as their authentic selves, the priority is creation: gender euphoria looks like uncovering the facets of presentation that empowers one to realise their destiny and fulfill it by being the person they were intended to be. However, due to the inescapable overarching metrics by which violence and conformity are measured within today’s society, the goals of gender as creation are often beholden to how well one decides (or is even able) to perform in accordance with these institutional metrics. Cisheterosexism rewards those who conflate creation and requirements and punishes those who see the entanglement of the two for the violent farce that it is. For example, transgender women who would be considered “gender non-conforming” (i.e. butch or otherwise, masculine of centre) are regarded as putting insufficient effort into their performance of the requirements expected of people identifying as women. Ironically, transgender women for whom the creation of a euphoric experience of gender includes “conventional” portrayals of femininity are seen to be somehow mocking or demeaning the experience of femininity through privileging their creation. If this seems contradictory or difficult to do “properly”, it’s important to remember that both these subsets of people are committing the same ostensible transgression: they are asserting an internal gender, one of their own creation, in a society that believes that identity is constructed through meeting a series of requirements and moreover, both their gendered assertions disagree with and, subsequently, discard any sort of alignment with requirements.
What becomes evident through this line of thought is that optimality under this oppressively systematic approach to gender in society is understood through congruence; i.e., the creation of someone’s gender is only seen as valid or permissible if that creation is dependent on and privileges the hegemonic requirements of a given gender: this encompasses primary and secondary sex characteristics as well as roles assumed to be natural in social and intimate spaces. Ideally, what should become evident here is the way that the label cisgender simply connotes gender experiences bearing the required congruence. Thus, the title of this article is brought to the fore. Make no mistake of malicious intent; an inquiry into the motivations of cisgender performance is an inquiry into the presence or absence of lucidity and intention as factors in gendered creation. Or, put another way: outside of the requirements of congruence, what constructs internal gender for people who identify as cisgender? On its face, this question seems redundant at best or pointless at worst. However, the intended respondents are cisgender people who are otherwise queer in their identity as well as their actions. Transgender people, whether their transition is social, medical or both, all experience a certain kind of distance between their gendered creation and their gendered/ing requirements. The extent of this distance, however, makes very little difference regarding the intensities of gender dysphoria. The pursuit of gender euphoria might look like completely dismantling the requirements in place for avoiding violence; however, creating a gender that feels euphoric can also look like the choosing and recontextualizing of certain requirements that were assigned at birth. This understanding of gender transition as a study of self and a courting of existential fulfilment serves as an excellent point of departure from which to approach the question central to this article.
A useful paradigm of transness, established above, is one that illustrates transition as the process of untangling the subjects of gender and identity. Therefore, the position implied through this avenue of understanding is the expectation of an equivalent process similarly inherent to cisness. For example, there are many experiences of gender (creation) that are collapsed under a single, often hegemonic, identity (requirements); this can be seen through the societal construction of womanhood. Cisheterosexism dictates that requirements of womanhood do not stop at gender assignment at or before birth through noting “female” characteristics but also come to include social performances of passivity, thinness and a selfhood characterised by being in service to the patriarchy. For women that were coercively assigned “male” at birth, the requirement of congruence is denied to them through this coercive vehicle of dictated identity. In an absence of ways to “correct” their birth assignment, many transgender women seek to align with the requirements of womanhood by societal means. However, the womanhood that is theirs through creation is still routinely gatekept from them through cissexism and transphobia, both of which are punitive mechanisms enacted upon any kind of person who rejects the allegedly necessary requirements inherent to hegemonic gender. Holding this in mind, it begs the question, how do women that are assigned such at birth, create gender while insufficiently meeting requirements? Said differently, how do cisgender women that decide to flout societal requirements privilege gender creation while always-already meeting “biological” requirements? There are several ways this can happen: perhaps the most prominent is the product of a cisgender woman who contents herself with being a footsoldier of the patriarchy; these women regard themselves as “traditional” or “good” women and what they mean by this is that all of their gender-creative effort (a force which we all have, cisgender or transgender) goes into aligning and sustaining the congruence of their self-image and their hegemonic requirements, societal and otherwise. Another way cisgender women create gender is through using their gender-constructive force to cobble together a patchwork quilt of roles that may or may not be congruent with their already-fulfilled “biological” requirement: these include butches, studs and other cisgender women that consider themselves to be masculine of centre, it can also include genderfluid or multigendered people who were coercively assigned “female” at birth and still retain womanhood as a facet of their identity. What becomes clear through the parallel evaluation of both of the above experiences is that the wilful construction of gender for the purposes of an authentic and euphoric presence in the world requires the deprioritising of various sorts of requirements for gender identification. Moreover, the assumption of a “natural” or inherent congruence between creation and requirement betrays a lack of thought at best, and a deliberate alignment with violent hegemony at worst.
Ultimately, what this article’s title is requesting of cisgender people is a consideration about gender as a process of self-creation. Coloniality of gender (cisheterosexism) demonstrates and enforces hegemony through invisibilising the process of gender creation as it occurs for cisgender people and subsequently, pretending as though the ensuing congruence is somehow more believable or correct by nature of not having gone through a process of negotiation (like in the case of transgender people), the latter to which they ascribe a sense of artifice or contrivance to whatever resulting product emerges from that negotiation. However, the most restrictive requirement of gender identity is that same congruence, which is denied to everybody (cisgender and transgender) that does not commit to upholding patriarchy which is always the goal of colonially-posited gender identities.
To construct gender justice and to support gender self-determination for their transgender siblings, cisgender queer people need to do their own negotiations. Regardless of whatever requirements they do or don’t meet, cisgender and transgender people alike have a responsibility to those people incurring punishment in the form of gender-based violence (yes, which includes transphobia) to proclaim and affirm that the negotiation that goes into transgressive gender creation, in order to arrive at an authentic identity, is a journey we all go on, and ought to if we haven’t.