There are people out there who have a problem with “labels.” I’ve dealt with them on several occasions, to point out that some identities cannot so easily be set aside and to point out that, a lot of the time, their pretense of being unlabeled is a front for something altogether more horrid. There’s something else in the conversation about labels, though, something that intersects with the idea of self-identification and the idea of normalcy to show us why some words are vitally important even when no one chooses them for their own.
I bear many labels. I am not “just a person.” I am a Hispanic, American, transfeminine, female, atheist, ex-Catholic, D&D-player, aquarist, student, feminist, skeptic, progressive, and lots of other things, on top of being a member of Homo sapiens. Every one of these things that give me experiences I share with some people and not with others. Having a noun for each of these affiliations eases the task of finding those who have similar histories, values, and interests, replacing a cumbersome tangle of “I do these things” and “I know that feeling” multiplied dozens of times. This is a natural evolution of language, at least in English, by which the Californian descendants of migrants from Oklahoma became “Okies,” aficionados of Doctor Who became “Whovians,” and those who buy binoculars and cameras to witness the behavior of wild dinosaurs became “birders.” Other connections and similarities build around these terms and the groupings they represent, and they become identities.
This, I have learned, certain incredibly privileged people face with consternation. They see this array of defined difference and segmented identity and see in it the seeds of future conflict. Why do we need to be all of these other things, have all of these other affiliations, recognize ourselves as things other than “just people”? Aren’t all these labels “divisive,” separating us from our fellow humans with a line between “us” the Hispanics, birders, otakus, sapeurs, Qizilbashi, lesbians, and liberals and “them” the white people, herpers, film geeks, goths, Uzbeks, straight women, and socialists? Doesn’t recognizing oneself as distinct in this way automatically separate oneself from others and therefore prevent us from recognizing what we have in common with them, leading immediately to their demonization and dehumanization? Why can’t we all be “just people”?
These are the folks who think that QUILTBAGs disappearing back into our closets would “solve” our oppression. For if we can no longer be identified, how can we be targeted for violence and discrimination?
That is what this rhetoric is: an attempt at erasure. This rhetoric is pointed specifically at people who differ from a perceived norm, for daring to recognize and then not be ashamed of that difference. It is pointed even harder at people who notice that their membership in one of these minorities is related to hardships they face, because even noticing that pattern, let alone seeing it as something that ought to be addressed, requires recognizing some people as being different from others. The endgame of this line of thinking is to erase people’s experiences of difference and especially oppression by denying them the voice and language needed to express those experiences. It is not the majority who loses the ability to talk about itself when people with certain commonalities abandon the best linguistic tool for finding one another: it is the minorities.
When we are “all just people,” what we get is “we are all the majority.” To bury the breadth of humanity under “we are all just people” is to pretend that the loudest of us can speak for everyone—for, if we are all just people, why would it ever matter which one we ask about something?
This brings us to a labeling bogeyman that has gotten vastly outsized attention over the past forty years: “cis” and its derivatives.
“Cis” and words like it are curious labels, because they were not invented by the people to whom they apply, but as rhetorical aids for their marginalized opposites. This sets up a counter-argument for their use, in that using the labels people choose for themselves is a form of respect that is by default denied to people labeled “cis” from the outside. However, it is a mistake to face this appropriation of marginalized people’s arguments with equanimity. The power imbalance between marginalized people and the people who marginalize them mean that these harms are not equal, to the point that one set can hardly be called “harms” at all.
What is the alternative to words like “cis” and “neurotypical”? What these words’ objectors want is to have no specific category for themselves, and thus to be the implicit default from which miscellaneous deviations are splintered off and named. They wish for conversations about trans people to proceed from the premise that trans people are a weird deviation from “normalcy,” detached and separate from anything about humanity at large, easy to dismiss and easy to pathologize. They want a rhetorical environment where addressing “just people” can mean ignoring anything unique that trans people might want, need, or add, because addressing only “normal people” is natural and obvious but addressing only “cis people” is clearly exclusionary. This is the same result that happens when white people insist on being “normal” rather than “white”: the aggressive centering of powerful groups’ experience as though they should apply to and be identified with by everyone, and the exclusion from consideration of experiences that differ from those.
What these cissies resent about the word “cis,” effectively, is that us having this word means we aren’t granting them an exclusive claim on “normal” and thus ceding the entire public sphere to them.
This is an incredibly privileged stance to take. Believing that all labels are icky and the cause of unnecessary conflict is a stance that only makes sense for those who have not had to claw out their identity from a majority that does not share it. Our cis-centric society makes cis-ness such a default that it is trans people who have to figure out we’re trans, tell people that we’re trans, and navigate a maze of oppressions directed specifically at transness (and usually transfemininity). These same social forces mean that white people don’t have to think about what being white means if they don’t feel like it, straight people don’t have to think about what being straight means if they don’t feel like it, and so on, and the same white cis straight Christian etc majority will enable them to keep living as if their experiences are the universe’s default, “unlabeled,” and everyone else’s can be defined as various flavors of “not this.”
That’s the point: “cis” isn’t a word that people settle on to describe themselves because the very structure of our society sets up the people to whom that label applies to not have to think about whether it applies to them, so they usually don’t. Recognizing that one isn’t a nebulous “normal,” but cis, is all by itself an act of allyship with trans people. Accepting the label “cis” as an accurate description of oneself removes cis-ness from this array of attributes a person can have without acknowledging them, and thus elevates transness from a weird, isolated deviancy to part of a larger dialogue about and spectrum of gender identity. Two named categories is an enormously different pattern than “normal” and “not.”
In particular, “two categories,” done right, removes the pernicious, ubiquitous assumptions that whatever is outside of “normal” should be pitied for its strangeness, or needs to be remade into something that fits inside. It is here that the habit of the most aggressive enemies of transgender people of regarding “cis” as a slur makes the most sense. This word even existing is a stab at their ideology, because they need us to be abnormal, sick, weird, and beyond understanding. That is the first step on their quest toward rendering us into a concept that doesn’t exist at all, the same as the Catholic Church’s insistence that sexual orientation, and therefore the concept of “straightness,” is a fiction. TERFs and their ilk need the concept of cisness to go away because then they can declare all trans people as confused gay folks or deliberate interlopers in women’s spaces without us even having the language required to tell them they’re wrong.
Here is our reality: trans women have experiences we do not share with cis women, most obviously experiences navigating the resources that trans women need to realize our womanhood and experiences with having our gender identity denied for years. These experiences are valuable, and having a way to quickly and succinctly tell others we’ve had them—that is, a label—means we can find each other more easily. Those experiences also come with understanding, empathy, and a shared perspective that cis women generally do not have. Trans women are also subject to specific violence that does not target cis women, and recognizing ourselves as a distinct group is a necessary part of acknowledging that violence, characterizing it, and then fighting it. In point of fact, it used to be a clinical recommendation that trans women move far from where they lived prior to transition and never tell anyone about their past, to make their new lives as women “easier,” but what this actually did was prevent other trans women from believing that they weren’t alone, from learning from their fellows’ experiences with the medical system, or from gaining any kind of social acceptance that would come with trans women having popular exposure as such.
Labels are that powerful.
So, in the end, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the enemies of acceptance and justice would like us to abandon them. In their eyes, power is only for them, not for us.