Notes from a non-cis woman

If cis means not-trans, then I am cis. I have been told repeatedly that cis is a label that belongs on me, and assured by those applying it that it’s not an insult – even while in many cases its use has clearly implied that, as a cis woman, I have certain privileges that preclude me from being listened to on certain issues. What are those privileges? Julia Serano defines the state of being cis as the condition of enjoying agreement between one’s physical sex and “subconscious sex”:

I suppose that when a person feels right in the sex they were born into, they are never forced to locate or question their subconscious sex, to differentiate it from their physical sex. In other words, their subconscious sex exists, but is hidden from view. They have a blind spot.

Julia Serano, Whipping Girl, p. 87

There is no substantial definition of the “subconscious sex” concept in Whipping Girl, and it’s one about which I’m dubious. The exemplary work of Cordelia Fine has made it clear that there are no definitive differences between male and female brains, and unless “subconscious sex” refers to a sense of proprioception configured to the genitals of the sex one isn’t, I struggle to see what it can be if not gender essentialism. (This is a criticism of Serano’s reasoning, not a rejection of trans people, obviously: people have the right to live as they are happy without constructing a biological or psychological narrative to convince me or anyone else that nature approves.)

But if I don’t acknowledge a “subconscious sex”, I do recognise the experience of feeling alienated from my gender. I have a clear and specific recollection of being about nine or ten, walking on my primary school playing field, wrestling with some unremembered slight or indignity, and thinking: “I don’t want to be a girl.” That thought never developed into the corollary which is often described in trans narratives – not wanting to be a girl did not become wanting to be a boy – but I felt the pinched and narrow nature of femininity encroaching on me, and I wanted to resist it.

Options for resistance were not many. Reading Owen Jones on gay men’s prejudices against camp reminded me of my own young fascination with camp, or more specifically with Kenneth Williams and the Carry On films. With the curious decisiveness of junior insight, I knew that Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques were not roles I could bear to live in; I knew that the gruff roguishness of a Sid James was off-limits; but the self-conscious phoniness of camp was a sort of femininity that I could do while holding off the trap of physical femaleness.

A lot of my early efforts at doing femininity were, basically, camp. I cleaved to the tacky and the preposterous, fake snakeskin trainers and PVC minis, lots of eyeliner and ridiculous high shiny wedges, Barbie dolls and Pierre et Gilles pictures ripped from magazines. Not all of the time but enough of the time to be notable, I felt like the only way to negotiate the rules of femininity imposed on me was to do so as a kind of travesty. That the thing being parodied was my own sex didn’t seem too high a price for the power of doing the parodying.

I didn’t have a blind spot about gender. I had a sore spot. The body that I was developing horrified and distressed me. I worried about my tits and pubes failing to arrive promptly, then I worried about the exposing conspicuousness of their having arrived. I desperately wanted the confirmation of normality that my period would bring, then I felt ashamed of the bloody mess and the internal churning. I got stretch marks on my thighs and bum and breasts, and it never occurred to me that a stretch-marked body could be other than repulsive. I felt decisively fat, and I did things intended to atone for that perceived fatness that were both unpleasant and unhealthy. I shaved my legs with a savagery that left me scarred on shins and ankles.

I hated my body and I wanted it to be different. My absolutely normal, functional, female body was a failure in the terms of femininity – and I think that, as Glosswitch writes, most women know this self-loathing as part of the normal business of being a woman. We are asked to fulfil impossible aesthetic requirements in order to become women, while the full expanse of our humanity – as friends, as workers, as political beings, as lovers – is insistently abrogated.

I have never felt that happy consistency between my female body, the self I know myself to be, and the gender I am recognised as and judged by my ability to perform – the agreement of parts which Serano describes as “cis”. I am not cis. I am not trans. I am trying to live as a woman in a patriarchal world, and frankly that sucks enough on its own without being told the female body my culture punishes me for is a privilege in itself.