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