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We don’t “look cis”, you cis-look at us!

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

By Michel (@blu.issima)


 

Content note: vague talk of gender-based violence, transness, transphobia and trauma


 

This article, structured like a reflection, comes from personal experience as a white queer and non-binary person. One day I was talking with a friend about the fact that a person in our social circle keeps misgendering me by not using my pronouns and name, and he replied that he sees me for what I am, but that I actually “look cis”. We then talked and he realized what is deeply wrong with saying this, but I felt like it was something worth talking about. When it comes to marginalized groups, I believe lived experience is the key to understand the mechanisms of social identity production and systemic/institutional oppression as well. I study and read Gender Studies and Queer Theory, and that is why you will see some references, but you won’t find the rigour of a scientific dissertation.


 



If you are a trans* person, especially if you are non-binary, there’s a good chance someone once told you that the reason people don’t use your pronouns or your name is that “you look cis” – meaning that you look too much alike your gender assigned at birth to be perceived as what you actually are. If you have breast, how can you expect people not to call you a she/her? If you don’t, how can you be perceived as the fairy princess you are? The sentence might come not only from a stranger or a transphobic person in your social circle, but from a friend too – usually from a cis friend, but we know gatekeeping is something our community struggles with too. Some people say it because they want to offend or humiliate you, others say it to explain to you why “they get you but others don’t” – as if we weren’t aware of the binary sexist genitalia-centred society we are raised and live in. The truth is that queer and marginalized people know way better than the integrated ones how the mechanism that sustain one specific social, economic and institutional status quo works.


Quoting bell hooks, the margin is a space of radical openness precisely because it represents a precious point of view on a large picture that isn’t always clear to the ones that are aligned with the normative idea of the subject (that in our western culture is cisgender, white, heterosexual, monogamous, neurotypical, not poor and able-bodied). This means that to better comprehend the meanings given to specific bodies and body parts, we must take on the perspective of the ones who are more subjected to – and suffer the most from – the established historical meanings that structure our lives and our interactions with each other. This is why listening to queer people is essential to really understand more about gender, sexuality, identity, relationships and also the power of control that the state and the government use on bodies. The reason why we as a society are used to misgender people and struggle to see people for what they are is not because gender non-conforming people “look cis”, in fact there’s nothing like “looking cis”. The term you’re looking for in this case is cis-gaze: the centre of this issue is not our appearance, it’s you looking at us with a cis lens! Just like in the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense, "you see cis people" everywhere, erasing every other existence and identification.


Mutual recognition and life in society are things that happen in a weave of meanings that pre-exists the individual. We can consider these meanings as the result of the action of culture upon a politically neutral surface” – to quote Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. There is no such thing as a natural femininity or a biological masculinity inherent in our bodies preceding gender identity: what “comes first” is a corporeality at our disposal based on a range of possibilities (i.e., what our body can or cannot do). We then assign different meanings to this corporeality, designating different fates to different bodies, limiting the spectrum of possibilities and discursively constructing a specific bodily structure as naturally female or male – therefore determining what a body can or cannot be/represent. Even though a body can possibly give birth or have an erection, the semantics of these possibilities/potentialities are shaped in a cultural context with its power relations. In short, we decided that giving birth makes you a woman and have an erection makes you a man.


What queer theory highlights is that the dichotomy nature-culture is misleading: these two factors are braided in intricate ways and the determination of what is natural is always a discursive and cultural act. The problem is that this meaning-assignment is hidden under the name of “nature”: cultural perspectives are naturalized and used as the basis of categorizations and hierarchies. In this way, a «“sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture» (Butler, Gender Trouble) – a mechanism that has a lot in common with racialization. The appearance of genitalia, chest and hips is one of the ways in which the western societies divide humanity in two, in this case two sexes seamless different and “naturally” opposite. Why do we consider these characteristics and not other variables to organize our societies? And what about the people who have a vagina but for different reasons cannot give birth? What about people with penises who have large hips or people with uterus who have a flat chest? Intersex experiences are the clearest examples of the fallacy of the constructed, not-natural and not-original sexual binary, but we can think of infinite possible embodiments that are non-conforming with all the fixed traits of the two sexes.


