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Cisness, accountability, and what I don’t love about being queer

March 16, 2013

The 2012 documentary What I LOVE about being QUEER, by director Vivek Shraya, focused the camera on members of Toronto’s queer community and asked them to describe the things they love about being queer. While the diversity of answers and participants was at times inspirational and at times heartwarming, the project suffered fatally from the exclusion of queer trans women. While the erasure of trans women as women – and especially as queer women – is not a new phenomenon, in this instance it has stung a bit more than usual, as many of the participants in the film are friends or acquaintances of mine.

Although a handful of those friends have expressed their concerns with WILABQ, responses to criticism of the film have been for the most part disappointing: defending the exclusion as an oversight (the erasure of an entire group of queer people who have a history of being excluded is far from an oversight, it is a system of oppression), as being due to the director not having any trans women friends (which makes me wonder why he felt qualified to make a movie about the diversity of queer people in the first place), or as having been addressed by the accompanying book (it wasn’t1). I’ve heard cis people criticizing individual trans women for calling out issues with the film, and I’ve heard many of them argue that the director was a good guy, the last person to be accused of being transphobic (a classic derail, similarly seen in “He’s not racist!” and other acts of silencing). Truthfully, I don’t particularly care if Vivek Shraya is a transmisogynist or not. I am sure he’s a lovely guy. What I do care about is that, regardless of intent, he has made a transmisogynist film which purports to represent the diversity of queerness while maintaining the systemic oppression of a group of people. And he’s being celebrated for it.

As I’ve been following responses to WILABQ and the limited discussion there has been about it, I keep coming back to the idea of cisness itself, and how we as queers keep justifying it when it erases trans women. It seems to me that arguing the details of specific instances of cis privilege doesn’t take us far2. There will be another cis director fucking it up and another queer project ignoring the stories of those on the margins, followed by more denials and more hand-wringing.

When I think about cisness (apart from the many ways it is enacted) it is as a placeholder word for our discussions about gender and being trans or not being trans. It doesn’t actually have any meaning, even for those who self-apply it. It might be self-applied eagerly, even, with genuine desire by the self-applicant to have it mean something in tangible ways, but ultimately it is an empty gesture. Although we have lists to uncheck cis privilege, and a chorus of trans voices describing their lives in response to that privilege, cisness itself remains elusive. As with many pervasive systems of privilege it is often only clear when it comes into contact with the thing it is privileged over in extreme and violent ways. The rest of the time it is so subtle as to be imperceptable, so much so that having an active response to being cis while living in the world which normalizes it must seem like an exercise in the abstract, like punching at the air for ghosts. This is why the slow suffocation of those under this system is so difficult for the rest of us to grasp, and why the erasure of trans women is so commonplace and so egregious.

I sometimes wonder if the difficulty in actively engaging the world as cis comes from its newness (an idea which, while attractive, still leaves an unfair burden on trans people). It has entered queer culture as a popular concept only recently, and it is still contested by many queer people. As a culture we do not yet have a body of thought on what being cis might entail, or how to engage that. So we’re left with either cis as a passive state (not being trans), or cis as a series of acts (explicit transphobia), neither of which addresses the impact of cis privilege in a useful and consistent way. The only consistent measure we have of cisness is in the ways it impacts the lives of those it is privileged over, and as such the only real experts we currently have on it are those subjugated by it. This leads to the frustrating experience as a trans person of having a good portion of one’s activism be spent helping cis people discover the narrative of being cis and how that impacts others. We’re often holding one cis hand while being beaten by another.

So as long as cis remains an elusive idea, and as long as queer community ignores it as something not imperative to the pursuit of equality and solidarity, discussing the specifics of Vivek Shraya or What I LOVE about being QUEER feels a bit beyond the point. Until there is a commitment to live in ongiong, active awareness of being cis (perhaps modelled on other useful privilege awareness strategies, and being driven by cis people), and to spend the community resources to develop an ongoing understanding of what that reality actually is, we will just be having more conversations about how this thing or that thing happened and shrugging our shoulders on how to prevent it from happening again.


1Vivek’s foreword to the book edition made passing reference to not having had time to include “all gender presentations and politics,” which is a pretty profound misunderstanding and belittling of the experience of being a trans woman.

2Although trans men often benefit from queer cis privilege, it is still an imbalanced power relationship, and entirely contingent on cis culture granting those benefits. Trans men can still be agents of cis privilege over trans women – and sadly in my experience many have been – but the power they are wielding is still the power of cisness. It is in cis privilege that the oppression of trans women originates, and this is where my focus lies.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2013 9:38 am

    This is amazing, and I thank you for it!

  2. March 16, 2013 1:38 pm

    i live in a different geographical context, have not seen the movie or heard of it before, but sadly and unsurprisingly the same story has happened time & time again around me. i am cis, i benefit from cis privilege and i certainly have participated in the exclusion of trans women from our communities, so reading your article i can only listen, acknowledge and reflect on my responsibility and how i can work towards change. thank you for this article that gave me a new perspective.

    there is one thing i didn’t understand – your second footnote.
    so far the way i have been understanding things is that cisness oppresses all trans people, and that trans women are oppressed by the articulation of both misogyny and cisness. that the power trans men are wielding over trans women is their masculine privilege. that is how i understand the word “transmisogyny” : trans women are oppressed as trans and as women; cis men are privileged as cis and as men; cis women are privileged as cis and oppressed as women ; and trans men are oppressed as trans and privileged as men. at least this is how i was trying to understand things so far. of course this is just my perception, and it is a very simplistic way to present it. i am open to criticism, and if you wanna correct me, i will be thankful.
    but you are saying that trans men are benefiting from “queer cis privilege”. what does that mean ? and do you not think masculine privilege is a relevant idea to understand this ?
    could you elaborate on what you mean by this : “although trans men often benefit from queer cis privilege, it is still an imbalanced power relationship, and entirely contingent on cis culture granting those benefits” ?

    of course feel free to ignore my question or tell me to fuck off.

