Why are we OED-ing on trans politics?
The word ‘cisgender’ has been included in the most recent update of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). For those who don’t know what it means, it ‘[designates] someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth… Contrasted with transgender.’
The OED’s inclusion of cisgender has already provoked a great deal of media attention. But while most leading news outlets have covered the story in a largely neutral fashion, their comments sections have been throwing up a strange mix of celebration, anger and nitpicking.
Some commenters have said that because cisgender is often used as a slur it should not be included in the OED. Others have complained that by defining the term as an antonym for transgender, it marginalises or even erases the lives of intersex people (those born with ambiguous genitals). And there are some who, for one reason or another, would simply prefer not to conform to society’s binary gender system.
In her Guardian column, trans journalist Paris Lees suggested that cisgender is not a useful word because it ‘fails the hair-salon test’: ‘If I can’t say a word to my hairdresser and expect to be understood, it’s not, in my view, a good word.’ Given that the OED runs to 20 volumes, with this latest quarterly update adding 500 new words, it’s fair to say the vast majority of the OED’s words are not within the vocabulary of most academics, never mind hairdressers.
The more important question to ask is why this word is deemed newsworthy? Why have the concerns of transgender people risen from the margins to the mainstream in what must be the most rapid cultural shift in living memory? Trans people (who constitute less than 0.4 per cent of the population, according to even the most generous estimates) have become probably the most over-represented identity group in history.
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, ours is an era in which who you are trumps what you do. Personal growth and the non-judgemental recognition of others have never been more culturally esteemed. In this environment, trans people have assumed an important role, as representatives of the marginalised and supposedly excluded. The act of vocally supporting trans people is the easiest way to demonstrate that you are virtuous, that you don’t judge others. If you are pro-trans, then you are probably anti-racist, pro-feminist, gay-friendly and prone to cry over the plight of the poor.
The second and most worrying reason for the rise in interest in trans issues is that gender has become entwined with one’s ‘self identity’. Our gender has become something that we must come to terms with, as a self-conscious act, a perceived imposition that we can affirm, reject or mess around with. Hence the most problematic aspect of the OED’s definition of cisgender is the use of the phrase ‘assigned at birth’. It suggests that doctors, midwives and registrars do not simply record a biological fact when they say what sex a newborn baby is; rather, they are forcing us into a gender box that we are duty-bound to embrace, reject or reformulate.
A world in which the importance of sex and gender has faded away is not such a bad prospect. But constantly highlighting gender identity as something with which we all must engage is not the way to bring it about.
Chrissie Daz is a writer and cabaret performer based in Birmingham.
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