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Cisnormativity and the Trans Visibility Paradox

A while ago, I found myself in a bizarre conversation with a cisgender man who insisted he had a grand theory derived from the supposed exceptionality of trans experience. No matter how I tried to dissuade him from this path, to point out that the usage of cisgender experience was more ethical, not to mention accessible, to him, he persisted, until, seeing no other option, I ended the conversation. The exchange concluded in frustrated incomprehension, I was left with the question: why and to what end are trans people so interesting and cis people so boring?

Now, I am told trans visibility is a new phenomenon. Moreover, from certain narratives one might imagine that we are a people without a history, or else, a very short one not preceding the 1950’s, when Christine Jorgensen apparently invented transsexuality, at least as far as the tabloids were concerned. In fact, we often seem to have so little history that we appear to be the people of the future if science fiction aesthetics are any guide. In truth, we do have a history and one that well precedes Jorgenson. It can be traced to the foundations of the modern discourse of LGBTQ identity in late 19th and early 20th century Germany before the Nazis came to power and immediately destroyed Magnus Hirschfield’s Institut fur Sexualwissenchaft. (Interestingly, we might consider his institute to also be the site of the foundation of the modern concept of heterosexuality.) Before that, our current concept of transgender was preceded by a variety of queer subcultures in Europe that often did not maintain our present distinction between gender and sexuality (a distinction which one could argue was a novelty of the early 20th century and the rise of sexology). And of course, the European two gender system that evolved into today’s hetero/cisnormativity was far from universal. If anything, it came to dominance as an export of European imperialism violently imposed as a tool for colonial control and cultural domination (see Debora Miranda’s Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California in GLQ volume 16). All of this to say, there have been moments of trans visibility long preceding the present, and—especially outside of Europe—times and places where people who, while we must resist labeling them trans,[1]It is important in this context to understand that trans is not a neutral, non-contextual, or timeless descriptor of the human condition that could be applied universally and retroactively. The … Continue reading embodied an understanding of gender at odds with the two gender system so easily taken for granted today as an ahistorical product of nature. But the perception that trans people do not have a history, or else precedent in transgressing hetero/cisnormativity, is a potent one full of significance that highlights our supposed exceptionality by extracting us both from historical cause and effect as well as the realm of nature occupied by all that is taken for granted as perpetually present. This is the first condition of our supposed exceptionality.

The second condition of trans exceptionality, or trans visibility, is produced directly through cisnormativity, against the rule of which we may as well be a reversal of gravity from its usual course. That is, since cisnormativity prophesies the gendered future of the child in accordance with assignment at birth so that, for example, male babies become boys and then men, transness appears as a sudden disruption of the order of time and the normal processes of becoming. The boy who becomes a woman violates the law of gender inertia while the declaration of non-binary existence defies the long since secularized belief in the binary of “man and woman, he created them.” (Although, we should point out, the “them” is not without importance.) The violation of gendered cause and effect through time leaves us as something of an anti-cause. The moment of coming out, to the logic of cisnormativity that sees gender identity as intrinsically linked with an anatomical site for the purposes of deriving legitimacy, may as well be a Lucretian swerve, or an arbitrary event, disrupting order to produce the possibility of free will in an otherwise determined system. In this respect, trans people have been consistently treated as anomalous, or, more specifically to the case of discrimination, as lacking that reason which is necessary to justify the veracity of existence as something more tangible than a ruse. This explains in large part why the ideology of trans medicalism holds so much appeal (albeit, thankfully, only to a few) as a narrative that relies upon cisnormative assumptions and logic—if we can call it logic—about the essence of gender to describe transgender existence. The problem, however, for trans medicalism as much as for cisnormativity is that cisnormativity relies upon a Humean logic incapable of distinguishing causation from correlation and assumes on this basis that sex is immutable and produces gender, forgetting that not only is sex changeable and naturally changes over time, it is also wholly insufficient to explain the production of the meaning of gender. In other words, no matter how much emphasis is placed upon genitalia, hormones, or questionable differences in brain anatomy, none of these sites are ever essential to the being of the meaning of gender. The proof is every time we go outside and perceive none of these things during our interactions.

So, we know why trans people are interesting, and why it is tempting to read the miraculous into transgender existence insofar as we appear as an ahistorical swerve against the tendency of the norm. Why is it, then, that cis people are so boring? For this, we should consider Roland Barthes’s notion of ex-nomination found in Mythologies. To give it a summary: the norm is that which makes itself invisible as an unquestioned basis for our assumptions, and which achieves invisibility through pervading daily life to the extent that we forget its presence. In this context, cisness maintains its status as norm through its forgettability, that is, its ability to shed attention like water off a duck. It sheds attention, moreover, by making itself the negative space of our experience gender. Everyone is presumed cis until coming out. The moment of coming out is the moment of interrupting the assumption. The trans person in the room is visible for breaking with the pattern of everyone else, a pattern which is invisible because of its pervasiveness and therefore not noteworthy as a pattern. That is, cisnormativity is what makes trans people visible, even the focal point, to so extend the art metaphor, through its ex-nomination or rendering of itself as negative space. Now, what happens if we reverse that order, if cisnormativity is brought into the spotlight by our no longer taking cisness for granted? The Humean logic of girlhood leading inevitably to womanhood reveals itself as something tenuous. There is nothing inevitable in the pattern of cis becoming from childhood to adulthood to old age. Cisnormativity relies upon our assumption that these are the inevitable course unless there is an interruption, that is, it relies upon our forgetting of the omnipresent possibility of a swerve. Yet the swerve is not an exceptional event but a likely one, constantly happening again and again to interrupt the supposedly inevitable. This is why cisnormativity cannot bear our attention, the more we look at it, the more tenuous it becomes. Once it is no longer what happens when nothing happens, but rather a set of happenings that must be secured from the omnipresent possibility of transness, it is no longer a norm.

Rose Pelham is a master’s candidate in philosophy at the New School for Social Research, where she is also working toward a graduate certificate in gender and sexualities studies. She is the author of “Foundations of a Trangender Phenomenology: on the Incompleteness of Totality and Infinity,” a transgender feminist interpretation of Levinasian ethics (forthcoming in the Women in Philosophy Journal).


1 It is important in this context to understand that trans is not a neutral, non-contextual, or timeless descriptor of the human condition that could be applied universally and retroactively. The precise condition by which the concept of transness became seemingly universal in our imagination was that of European imperialism and, to use Debora Miranda’s term, gendercide. The attempted destruction of non-western gender systems, especially those which did not assume something analogous to a male female gender binary, was a major component of European colonialism and produced the appearance that the European two gender system was universal. This in turn set the stage for the global export of the concept of transness as an adaptation upon that system made necessary by its own excess in denying possibilities for human expression and existence. This is not to say that transness is un-transgressive or officially sanctioned as part of an imperialist regime, only that it arises from the conditions of imperialist excess and uses the terms of Western concepts of gender to create possibilities denied by this regime. Transness simply has a different genealogy, and consequently a different meaning, than non-western third genders.

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