Even though each body is a proof of how partial and erroneous strict categorizations and polarizations can be (and can also tremendously suffer because of them), of course intersex people systemically face medical abuses[1] or bad treatments and institutional invalidations only because of their bodies. This systemic violence takes place because intersex and trans* bodies, by simply existing, bother normative categories exposing their arbitrariness. Respecting and letting these nonconforming lives free would mean to question the racist and heterosexist order that structures our western societies[2]. Therefore, these subjectivities are pathologized and treated as disorders or mistakes that need to be fixed, so that a trajectory deviation from the determined norm can still reinforce it. As Elisa Virgili writes, if the anatomical sex indicates the gender, and by consequence specific social roles, it is then clear why the overlap and the indistinction of the sexes can create problems[3]. There is no inherent pre-cultural “truth” hidden and deeply rooted in the body: the construction of a “nature” (a sexual biological strict binary) is functional to give a solid basis to relations of power and gender roles/hierarchies. If sex is univocal, always defined and delimited through certain details, its consequences are coherent identities. Binary categorizations come from the dualism nature-nurture that, seeing these two factors as an opposition where one excludes the other, is misleading and devalues trans* experiences, by choosing whose life is valid, who is enough “cis-passing” or “trans enough” to be legitimized and accepted. If you are a trans woman or a trans man, you need to “look like” a normative woman/man looks like, if you are a non-binary person you need to prove you are trans enough in order not to be considered as your assigned gender at birth – and all these proofs of credibility are searched for by looking at your body. But once we break down the category of the biological sex, once we understand that body parts do not have an inherent meaning but only functionalities and possibilities to which meanings are assigned, what sense does it make to tell someone that they “look cis”?


We come into the world through a body with a history that precedes us, that is why we should understand that there’s not a cis or trans appearance but only a history of construction of bodily meanings. What we call “cis passing” or “cis looking” is actually cis gaze and cisnormativity. The first concept comes from the one of male gaze, formulated for the first time by the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975[4]: briefly, it consists in the gaze of seeing women and female subjectivities from a male perspective. The concept was born to talk about media representation, but it is a useful concept to describe how men look at women and how women look both at themselves and at other women: therefore, what men expect from women, how they decide to act not to disappoint men’s expectations and how they judge other women based on that. Similarly, the cis gaze indicates the way trans experiences are viewed and represented by cis people; it consists in a standard that trans people must respect in order to be recognized. Similarly to how the «male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure» (Mulvey 1975), the cis gaze projects its ideas of man and woman onto trans* subjectivities. This leads to the fact that trans* experiences and expressions are constructed and described as artificial compared to cisgender ones. As Nissa Mitchell writes, the result is «the idea that a cis person’s body and gender exists without question, whereas a trans person’s body and gender exists to be scrutinized, laughed at, or pitied»[5]. This causes not only a hierarchy of legitimacy between trans* and cisgender existences, but also a pyramid of validation within the trans* community.


Cis gaze is the look – acted and internalized – that push people to conform to cisnormative standards. Cisnormativity, which follows the concepts of heteronormativity and compulsory heterosexuality expressed by Adrienne Rich[6] and Gayle Rubin[7], is the belief system that assumes the human norm is cisgender. A big consequence of this is that trans* experiences, identities and bodies are placed in a hierarchy based on physical appearance, following a medicalized model («You didn’t get the surgery?! Why??»). If you’re a trans* person you have to “pass” as cis in order to prove your credibility (which you will instantly lose once they understand you’re not cis and “unveil your secret”!), and if you’re not interested in passing or you’re a non binary person who doesn’t identify either as a boy or a girl, you are not trans enough to be taken seriously – not even legally. This way, social and legal recognition function as a test to measure if you can convince the cisnormative gaze, that is the judgmental voice or gaze that causes social dysphoria.


So, next time remember that when you’re saying to a trans* or non-binary person that they “look cis” referring to the gender they were assigned at birth, you are not only erasing their identity but also affirming your arbitrary normative look/vision as the standard of human mutual recognition and validation. A little bit pretentious, isn’t it?!



 

By Michel (@blu.issima)


[1] To deepen this topic you can read: D. Crocetti, E. A. Arfini, S. Monro, and T. Yeadon‐Lee, ‘You’re basically calling doctors torturers’: stakeholder framing issues around naming intersex rights claims as human rights abuses, «Sociology of Health & Illness», 42(4), (2020), pp.943-958. [2] As Maria Lugones writes, in many colonized places and societies, before the western and european invasion, intersex people were recognized in different societies without being assimilated to the sex binarism. (M. Lugones, The Coloniality of Gender, «Worlds & Knowledges Otherwise (WKO)» Vol. 2 Dossier 2 (2008). [3] E. Virgili, Ermafroditi, Mimesis Edizioni, Milano – Udine, 2013. [4] L. Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975. [5] N. Mitchell, The Cis Gaze. How Trans People Are Viewed Through Cis Expectations (2017), on TransSubstantiation blog: https://transsubstantiation.com/the-cis-gaze-6c151f9374ca. [6] A. Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, 1980. [7] G. Rubin, The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, 1975.

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