Cis world, trans world: interactional gaps (Gender Analysis 13)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. Social interactions between trans people and cis people are often fraught with misunderstandings, miscommunications, and confusion on both sides. Even assuming good intentions all around, it’s so easy for us to step on each other’s toes. Why are trans people so sensitive? Why are cis people so insensitive?

Remarks that might seem innocuous aren’t always perceived as such, and a major factor behind this difference in perspectives is the relative size of the populations involved. According to recent estimates, 3 out of every 1,000 people in the United States are trans. While there are millions of us around the world, a given trans person will encounter cis people much more frequently than a given cis person will encounter us. As a result, certain events that appear rare to the average cis person are extremely common for the average trans person.


Experiences of misgendering

Being addressed as the wrong gender is a widespread issue faced by trans people. It’s never a pleasant experience to be called “he” and “sir” when you’re a woman. Well-meaning cis people might consider this to be an innocent mistake, and for them, maybe it is. But it’s also not something they often have to think about.

A given cis person might accidentally, even unknowingly, misgender a trans person a few times a year, and otherwise, it’s probably the last thing on their mind. Those trans people, on the other hand, might face being addressed as the wrong gender multiple times every day. In spite of this, we’re often confronted with the opinion that we make an unnecessarily big deal out of proper pronoun usage.

Due to this difference in contact, it’s entirely possible for every cis person to believe this is a rare problem – that actually is their experience. In our experience, however, this is a constant challenge. It’s easy to think this isn’t worth protesting if you aren’t being subjected to it over and over.


Compliments and novelty

Comments that cis people consider to be supportive can often be rather baffling to us. Being told that we’re “brave” or “courageous” just because we’re trans is certainly a positive sentiment, but that’s not necessarily how we see ourselves.

For a particular cis person who’s just now finding out that the person in front of them is trans, that’s a new thing. Maybe their only reference point is what they imagine our lives are like based on what they’ve picked up from popular media. And on the whole, trans people are faced with plenty of difficulties and obstacles in the course of just being ourselves. It’s nice when others recognize that.

But at the same time, this isn’t really new to us. I’ve been consciously living as a woman for the past 1,200 days or so, and after that long, the struggles involved with being trans are pretty much par for the course. It’s not all that interesting anymore – this is just my life. It’s what I do, and I’m used to it. Being told I’m brave is definitely one of the better reactions I’ve gotten, but most of the time, it doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything especially courageous.


Notable bodies

Sometimes, remarks that are thought to be helpful are actually more like backhanded compliments. I’ve seen cis people defend us on the basis that our genders must be really important if we’re willing to go through all these “horrendous” operations. I’ve seen them explain why trans women deserve respect even if our voices sound “weird” or “like a man”.

These cis people are clearly trying to stick up for us, so it might seem like we’re overreacting when we’re exasperated at being talked about like this. The difference is that, for us, these aspects of life are normal. Procedures that might seem viscerally shocking to a cis person are something that many of us see in a very positive light. Did Ariel think it would be “horrendous” to walk on two feet after dreaming about it for all her life? When one of us has surgery, we’re certainly not aghast at this – we celebrate it as a transformative event.

Unlike cis people, we tend to be in contact with other trans people very regularly. No matter how far apart we are, we find each other. And when we do, most of our time isn’t spent thinking about “weird” we are. Our voices and bodies are normal to us. Our appearances, our anatomies, and our medical histories are all normal. And however well-intentioned it may be, it’s obnoxious when others remind us that they see us as anything less.


Popular depictions

Given that about 997 out of every 1,000 people are cis, most media is tailored for that audience. Even when produced by trans people and featuring trans actors in trans roles, any depictions of trans-related issues are made easily digestible for cis people. Typically, trans characters are put through various ordeals, bravely facing adversity and teaching everyone an important lesson about why transphobia is bad.

This may be a helpful learning experience for cis people, but it’s also abundantly obvious that this is not for us. We don’t have to watch TV to see trans people being violently attacked, harassed in a public restroom or denied treatment from medical providers. It’s something many of us have personally experienced, sometimes with surprising frequency. While everyone’s waiting for the next season of Transparent, my Facebook is full of post after post from friends who are struggling just to live their lives. For us, these depictions are simply redundant and often uninteresting. The first time I hear about a trans-related show is usually when a cis person asks me if I’ve seen it.


Trans experiences in context

The existence and experiences of trans people are still very new to some cis people. Many might be fascinated to learn about this for the first time. But as this slowly moves forward on a societal scale, it’s important to remember that a cis person’s first time is often the thousandth time we’ve been faced with well-meaning compliments and innocent mistakes. Being the embodiment of a learning experience for 99.7% of the population can be exhausting.

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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One Response to Cis world, trans world: interactional gaps (Gender Analysis 13)

  1. That Guy says:

    Thanks for another post Zinnia- on the topic of trans TV shows- I’ve found d that (fiction) seems to broadly fall into two categories- 1) a show with a trans person that attempts to be be respectful- see transparent- also a uk show called ‘boy meets girl’ notable for featuring a trans actress in a trans role. Despite this- they’re like you said laboured and patronising. BiG I saw one episode of- and seemed to consist of a patient trans girlfriend explaining to her bumbling cos boyfriend gender reassignment surgery.

    The other- seems to be introduction of trans elements to make everything more ‘exotic’. Moving target- featuring a trans assassin played by a cis actress with a prosthetic penis for the full frontal nude scenes (of course) is the first example I can think of.

    Honestly- I’m not sure how likely this is to change in the future. Given the proportionally small trans population- coupled with the existing socioeconomic problems caused by discrimination says to me that media will continue to treat trans people as either a novelty or something to be ‘saviored’.

    I suppose the silver lining is the democratization of the internet- TV and published literature are no longer the only means through which people can learn about marginalized peoples.

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