gender identities, beyond male & female

– Divya Iyer, II B.S.W

Most of us have heard the word ‘transgender’ and know what identities it encompasses. Gender is a spectrum and being trans isn’t one particular fixed identity. There are more specific labels as well –there are trans binary genders (trans girls and trans boys, or trans men and trans women) and then there is the whole spectrum of non-binary genders as well –people who aren’t male or female, but maybe both or neither or something else, in between. India’s legal understanding of the transgender community simply dubs them as the ‘third gender’, but that doesn’t do justice to the multitudes of gender identities that fall under the term transgender.

The word ‘cisgender’ is, oddly enough, not something many people have heard of. It is, in the simplest terms, the opposite of the word ‘transgender’ – anyone who’s taken Chemistry in class ten might recall cis-isomers and trans-isomers, and understand the meanings of the suffixes faster. Never fear if you do not recall. Identifying as cisgender means that the gender you were assigned at birth and the gender you identify as are both the same.

If anything I’ve said now is news to you, that’s because transgender identities aren’t recognized the same way cisgender ones are. Most people who are cis look at trans people with an acute feeling of ‘otherness’, being more aware of the differences in their identities rather than the similarities. There are also various misrepresentations of what being transgender feels like and sometimes even cultural differences. The word ‘hijra’, which is a valid transgender identity in India, is considered a slur in Pakistan and certain other places.

Basically, we can say that society is cisnormative. That’s a fancy word to say that we are all socialised and conditioned to believe that everyone we encounter is cisgender. Before I go ahead though, I would like to say that I’m cisgender. Therefore, nothing in this is intended to speak for the trans community, as I’m not someone who is trans so I would not want to be a spokesperson for a community that deserves to be empowered enough to speak for themselves. What I intend to do with this article is talk from the point of view of a cisgender ally, and explain why you should care about transgender people.

Something very important to understand is what it means to be systematically oppressed, which is what most transgender people are. The entire structure of society is built to support cisgender people, as most institutions work on the (incorrect) assumption that everyone is cisgender. Even provisions that exist for transgender people are complex and messy – changing one’s legal name is a lengthy and difficult process and starting hormones or getting surgery in order to get a body that corresponds with their identity, in order to have the basic human right of feeling safe and at home in their body, costs a lot.  In such a scenario, it is important for cisgender people to understand, acknowledge and respect that transgender people face difficulties and hurdles that we probably couldn’t even imagine. For example, something as basic as which bathroom to use can be a great cause for anxiety or fear for someone who is not cisgender. We need to understand where the fear is coming from – it’s coming from the cisnormative system (or as one internet post called it jokingly, the cis-tem) which, coincidentally, is a system that we cisgender people profit from.

So, given all this, it’s important for us to be respectful and understanding of transgender people. That includes being supportive of someone’s identity. If someone you know tells you that they are transgender and requests that you use a certain set of pronouns to address them, do that. If they feel restricted by their birth name and want to go by another name that corresponds with their gender identity, support that as well. Address them the way they want to be addressed, not how you think they should be addressed. This is especially important when it comes to people you are very close to – maybe the sibling you thought of as a brother has now confided in you that they don’t identify as male. Refusing to accept the identity that they trusted you enough to tell you about is an act of betrayal, and accidentally using the wrong pronouns is a different thing from repeatedly misgendering them, even after they correct you.

A lot of the time, people find it hard to empathise, and look at transgender people as a completely different species or something to that effect. This is obviously problematic, because we’re all human at the end of the day, and to be a good human we must show kindness. Even if we cannot understand the nuances of someone’s identity, we must respect them as a person enough to support them. Ultimately, discovering one’s gender is a journey of self-discovery, and we should do what we can to let people feel safe around us.

We might think transgender rights have nothing to do with us, but that’s an act of privilege. That’s hiding behind the security you get from being cis. Furthermore, that passivity is in some way contributing to the oppression that goes on, all the time. Cisgender people have a responsibility to their transgender siblings, because we’re in a system that favours us at the disadvantage of somebody else.

There are never any valid reasons to justify cruelty to any human being. Do good people watch injustice and sit around passively, doing nothing? I don’t think so. At the same time, I’m not saying each of us should start a revolution or change the world. All that we need to do is recognize our privilege in this system and do what we can to support people who don’t have that. It’s not about politics – it’s about how, at the end of the day, every human being has dignity and is worthy of love.





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