Got Privilege: What is Cisgender Privilege and Why Does it Matter?
Last week, trans equality activist Janet Mock released her first memoir entitled “Redefining Realness.” As part of her publicity tour she appeared on the CNN show Piers Morgan Live. What happened during that interview, and a follow-up the night after, has been a subject of great controversy after Mock rightly pointed out that Morgan and the CNN team behind the show had, as Mock put it, “sensationalized” her life by reducing Mock to questions about gender affirmation surgeries and “used to be a boy” memes.
There have been a number of detailed pieces about why Morgan and the entire show in fact failed Mock and her story, and there’s little reason to rehash those. One thing, however, that did come up during the subsequent media storm about Morgan’s treatment of the subject was that he was approaching it from a position of cisgender privilege and that, even though unintentional, it was offensive and degrading.
Here are a few examples from the interview (see it in full here):
- Morgan and CNN teased the interview with Mock using the line “How would you feel if the woman you were dating was formerly a man?” thereby assuming Mock had ever identified male, and reducing her entire identity to a sensational headline.
- Morgan repeatedly brought up Mock’s gender affirming surgeries and implied that this was the dividing line at which point she became female, never once really asking how Mock viewed that treatment and how, as she has put it, it was in fact only about reconciling her physical self with who she really was.
- Morgan repeatedly referred to Mock as being “formerly a boy,” even though Mock makes clear in “Redefining Realness” and in the interview that she has never identified as male. He continued to ask why it is offensive to use that terminology, and though ultimately it fell on deaf ears, Mock gave this brilliant answer: “It’s about who I am right now. I’m Janet Mock, I’m author of ‘Redefining Realness,’ and I’m a fierce trans advocate. And I will continue to be exactly that. That’s what I was on this show to do. … Do I dispute that I was born a boy? I was born a baby who was assigned “male” at birth. I did not identify or live my life as a boy. As soon as I had enough agency in my life to grow up, I became who I am. And this did not start at 18 when I went to Thailand to have ‘surgery.’ It started when I was six years old and my parents saw me for who I was and allowed me to live my life.”
Clearly, Morgan wasn’t understanding his own (probably unintentional) bias. So what is cisgender privilege?
The term cisgender refers to when someone’s gender matches their birth assigned sex and, by extension, when a person’s gender matches the gender others perceive them as. The term has been around for more than two decades and is now used in many academic circles. It is particularly used by the trans and queer communities to discuss issues surrounding gender identity and gender expression.
While cisgender refers to someone’s sex and gender appearing to align, cisgender privilege speaks to how perceived gender/sex alignment means not having to think or address topics that those without cisgender privilege have to deal with, often on a daily basis.
To give you an idea of cisgender privilege, here are five examples of how you might have cisgender privilege:
- You are referred to by the correct pronouns during day to day activity and are not misgendered.
- You are not asked intrusive questions about what set of genitalia you have or what medical treatments you have undergone, and as an extension your “real” gender is not questioned or tied to what genitalia someone might think you have.
- You are able to access sex-segregated events/facilities that align to your gender identity without question, refusal, or risk of intimidation and violence.
- You do not have to worry about your gender/perceived gender during the search for housing, employment, finance, while traveling or seeking medical treatment, or voting.
- You can engage with the justice system after being physically or sexually assaulted without fearing being blamed, at least in part, because of your gender identity/expression, or that your attacker will not be allowed a reduced sentence because some in the law profession still believe that a “trans panic defense” is a viable argument that partially excuses physical/sexual assault or even murder.
This gives you an idea of how wide-ranging cisgender privilege is and, for those who were incorrectly sex-assigned at birth or those who choose to present as a different gender (the two being distinct groups), how pervasive and encumbering it can be to not have cisgender privilege. There are, however, many other ways how not having cis privilege can hamper a person, and you can find more examples here.
It’s worth pointing out though that many gay, bisexual and lesbian people do have cis privilege and so this isn’t something that divides down lines of sexual orientation. For instance, as a gender-conforming gay man, I have cisgender privilege (among my other privileges of being male and white). My physical presentation means that I am not challenged when I use male-designated facilities, or when I am out in public in general. For a straight man who was sex-assigned female at birth, this may not be so and they may be challenged for not being “male enough” or “really a man” by some people.
Cisgender privilege and the many hurdles trans and gender nonconforming people must navigate are complicated subjects, and there is much more to discover and discuss than what is mentioned here. However, Mock’s book pointedly addresses this topic and Mock nails precisely what the problem is.
In “Redefining Realness,” Mock writes:
People assume that I was in the closet because I didn’t disclose that I was assigned male at birth. What people are really asking is “Why didn’t you correct people when they perceived you as a real woman?” … We must abolish the entitlement that deludes us into believing that we have the right to make assumptions about people’s identities and project those assumptions on their genders and bodies.
Our culture makes those assumptions almost automatic, and it is only in addressing and refraining from those assumptions that we can move forward — and by simply recognizing we have cisgender privilege we can take the first step to helping those who do not. If you would like to explore this topic further, more resources are available here.
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