The term cisgender refers to individuals whose experience of their own gender matches the sex assigned to them at birth, what in the primitive past would have been called “normal.” Because there is a profoundly tiny percentage of humans who do not identify genetically with their gender—transgender—the term cisgender is now used to refer to the rest of us.
That’s like saying those of us who breathe in oxygen as our bodies were designed to breathe must be called “unassisted breathers” because a few among us require oxygen cannulas.
Reality shapes language. Transgender was introduced to differentiate those relatively few humans with an anguish so intense they would consider surgically altering their bodies for relief.
The politics of language attempts to reshape reality along ideological lines. Cisgender implies that the default gender condition for 99 percent of humanity is merely another category of gender, along with transgender, no better no worse. Out of compassion for those on the margins, we change language as though that changes reality.
[sharequote align="center"]Out of compassion for those on the margins, we change language as though that changes reality.[/sharequote]
Because a tiny fraction of humanity wishes to enter into same sex marriage, France intends to eliminate the terms “mother” and “father” from all official documents. In the interest of language that is inclusive of gay families, France will prevent legal reference to the most defining of all relationships: mother and father.
All of us, without exception, are created by a mother and father, or at least their representatives by way of ovum and sperm. Government fiat, no matter how well intentioned, does not magically conjure a new reality.
Heather Barwick and Brandi Walton, each of whom were raised in two-mother families, have written open letters to the gay community poignantly refuting the idea that “parent” is the same as “father” (in their case).
Even if Barwick and Walton are in the minority of the minority, their experience underscores that fact that language by itself changes nothing.
The reality is that there is a default gender identification; there is a default sexual orientation; there is a default physical ability. To acknowledge a default does not demean its exception.
Any new construction since the Americans with Disabilities Act must include accessibility for wheelchairs. We have progressed from “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled” not because reality has changed, but because we understand “disabled” in a more sophisticated and compassionate way.
Even with that progression, we still don’t refer to someone as “abled” in general conversation. It’s understood that the default condition is “abled” and only the exception need be specially recognized.
Labels that distinguish exceptions are not inherently bad. Genius, CEO, and gold medalist are all labels that pertain to relatively few. When any of the teeming masses can be so identified, you can be sure they will be.
Transgender is a new term in public discourse. In a few short years we’ve gone from no exposure whatsoever to the first transgender person nominated for an Emmy on the cover of Time magazine. We’ve become aware that certain physiological conditions can underlie gender dysphoria, i.e., discontent with the sex and gender assigned one at birth. Understanding breeds compassion, and we evolve as a society.
But we all lose if that compassion comes at the expense of reality.
Taken to an extreme this kind of compassion would deprive excited, expectant parents from learning the “sex” of their baby at the sonogram; it would be “gender-normativism” to assume that a fetus with a penis will identify as a boy. And there would be no ready answer once the baby was born; many transgender persons identify their first awareness of gender dysphoria about the age of three or four.
Do we hold the default 99 percent hostage because a tiny fraction of our children will turn out to be excluded by terms like “he,” “she," “boy,” or “girl”?
Even Sweden, ranked as the fourth most gender-equal country in the world, can’t agree on gender neutrality. As the country prepares to mandate its universal gender-neutral pronoun, a former equality expert at the Swedish Confederation of Professions cautioned that “young children can become confused by the suggestion that there is a third, ‘in-between’ gender at a time when their brains and bodies are developing.”
There’s a reason our language is structured to reflect certain defaults. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging those defaults. Even if we change our language, we don’t change the defaults. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
The reality is that understanding and respect for those outside the default can be achieved without upending those inside the default.
Compassion and reason are not mutually exclusive.
Donna Carol Voss is an author, blogger, speaker, and mom. A Berkeley grad, a former pagan, a Mormon on purpose, and an original thinker on 21st century living, her memoir “One of Everything” will be released May 2015. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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