Cisnormativity Constructed as Respectability Politics

This is the big post that I’ve been taking forever to work on. It’s been consuming most of the executive function that I would be spending on writing more frequent updates. Now that it’s done let’s see if I can get into that habit.

Cisnormativity and heteronormativity were made into separate structures by cis GLB people as a strategic decision. The cis norm, as its own structure, is very much a product of the Gay Rights Movement. Prior to this separation, non-cis and non-het people (together, Gender and Sexuality Minorities, or GSM) were essentially viewed as the same bunch of sexual and gender deviants by the EuroAmerican white hegemonic culture.

The motive for this separation is fairly simple. Cis gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people created the division in order to narrow the group of people they were advocating for, and to present a more “acceptable” face to heteropatriarchy. This “acceptable” face could only be taken by the most “presentable” GSM people. Because presentability means being gender-conforming, class privileged, and white, and the split was created at a time (soon after the Stonewall Riot) when poor and working-class trans women of color such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson were extremely prominent, separating off trans people was an obvious path to take at the time the tactic was employed.

Further, being able to position themselves as enforcers of cisnormativity gave cis sexual minority people further upward mobility. This position as enforcers is taken when a gay Congressman removes trans protections from a rights bill, on the grounds that trans women must not have a legally acknowledged right to use the appropriate restroom. This position is taken when a lesbian “radical feminist” demands that trans women not exist, or that trans men not transition. This position gives cis sexual minority people advantages because it allows them to shift “unacceptability” off onto trans people. It allows them, specifically, to point to transitioning/ed CAMAB people (especially People of Color) and say “we’re not like them“, playing off society’s pre-existing transmisogyny and racism.

It is important, in any examination of these structures, to point out that cisnormativity and heteronormativity are not and never were freestanding social institutions, not only entwined together (which, to some extent they still are), but also that they are aspects of patriarchy. The oppression of GSM people sits on a foundation of gender-coercion and misogyny. Any analysis of this oppression, and of tactics to fight it, that neglects to consider patriarchy fails. Because of this, the anti-trans prejudices that are being played on here are often specifically against trans women. Further, this creation of a category of “fake” women is part of misogyny, as it creates a way to deny the womanhood of “unacceptable” women, an attack which is made primarily against Black women (one example is here)

Superficially, the existence of a gender clinic system and a few visible trans people prior to the major successes of the Gay Rights Movement, and prior to the Gay Rights Movement having enough visibility to effect this cleavage in the broader society, appears to contradict this. This contradiction is resolvable. An examination of the gender clinic system shows them to be rooted in anti-GSM sentiment, directed at GSM people as a whole.

The oppressiveness, both sexist and anti-GSM, that the gender clinic system was built on has been written on at length elsewhere. Here it will only be touched on by way of three examples of the system’s mistreatment of trans women in particular.

First, the words used to describe trans women patients by clinicians (“homosexual transsexual”, “autogynephile”, “transvestic fetishist”) are very clearly rooted in anti-GSM sentiment and misogyny. Second, clinicians further required heterosexuality (as well as conformance to other social norms; ultimately, trans women were forced to perform a middle-class white nondisabled femininity) of their patients under threat of denial of care.

Third, patients were also required to act in ways opposite stereotypes of GSM people (such as being without sexual agency, as contrasted to the stereotype of sexually insatiable homosexuals), which demonstrates that the clinicians did believe their patients to be GSM people, and wanted them to act unstereotypical to be the “good”, “acceptable” GSM people. Each of these points can be developed at length, but they are tangential to the construction of cisnormativity by the Gay Rights Movement.

It’s important to note that although the past tense was used here, depending on location and the specific clinicians involved, many of these abuses continue to this day.

Another reason why the existence of the gender clinic system did not indicate a pre-existing split (and did not create the split) between heteronormativity and cisnormativity (and between cis sexual minority people and trans people) is because the split between cis sexual minority people and trans people does not follow the supposed pre-existing split exactly. There are a great many (especially nonbinary) trans people who do not seek medical treatments that were historically gatekept by the gender clinic system. They, too, are derided by cSM (cisgender sexuality minority) people and have their acceptance contingent on being able to pretend to be cSM people.

A further reason why this split is not a natural fault is the historical cooperation between the two groups. This history has been subsequently whitewashed and the contributions of people now constructed as non-cis erased. The Stonewall Riot is the clearest example of this historical erasure. Stonewall catered to the less-conforming GSM people, the ones who were not “straight-acting”, the ones who were people of color, the ones who were working-class or poor. Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican trans Latina, took a major role in the fightingmany accounts, including her own, say she started the riot. And while many (especially white) cSM people now claim Stonewall as their history, and note it (correctly) as a turning point in the formation of the modern movement, they do so while erasing non-cis people’s contributions to it, and whitewashing the rioters.

It is also important to note that the riot was condemned by the “respectable” gay organizations such as the Mattachine Society. This, too, provided a way of distancing themselves (the “respectable” white middle-class gay people) from the majority non-white rioters, and of opposing a riot against the system that, in the end, supports white gay men as white men. Abandoning trans people continues this. It is specifically a ploy to gain respectability at the expense of the trans Women of Color who led the riot.

The fact that this split is pursued more aggressively by more socially powerful cSM people (especially white cSM people) is a further illustration of this. While many trans People of Color (such as little light and Monica Roberts) point out that organizations for Women and LGBT People of Color are often trans-inclusive, white gay congressmen, and white gay HRC executives conspire to remove trans people from their legislation, specifically because of the fear that giving non-discrimination protections to trans people will allow trans women in women’s restrooms. Rather than challenging that fear, they surrender to and validate it, and repeat it themselves.

Antifemininity expressed by cis gay men traces back to this as well. While cis gay men are not the only cSM people to denigate feminine people in their communities (cis lesbians do so as well), because femininity in men is neither cisnormative nor heteronormative it connects to this structure, in addition to the misogyny that anti-feminine prejudice is generally rooted in (which is also why there has not, in general, been a counterpart reaction of masculinity among cis lesbians). This essay, however, will not repeat what Biyuti already wrote masterfully.

The clearest fact that proves that this split is a created and recent phenomenon, however, in how the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity is temporally and culturally contingent. The temporal contingency has been addressed, briefly, in this article (“And while this [all queer people being transgender] might have been the case thirty years ago, that is not the case today”). Biyuti points out, not infrequently, how non-cis and non-het identities are considered the same in many PoC (specifically Asian) cultures, such as in this post, reporting on a news article from the Philippines.

The separation of cisnormativity from heteronormativity was a deliberate strategy taken by a certain set of (predominantly white) cSM people, to create a line visible to the broader society and enforcers of heteropatriarchy that they chose to attempt to appease, for which they were on the acceptable side. To this end trans people were erased from “Gay” history. Before this cleavage was effected, such sharp lines did not exist among GSM people, and they do not exist now in many non-western cultures. This strategy, of continuing to present gender-conforming cSM people as “acceptable” to heteropatriarchy in a bid for tolerance, continues, at the expense of trans people and non-conforming cSM people.

Thanks to my pre-readers, Autumn, blackenedbutterfly, Calistair, Erica, and K6, and very special thanks to Binaohan and Morgan for providing not only criticism but also the inspiration without which this post would not have been written.

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