Cissexism, gender essentialism, and vaginas

[Content warning: discussion of sex organs]

As most of our followers probably know, there’s been quite the hullabaloo in Michigan recently over one of our representative’s use of the word ‘vagina’ on the house floor. So much in fact, that Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues came up to the capitol on short notice to perform a rendition of the play. I was fortunate enough to have a free evening and a car, so I drove up to Lansing to watch the play and join in the protest.

When I arrived, the atmosphere was absolutely electric - I’ve never seen so many people wearing pink and displaying pride in their sex organs. There were signs everywhere - many of which were the standard, ‘Vagina. Can’t say it? Don’t legislate it!’ or ‘Banning vagina?!??!?!’, but I also found some that bothered me on a extremely personal level.

But before I get into that, I should offer a bit of background: I am a 21 year old transgender/transsexual girl (assigned male at birth) who’s been transitioning over the past year. I present and am usually read as female and still have my ‘original plumbing’. 

I had just walked onto the capitol lawn when I saw someone carrying a sign reading, ‘Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.’ I assume the sign carrier intended this to be a matter-of-fact statement on how sex organs are natural and not a big deal, but to me, those words hurt. That was the most overtly cissexist sign I saw, but there were plenty of others championing gender essentialism.

Gender essentialism is the notion that for someone to be a certain gender, there are certain traits that they must have. In this case, the vagina = woman = feminine trope was playing out in full force. 

Once the Monologues started, I realized that this pervasive essentialist atmosphere wasn’t going to go away. Stories about how women had discovered themselves through their vagina made me realize just how alienated I was from this community. I understand that vaginas are important to most women and an unfortunately taboo topic, but putting them at the center of one’s being is absolutely absurd and incredibly disrespectful to people whose sex organs might not line up with society’s expectations.

Am I less of a woman for not having a vagina? In Michigan and many other states, the gender marker on my driver’s license/birth certificate/other legal IDs can’t be changed until I’ve had an elective surgery that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Using the bathroom is nerve racking - I get harassed in the men’s room and can be charged with sexual assault if I’m read as male in the women’s room. If I were to go to prison, I’d probably be locked up with male prisoners. All of this because my genitalia isn’t what the government would like it to be.

So why do we place allow this gender essentialism to go unchecked?

  • It’s right 99% of the time.
    Trans* and intersex people make up a tiny fraction of the population - the majority of people in this world are cissexual and have probably never heard of, much less met, a real trans* person outside of maybe a pornographic context. Intersex conditions are nearly invisible - most people still use the outdated term ‘hermaphrodite’ and have no idea what conditions are actually in existence. 
  • It’s scary!  
    Quite a few people are genuinely freaked out by any perceived discontinuity between primary and secondary sexual characteristics (ie breasts & penis, flat chest & vagina). This is terrible and makes me disgusted to think about, but it’s an unfortunate reality. Luckily, though better and more comprehensive trans* education, this can be changed.
  • It’s easy.
    I know I’ve had to reteach myself to not take the outward appearance of a person as an indication of their gender. It takes conscious effort to not look at someone and think, ‘they have {breasts, long hair, short hair, wide shoulders, etc.} so they must be a man/woman’.
  • Cissexism is almost never challenged.
    How many times have you heard someone say, ‘That’s cissexist!’? Probably none, unless you’re friends with (or are) a transfeminist. Even in circles that are supposedly GSRM-friendly, cissexism and cis privilege often go unchecked. 
  • Anyone who could challenge essentialism is discouraged from doing so.
    One of the things most trans* people learn early on is that in order to receive proper treatment and respect, they need to blend in. The ‘gatekeepers’ of medically transitioning have long held a standard of femininity and masculinity that is unreasonable and outrageous for anyone to live up to, much less someone who desires to live between the gender binary. As such, many people are coerced into assimilating into traditional gender roles and presentation against their will. Kate Bornstein writes about this in great detail in hir book ‘Gender Outlaw’, which I heartily recommend.

What can you do to change this?

  • Don’t gender people based on their appearance.
    When you meet someone for the first time, ask them what pronouns they prefer. Worst case scenario, they get a bit of education about gender. Best case scenario, you make someone’s day because you didn’t assume they were cisgender.
  • Stop making essentialist comments.
    It’s great if you’re attracted to women with vaginas, but to go around saying ‘I’m lesbian because penises are gross,’ (something I’ve heard far too many times) is actively cissexist/essentialist. Try to reduce the amount of gender essentialist language in your vocabulary - you might be surprised how ingrained it is in our culture.
  • Get educated!
    Read some books, blogs, or journals on gender issues. Most modern writing will have commentary on essentialism even if it’s not from a transfeminist approach.
  • Educate others and call them out.
    Doing this is a great way to make sure that more people are aware of essentialism and its negative impact on society. Always be respectful and polite - it’s hard to educate someone while angry.


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