“I am not trapped by my body. I am trapped by your beliefs.” - Sass Rogando SaSot
A study by Kennedy and Hellen (2010) suggests that for the vast majority of trans children, their trans identity is not known by parents, teachers, or other adults in their community. Researchers found that “between 90% and 95% of trans children are non-apparent.” In this context, non-apparent simply means that the trans child’s identity is not known by their parents, teachers, or other adults in their community (it doesn’t mean that the trans child doesn’t know or suspect something about their identity - more on that later).
This statistic, which feels both astounding and unsurprising, led researchers to ask why? Specifically, they were interested in investigating why so many trans children “conceal or suppress” their gender identity.
This is where cultural cisgenderism comes into play. Cultural cisgenderism is the idea that there is a clear, often biological distinction between cis and trans folks. It is the idea that being cisgenderm is the “norm” and being transgender is the deviance from the norm, or the “other.” It is a widely held, deeply ingrained, and extremely prolific ideology in our Western society. It holds and is held by similar dominant ideologies that have been built up over time since the early years of colonization (i.e. white supremacy, eugenics, etc).
Cultural cisgenderism is a largely held but rarely stated ideology, which means it is implicit and everywhere. Most people wouldn’t say they are “cultural cisgenderists,” but the images, lessons, and messages that the majority of us received about sex and gender form us into believers. It manifests itself in our society, and we can see the effects of this ideology in the “systemic erasure and problematizing of trans’ people.” (Kennedy, 2018)
The ideology of cultural cisgenderism gifts us with many of our traditional notions of sex and gender. It “essentializes” gender as something unchangeable, that is determined before birth. It also tells us that there are important biological distinctions between men and women, that gender is not influenced by one’s culture or environment, and many other myths that modern gender science has since disproved.
Our society (which is saturated in cultural cisgenderism) serves as an incubator for transphobia. As researchers stated, “Cultural cisgenderism makes trans people systematically invisible…” (Kennedy, 2018). Transphobia is a fearful reaction to trans visibility. Therefore, in a society where cisgenderism is inherently normal, transphobia can flourish, unchecked.
For young people, this fearful reaction and imposed secrecy on transgender folks erases the possibility of other genders existing. It effectively creates a sort of isolating, gendered tunnel vision for young people. For young trans people specifically, cultural cisgenderism creates the illusion of singularity; the feeling that they are the only person who has ever felt this way. It eliminates the experience of community. Without access to trans narratives, trans children cannot ground their personal experience in any sort of community, history, etc.
Cultural cisgenderism problematizes transness, turning it into an affliction, rather than an identity. In other words, it demands an explanation for transness, and often turns to pathology. Young trans children are often referred to doctors, psychologists, therapists, etc. Today, these caregivers more frequently offering gender affirming care, however it is not always the case, and often young trans people face further criticism and marginalization when they try to access physical and mental healthcare. Not only do these negative experiences harm the development of trans children, but they send the message to young trans people that there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed.
It’s important to note that cultural cisgenderism isn’t just a “trans issue.” Cisgenderism affects cis people too. This ideology creates rigid gender roles for binary cis people. Think: men not being able to express their emotions, women not being paid the same, etc. Even for cis people, the idea that one is born to fulfil certain gender roles can feel restrictive and uncomfortable. To be cis is to have a gender, and to construct it through a life-long, mutual conversation with the outside world (just like for trans folks).
In short, this outdated ideology is still gripping our society, influencing everything from politics to what is taught in the classroom. It’s important to identity this belief, to really examine it, in order to break it down.
Kennedy, Natacha. 2018. Prisoners of Lexicon: Cultural Cisgenderism and Transgender Children. In: Erik Schneider and Christel Balthes-Lo ̈hr, eds. Normed Children: Effects of Gender and Sex Related Normativity on Childhood and Adolescence. Bielefeld, Germany: transcript Verlag, pp. 297-312. ISBN 9783837630206 [Book Section]