Clara Barnhurst

I’ve been quite clear about how much I dislike being thought of as transgender. It’s an objective truth I can’t deny, but I hate what society makes it mean. It’s a label I wish I could shed, but I can’t. As much as we might all be men or women or non binary without any note of our birth assignment, we are also trans or cis or non conforming. We need the label because without it, nobody knows how to help us.

More to the point, nobody is able to make fine distinctions about each other without them. Just as all squares are more broadly rectangles, all cisgender men are more broadly men. ‘Man’ is a more general term. ‘Cis man’ is a specific type of man. A man with a particular set of health needs unique to cisgender men. A cisgender man might be annoyed at having a label because he’s unused to having one, but it’s necessary to know.

Of course, it’s not always important. Outside of a medical context, my transgender status is largely unimportant. Except maybe on a sociological level when we start to talk about systemic oppression. Or maybe how the relative danger I’m in from men, particularly cisgender men, increases dramatically relative to cisgender women. The objective truth can’t be ignored; we have needs and troubles unique to our specific subcategory. We don’t have to like it, we just have to live with it.


Of the two subcategories of men and women (I’m a little unsure how to include non binary and fluid folks here, please educate me), one is clearly at a disadvantage. This is important because when we look at systems of oppression, the oppressed benefit from objective labels the most. Cisgender people being called cisgender normalises the labels transgender, non binary and gender fluid. While cisgender as a term has existed as long as anyone’s been studying transgender people, it’s not in everyday use when describing gender. Adopting the term helps us all for many reasons.

Most importantly, it undermines cisgender assumption. If everyone designates what kind of man or woman they are, it makes it less awkward for everyone else. Some folks need to explicitly identify their gender upon introduction, particularly fluid and non binary people, including informing a newcomer of their pronouns. My boss has on occasion noted how she is quite cis and straight passing. She is cisgender, so the natural assumption would be that she automatically passes as such.

That she doesn’t make that assumption is good allyship. It acknowledges that we don’t always know who is transgender and who is cisgender to look at them. It recognises the oppressive way passing is used to shut certain individuals out. It confronts people with the idea that appearances lie. By recognising that she, a cisgender woman, is quite cis passing, she undermines her cisgender privilege.

On a practical level, recognising she is cisgender means she has certain medical needs particular to her gender subclass. She also makes it clear that she doesn’t have the specific needs of a transgender person, which is critical. We may both be women, but her needs are distinct from mine and the labels let us quickly tell others what those are, should they become important.

It’s functionally the same as making a distinction between PTSD and anxiety. If I start talking to my GP about anxiety, I can expect a very different conversation than if I mention PTSD. Maybe the referral is the same and her follow up strategies are more or less identical, but her specific language when speaking to me will change. The referral will be asking for a different kind of help. If I was referred to the local mental health team for PTSD when my problem is anxiety, I could end up dead.

As much as I dislike it, my transgender label keeps me alive. It tells everyone what help I need. A cisgender person receiving transgender health care would be similarly in danger: inappropriate treatment is far more harmful than no treatment. Without the explicit label that says what my needs are, my doctors would not be able to even refer me to someone.

Cisgender people being honest about their cisgender status normalises my transgender status by lessening the threat I’m under when disclosing. At this moment, I’m seen as an oddity at best, an aberration at worst. If everyone has some distinction, I’m less odd. If everyone recognises that transgender people exist, it becomes less abhorrent. It fades into normality; everyone has a label.


Of course, cisgender people have nothing to lose in this. It’s that fact that leaves the sour taste in my mouth: cisgender people have absolutely nothing to lose by shutting up and using their label. Transgender people don’t get a choice right now and owning the transgender label is a sometimes deadly decision. Cisgender people get to pick. They have absolutely nothing at stake and and they make the most unhappy noises about having a label.

I don’t want the transgender label because I might get killed. They don’t want the cisgender label because it’s inconvenient for them. We both need them; they tell us important things about our needs. Refusal to use the cisgender label is protecting one’s privilege, plain and simple. You cannot be a transgender ally and not use these labels. You are not safe to come out to if you do not recognise your status.

The ultimate goal is to create an equitable society. We can’t treat everyone the same: doing so only deepens the disparity between the haves and the have nots. I hate the labels, but without them I will never have that equitable place in society. My status will never be seen as ‘just normal’ the same way cisgender people are unless we normalise the use of these labels. Without the cisgender label, I am the defective human; the second-class citizen where the majority are given everything without any need to explain themselves. I need my label, and so do cisgender people.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

When needed, “transgender woman” is a handy label but because adding the ‘transgender’ as the first word, it feels like a qualifier, like an asterisk. Although it has far too many syllables I prefer “woman of transgender experience.”

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