  3. Vivek Shraya permalink
    March 16, 2013 6:55 pm

    Thank you for this important response to the “What I LOVE about being QUEER” film.

    I want to take accountability for the absence of trans women from the film. This is a criticism that was made right at the launch of the film in Toronto and I immediately recognized how damaging and hurtful this absence is. I am deeply sorry for perpetuating what is, as you point out, a historical erasure.

    To clarify, what I tried to articulate in the introduction of the book edition of the project was not that this absence was due to a lack of time (and I would like to apologize if this is how this section reads). Rather I am acknowledging the film’s fundamental imperfection, despite my best efforts, in capturing a full spectrum of queer voices.

    Since the release of the film, I have worked to address this absence by:

    1) Creating a WILABQ tumblr site (http://whatiloveaboutbeingqueer.tumblr.com/), as an open project, where any queer anywhere can submit what they love about being queer;
    2) Inviting trans women to participate in the tumblr project, if interested;
    3) Putting out an explicit call-out for the book edition of the project for more voices (including trans women), posted to the tumblr site/Facebook;
    4) Creating a book edition of the project that does feature trans women and queers from other demographics that are missing from the film.

    While the WILABQ project extends beyond the film, I recognize that these efforts do not make up for the absence of trans women’s voices in the film (or other voices that I failed to capture) and if I have the opportunity to reshoot the film, I will definitely address this.

    I would also like to extend an invitation to you to participate in the project, if you are interested.

    Thank you again.

    -Vivek Shraya

  4. March 18, 2013 6:35 pm

    Thank you Vivek Shraya, both for the apology and the reparations. That is very encouraging news. =)

  5. March 19, 2013 9:07 am

    @Vivek: Hi, and thank you for responding to the post. Often the response by cis people to trans concerns is to ignore and hope it will go away, so I appreciate that you replied.

    I appreciate, too, that you’ve taken steps to address the lack of trans women in the project. I think it is important to understand, though, that trans women as an identity is a starting point for most people, like cis man, cis woman, trans man, or genderqueer. I feel that including trans women in as part of not including all ‘gender presentations and politics’ misses that (we’re often incorrectly assumed by cis people to be a subset of queer men). There are queer trans women who are into kink, trans women who aren’t, trans women who are poly, trans women who are monogamous, trans women who are femmes, trans women who are butches, trans women who are neither, and so on. The valid comparison would be if you’d left out cis men or cis women.

    As I mentioned in my post, though, I don’t think this is a specific issue to this project, it is endemic to queer culture. While I am glad you’ve taken steps to include trans women from this point, the initial lack of representation is a data point in a much larger, much graver issue. Hopefully this experience will get queers who aren’t trans women thinking not just about what they love about being queer, but how they’re privileged by a system which often erases trans women outright, or offers limited access to queerness (e.g. you can go to events and have queer friends but people tend to only want to hook up with bodies that are cis, or trans masculine). I hope this helps influence a movement of cis people developing an active awareness of their cisness, and how to engage that privilege, much like anti-racist work done by white people, or anti-ableism work done by non-disabled people. Should that sort of project ever take shape (and I do think it is something that, while guided by trans people, needs to be done by cis folks), I encourage you and other cis queer artists to take part.

    Thank you again for dropping by and commenting.

    @J: Hi, thank you for the comment. I mean in the sense that cis people can grant power/privilege/access to trans men, and that can be used in ways which directly impact trans women, but it is still based in a power system which privileges cis people, if that makes sense? Trans men can for sure at times engage patriarchy and some male privilege, but they can also be agents of cis privilege (for that matter, trans women can, too).

  6. March 19, 2013 10:08 am

    thank you!!!!!!!!

  7. rozele permalink
    March 19, 2013 2:13 pm

    sharp and clear as always!

  8. March 25, 2013 7:37 am

    Thanks for this post (for one thing, it’s good to have an idea of going-ons back in the Tdot since I left)… I will just mention I was also confused by the second footnote. While I think I see roughly what you’re getting at, particularly in the clarification, it still isn’t entirely clear to me. Is the idea that trans men sometimes enable the process of trans-misogyny and erasure of trans women in the cis world? And if so is that a result of the fact that they often (though not always) can more easily integrate themselves into cis social structures? I wonder even if it might be worth clarifying this thought in a separate piece? (Though feel free to ignore me if all this is totally irrelevant!)

    Also, were trans men present in the film?

  9. rozele permalink
    March 27, 2013 10:11 pm

    i took the second footnote as a nod to the ways that folks who are at times targets of a particular form of oppression can also act as agents of that same form of oppression – naming that particular dynamic as a kind of subcontracting of privilege… i can see some analogies to ways that dynamics around citizenship/status and ability play out, in particular…

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