In my 20s I wondered if I was heterosexual.
I wasn’t questioning my sexuality in the usual sense. I was interested in women. But (despite my best, inadequate efforts) I wasn’t dating any of them, much less sleeping with them. I was a virgin into my late 20s. My wife (bless her) was the first woman I kissed.
Even today, more than a decade into my marriage, that’s a painful thing to admit. And in Playboy, no less. Heterosexuals, and heterosexual men in particular, aren’t supposed to be virgins into their late 20s. If you are a virgin in your 20s, society tells you that you are broken and should be ashamed.
I had, of course, figured out that you could have sex with yourself; that was easy enough. But that label “heterosexuality” was a miserable weight. Successful heterosexual guys (outlets like Playboy suggest) are sophisticated and have lots of sex with lots of women. By those standards, I was a failure. “Heterosexuality,” I felt, was supposed to label me as normal, as in the mainstream. Instead it made me feel anything but.
There seems to be a similar dynamic at work with the term “cissexual.” Cissexual is a word that’s come into regular use in the last decade or so to describe people who broadly identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. People who don’t identify with their birth gender, on the other hand, are trans.
Some radical feminists bristle at being labeled cissexual. They find the term alienating, just as I found “heterosexual” alienating.
Sarah Ditum, for example, writes that although she is not trans, she has never felt comfortable in her gender identity in the way that “cis” implies. “I hated my body and I wanted it to be different. My absolutely normal, functional, female body was a failure in the terms of femininity – and I think that… most women know this self-loathing as part of the normal business of being a woman.”
“Heterosexuality” didn’t fit me and felt oppressive. For Ditum, “cissexuality” doesn’t fit her and feels oppressive.“
Ditum’s logic parallels my own—and indeed, parallels the logic of many straight guys who argue that being a heterosexual man is not much fun. Heterosexuality certainly didn’t feel like a privilege in my 20s; it felt like an ugly burden, a demand that crushed and deformed me.
Heterosexuality hurt me. But does that mean I was oppressed the way LGBT people are oppressed? No, of course not. I experienced shame, but the shame was not systematically weaponized, as it is against gay people. Virgins aren’t discriminated against in employment, as just one example.
Ditum rightly says women are discriminated against and their bodies are despised. But that doesn’t mean that cis women (or Ditum in particular) face the same kind of violence and psychic distress that trans people do.
Ditum resents being told that she’s cis, and that, therefore, there are ways in which she is not marginalized. But how can trans people talk about their specific oppression and experiences if they’re not allowed to point out that those oppressions and experiences are different from cis people’s?
The truth is, all identity labels are ad hoc.
They’re social categories, which describe a messy reality, not a biological or Platonic truth. Some people who are "heterosexual” don’t have sex. Lots of people who are cis feel uncomfortable in their gender identities. Some straight guys sleep with men; some black people have pink skin. Individuals don’t fit easily into boxes. Identities aren’t coherent.
But even if they’re not coherent, identities have real effects. They’re used to police people, and to define who is wrong, or different, or deserving of ridicule and violence — who should be sent to prison, who deserves a marriage license, who is natural and who is artificial.
So, how do you talk about that? How can you acknowledge that certain people face discrimination? It’s hard to do if people who don’t face discrimination are nameless. As trans activist and theorist Julia Serano says, cis terminology is “ invaluable for articulating such differences in how transsexuals are viewed versus how cissexuals … are viewed by society.”
When trans people point out that some people are cis, they’re not creating an oppressive category or a privileged category. They’re simply naming the normality against which they’re defined.
The reason to name that normality isn’t to make it more normal, as Ditum suggests. Rather, it’s to point out that cis is not normal. People have different experiences of gender identity, and none of those are standard or right, just as people have different experiences of sexuality.
Ideally, none of those experiences would be policed or denigrated. At that point, labels like “heterosexual” and “woman” would become meaningless—or simply informational, like hair color or eye color. You wouldn’t feel like you needed to live up to them or down to them. You wouldn’t be burdened by the expectations of normalcy.
But we haven’t achieved Eden yet. And until we get there, we should be clear about who’s closing the gates. Gay people didn’t create compulsory heterosexuality by using the term “heterosexual.” Trans people haven’t created compulsory gender identities by coining the term “cissexual.”
On the contrary, the visibility of LGBT people gave me one tool to think about my own sexuality, even if I didn’t share the LGBT experience of discrimination. And, in the same way, trans discussion of the oppression of compulsory gender identities helps Ditum talk about her experiences, even if (despite her claims to the contrary) she isn’t marginalized as trans people are.
“You must have a normal gender, you must have a normal sexuality"—those are expectations that pinch and pain everyone. No one is ever normal enough. That doesn’t mean that cis people and trans people have the same experiences of oppression. But it does mean that trans people’s experiences and insights can be relevant to people who are cis, or trans, or any other gender identity.
To be cis and call yourself cis isn’t to claim a seamless, happy relation to gender. It’s to acknowledge that there is no one, perfect, validated, seamless, happy relation to gender.
If I wasn’t a normal heterosexual cis man in my 20s (or now) — well, those words "heterosexual” and “cis” are a useful reminder that there’s nothing “normal” about heterosexual, cis or for that matter “man” in the first place. Trans people aren’t the ones who create the gendered expectations that limit everyone. But their experiences and analysis—including that useful word “cis"—can help to show how narrow, and how arbitrary, those expectations are.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.