Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 3 (of 4): Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology

February 24, 2010

This is the third in a three four part series. See the first and second posts. I’ll link to the fourth here once it’s up.

My three part series just became a four part series, as I realized the issues raised in part two weren’t fully addressed, and raised other issues.

My primary contention in part two was that cis people know a lot more about trans people, our identities, and how we should be referred to than they think they do. I frame the significance of this point primarily in terms of accountability–that cis people who have enough privilege to not be in danger of being labeled systemically ignorant (a thread from part one) are let off the hook far too easily.

But there’s another point of significance for that same data: if cis people don’t know how much they know, could we call that lack of knowledge ignorance? What kinds of lack of knowledge count as ignorance (and what don’t), and what aspects of transphobia get erased as a consequence? What else do cis people not know that doesn’t count under the logic of ignorance?

The kind of lack of knowledge I’m alluding to in part two is not a lack of knowledge about trans people, our lives, our experiences, our issues, or the proper terminology–knowledge cis people have far more of than they’re willing to admit–but a lack of self knowledge.

Framed this way–as cis people’s inability to understand the way that they themselves think–part two brings a whole host of “ignorances” into view.

For me, the most infamous example of cis people failing to understand the way they themselves think is in the realm of what constitutes sex. If you ask a cis person to define what “biological” sex is, nine times out of ten they’ll cite genitalia or chromosomes. But this doesn’t conform to their actual behavior in daily life, at all. If cis people *actually* believed this, they’d be unable to tell what sex someone was unless they undressed or had a blood test. Quite the contrary, even transphobic, coercive sex attribution in everyday life is based on readily identifiable criteria completely different from those most frequently cited by cis people–namely, a person’s voice and face; body contours having a much smaller (but still appreciable) role.

Kessler and McKenna are invaluable here:

Physical genitals belong only to physical (genderless) bodies and consequently are not part of the social world. Attributed genitals are constructed out of our ways of envisioning gender and always exist in everyday interactions. Males have cultural penises and females have no cultural penises, even cardboard drawings wearing plastic pants. How else are we to understand the participants in the overlay study who claimed that the way to change a clothed male figure into a female was to “remove the penis,” or the child who sees a picture of a person in a suit and tie and says: “It’s a man because he has a pee-pee.”

Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. 154.

Furthermore, in their overlay study, in which male and female gender cues are added to otherwise gender neutral drawings of bodies (e.g. penis/vagina, body and/or facial hair, breasts/flat chest, wide/narrow hips, and hair length) K&M found that while the presence of a penis created near consensus in terms of gender attribution (96%), the presence of a vagina did not–more than one third of the naked figures with vaginas were seen as male by study participants (151). Yet I think you’d have a hard time finding a cis person who was aware of thinking that penis = male, but vagina != female. (This also has obvious implications for the different stakes that trans men and women have in getting naked; see 152.)

So, my point is, you have a bunch of cis people walking around attributing gender to other people and completely unaware of the process by which they actually do so, instead living in a fable that serves little purpose other than to undermine trans people’s understandings of ourselves as male, female, or otherwise. While cissexualist definitions of sex conveniently justify the oppression of trans people, they have remarkably poor descriptive power.

To take it to a (strange) personal anecdote, this summer in New York I was harassed by this guy yelling “that is a MAN” at me, at the top of his lungs. He seemed to be trying to impress his friends, but–interestingly–he got more disapproval than praise from them, and the way the situation played out several of them decided I was cis. That night or the following evening–I can’t remember which–the same guy rode a small bicycle up to me and the person I was visiting, and continued to harass me, though with less certainty. My friend talked back to him for me, and in the ensuing interchange, he was too distracted by the tasks of riding a bicycle and responding to her challenges to use the wrong pronoun–he used “her,” at the same time that he was calling me a man.

This also plays into another way that cis people fail to understand themselves–the belief that as soon as a trans person is read, the reader will then treat that person as a member of hir birth sex. This is perhaps most apparent in sexualized harassment of trans women–no one would come up to me and grab my breasts if he was actually treating me as a man, but this has happened to me on multiple occasions, including once where a straight cis guy then managed to use male pronouns about me and hit on me.’s sexualizing, objectifying discourse was directed at trans women for a reason. J Michael Bailey refers to trans women as men, yet sexualizes and objectifies us. Gender clinicians that have no respect for our identities will still dissect our presentation, appearance, and attractiveness in excruciating detail–and not do the same thing to trans men. While the fact that trans men’s incomes increase only very slightly as a result of transition is often explained as trans men being treated as women (and trans women having economic privilege), in the context of trans women’s incomes dropping by a third at transition, one has to consider it a matter of intersectionality and the interactions between trans status and male/female gender/sex, where we are treated as the sex we present as.

