Modern feminism calls me 'cisgender' - but my identity is so much more complicated than that

The term suggests my socialised gender – all those expectations and sexist interpretations – simplistically ties up with my body in a nice little package, when nothing could be farther from the truth

Hannah Marsh
Friday 06 November 2015 16:08
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What really makes a woman - or any of the other labels we have nowadays?
What really makes a woman - or any of the other labels we have nowadays?

Aged eight, I decided I was done with the pink and gold colour scheme I’d adopted ferociously as a young child.

I insisted my mum cut my hair into a short boyish crop, and donned a new uniform consisting exclusively of boys’ clothes: jumpers, jeans, shorts and T-shirts, with not a restrictive skirt or a prissy dress in sight.

I worshipped George from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, and when a parent in the playground referred to me as ‘that boy over there’, my stomach curled with tight pride.

On one excruciating occasion I thoroughly embarrassed my dad by trying to demand (unsuccessfully), that he let me try and use the urinals in the gents’.

I was testing out boundaries – both in terms of my identity and my parents’ patience. But other than that brief stint in boys’ clothing, I’ve always identified comfortably as a woman.

My experiments with ‘being a boy’ were rooted firmly in the freedom my disguise gave me: the freedom to do stuff I loved, having reached an age when the influence of my peers was beginning to creep in. It was becoming obvious to me that kicking a football around in the dirt, dissecting dead creatures and dangling from trees was something that set me apart from my more modest classmates with their neat braids and socialised aversion to noise and dirt. So I escaped, briefly, and learnt that by going undercover into male territory, I could regain a little bit of that lost freedom.

I also learnt that although society expected something else, there was nothing essential inside of me that prevented me from doing the things I loved.

Having an internal sense of identity which doesn’t align with society’s expectations is something most women face, whether it’s every day or just now and then.

We’re debating loudly at the moment around gender and identity, and a lot of people have a viewpoint on the matter (of course). Last week the writer Laurie Penny outed herself as ‘genderqueer’, saying that she never really felt like a woman, but doesn’t want to be a man either. And in October the food writer Jack Monroe came out as ‘non-binary’ transgender: neither fully male, nor fully female.

“I’m not a girl. I’m not a boy either,” they both announced in turn. I was touched by the newfound freedom they said that they found in shedding a gender binary that never fitted comfortably.

But then there’s that tricky term, “cisgender”, someone whose self-identity corresponds with gender assigned to their sex. A woman, born biologically female, who identifies as a woman.

I can’t help but feel that in many ways, it’s just another restrictive label. And although I’m proud of being a woman, it suggests my socialised gender – all those expectations which caused me such consternation as a child, all the sexist interpretations of my female behaviour as a grown woman – simplistically ties up with my body in a nice little package, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

We’re not all the same. Some of us experiment briefly with gender, slipping back without pain into our developing bodies. Some of don’t bother with the experimentation. Others do, and find they don’t want to take off their new guise – that actually, a totally different expression of gender was right for them all along. But we all struggle with the imposed rules and regulations put upon us by a society that defines ‘woman’ as a very definite article. None of us feel comfortable in that state. “Cisgender” is a misleading dismissal.

Women encounter sexism every day on levels sometimes so creeping and insidious it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why we feel uncomfortable. An estate agent who constantly addressed my male partner when I was buying a flat. A conference I recently attended where I noticed on arrival that the number of women on the stage didn’t come close to reflecting the number of women in the audience. These are just two examples I can pull from the air.

Perhaps some of these conversations, and this new wave of liberated individuals have actually come as a direct result of the freedoms won by feminism – but have ended up labelling some women along with it. I suspect we’re all somewhere on a scale rather than snugly fitted into “cis” and “trans” boxes. Can’t we make room in the feminist ranks for those whose identities are technically “cisgender”, but also hugely varied in their gender expressions?

Those who fight for gender equality are not all the same, and we don’t all face the same oppressions, but we’re all impacted by expectations that are set for us by a skewed and sexist system. Gender equality should liberate us from our strict binary existence and feminism is as broad a church as we want it to be. But we won’t achieve equality by picking and choosing who’s allowed to fight for and benefit from it. When this begins, feminism as a cause fatally loses its kindness.

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