There is a level of cisnormativity below which one’s presentation as a woman or man becomes unrecognizable, and one is treated as one’s birth sex, albeit a potentially gender variant one. But what I see in my own life as someone who’s sufficiently cisnormative to be recognizable is that when I’m read or outed, sexism against me intensifies, instead of being ameliorated.

So why have so many cis feminists written books that depend for their coherence on the notion that they treat trans women as men?

My last example here is the listing of “sex” on drivers’ licenses and other forms of identification. If you asked the DMV why that category was on your DL, or the State Department why it was on your passport, I’m pretty sure you’d just get blank stares, and almost positive that they would position the policy as having nothing to do with trans people, that its unfortunate consequences for trans people are necessary but completely accidental. My guess is that there, and particularly among cis (or even trans!) laypeople, the common assumption would be that the use was driven by complete ignorance of the existence of trans people.

But consider why identification exists–to prevent people from impersonating someone else, faking an identity–and the links to transphobia become immediately obvious. The sex designation on ID wouldn’t exist if those giving the ID didn’t think it was important to prevent fraudulent claims to maleness or femaleness, a concern which is only relevant if they think that there are people who will attempt to fraudulently claim sexed identities–trans people. Now, granted, it also makes sense in the context of fearing someone crossdressing only for the purpose of committing a crime and not because of any internal sense of hir gender, but even that acknowledges that the *actual* reason for this practice is to protect against a trans and/or gender transgressive menace. I find it highly doubtful that many cis people would understand that as the motivation behind their drivers’ licenses having a “sex” category. In fact, the practice of including a sex on ID is justified by the supposed naturalness and immutability of sex–that is, the non-existence of the same trans people that the practice is designed to “protect” cissexuality from. In the process of producing government identification, trans people are first raised as a spectre to be warded against, and then immediately erased and denied.

What does it mean that cis people are that clueless about the motivations of their own actions, the motivations of the institutions to which they belong or on which they depend? Isn’t it kind of troubling to think of cis people as being fundamentally not-self-aware, or to think that trans people might better understand what a cis person is thinking than that cis person hirself?

This is a kind of ignorance that I find deeply unsettling, yet it’s not legible as ignorance, because it’s fundamentally about self-knowledge. And here’s where we get to sexist epistemology: the kinds of knowledge that to lack is called “ignorance” are more likely to be coded masculine–terminology, politics, etc–and are all public sphere, whereas cis people’s lack of knowledge coded feminine and private sphere–self-knowledge–is not. Thus, “ignorance”‘s epistemology–theory of knowledge–values masculine knowledge over feminine knowledge.

Self-knowledge cannot be taught in trans 101 workshops, nor can one ever completely deny accountability for a lack of it. It’s a much more arduous process to obtain self knowledge than to learn the “right terminology,” and the process is fundamentally one that has to be self-driven. In some ways, this understanding of what knowledge cis people lack is deeply dispiriting–while it takes the onus off trans people to educate cis people, it also implies that much of what cis people need to learn we *can’t* teach them or pressure them to learn, that they can only learn through a painful process of introspection few are motivated enough to attempt, and which it’s incredibly difficult (impossible?) to hold individuals accountable for whether or not they do. It’s also dispiriting in that if ending transphobia depends on skills that are devalued as feminine and are deliberately undermined by capitalism and advertising, it makes the project that much more daunting.

But I think it’s the reality we have to live with, and strategize in.

Up Next:

Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims


7 Responses to “Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 3 (of 4): Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology”

  1. […] 6, 2010 This is the second in a three four part series. The first is available here and the third here. I’ll link to the fourth once it’s […]

  2. sqrrel said

    I’m not sure I agree with your point about sex on driver’s licenses, because there are categories on them for which your analysis fails. Take height, for instance. I am not convinced that there is any fear or spectre of people pretending to be a different height for fraudulent purposes, but rather that it is a characteristic generally understood to be immutable and thus identifying. I don’t doubt that there is a policing role intended and played by the presence of sex on these IDs, but I don’t think your argument is sufficient to prove it.

    I think the relevant point to make in differentiating e.g. height from sex, is that I don’t think that sex is actually seen as immutable, in practice. Rather, sex is idealized as immutable and government identification is designed to that ideal in order, in part, to mark and police those who do not meet it in cis eyes.

    • Cedar said

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but though you frame it as disagreement with a point, it sounds like what you’re saying is that drivers’ licenses–through the claiming-to-think-sex-is-immutable-when-not-actually-seeing-it-that-way–are even more of an example of my broader point in this post than my analysis gives them credit for.


  3. Rebecca said

    What does it mean that cis people are that clueless about the motivations of their own actions, the motivations of the institutions to which they belong or on which they depend?

    Your entire post is well-written, but I wanted to comment on this point. I think it means that it’s difficult for a fish to see the ocean. That is, I suspect that any privileged and powerful group begins from a place of carelessness about their actions and institutional motivations.

    As someone who is white, it’s taken a lot of conscious effort to be aware of the more insidious roles racism takes on. There are some things that are easy to see: legal differentiation between racial treatment, Jim Crow laws, explicit segregation. But it’s harder to see that, at my high school, the nicer area of the cafeteria, with newer furniture, was primarily populated by white students and the older furniture populated by students of color. At least, it’s harder to see it when you’re living it, and benefiting from it.

    Likewise, even though I’ve identified as trans for years and years, I’ve been able to see cultural and institutional sexism and cissexism much better since beginning to transition and present as a woman. It’s not that I wasn’t theoretically aware of the problems that M or F on my license would prevent, it’s that – because I was successfully presenting as male – I was still shrouded in the privilege afforded to those whose gender presentation and physical gender appear to match societal expectations.

    Now, even though I still retain some of that privilege by being perceived as a woman (so-called “passing privilege”) I know that privilege could evaporate upon a close pat-down at an airport or someone picking up on some physical or presentational indication I wasn’t “really” a woman. As a result, I’m a hell of a lot more aware of that societal/institutional cissexism.

    • Cedar said


      Perhaps my point about drivers’ licenses was too much of a tangent; it got dangerously close to what I’m trying to *not* be talking about. My point in this post isn’t about cis people not seeing what’s right in front of their faces–though they often don’t–it’s about their not knowing *themselves*. Hence, sqrrel’s point that cis ppl honestly claim to think sex is immutable but don’t actually. And nothing beats the Kessler and McKenna examples. Basically, frequently, an individual cis person doesn’t think what ze thinks ze thinks, which… is weird, no? But also not legible within the frame of “ignorance.”

  4. Rebecca said

    Basically, frequently, an individual cis person doesn’t think what ze thinks ze thinks, which… is weird, no? But also not legible within the frame of “ignorance.”

    And how. People are quite weird.

  5. DavidC said

    Mostly I’m with you, but I think I might be misunderstanding some, given how much of a hard time I’m having seeing this kind of ‘self-knowledge’ as the kind of self-knowledge that’s usually coded feminine.

    Understanding how we use the words ‘female/male/woman/man,’ which pronouns we use, and so on strikes me as a kind of academic knowledge. I’m reminded most of linguistics classes in college, where we gained ‘self-knowledge’ of how we, as native speakers of some language, put together sentences in our language. Or psychology classes, and so on.

    Isn’t the kind of self-knowledge usually coded feminine the ‘intuitive’ kind of self-knowledge? But this is a case where intuition is more than likely going to lead (cis?) people astray.

    I don’t know what (if any) implications my difficulty would have for your larger point. Maybe Part 4 will help. The title of Part 4 has my mind going further with the linguistics analogy:

    Prescriptive grammar presents itself as a collection of authoritative claims about how language works and should work. It tends to confuse its prescriptions about how people ought to talk with how language (naturally? objectively? uncorruptedly?) is, so much so that one of the hardest things for students in an introductory linguistics class is to forget about how they’ve been told language works up to that point. And just like the corresponding transphobic claims about how gender does/should work, benefits certain people over others. Dismantling these claims (to great social good! in either case, I think) is at least partly about gaining self-knowledge.

    (Setting up parallels like this worries me a bit, because of course taking it too far could obviously have horrible consequences. But I hope the analogy is, at least as far as it goes, worthwhile and not harmful.)

    Reading back over this, any disagreement I might have doesn’t seem too important. But I do hope the rest of this might be useful.

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