I recently wrote a post about cis feminists who misgender trans women (and more generally about feminists who marginalize women). This post is for cis people who say they understand trans people and in all likelihood sincerely believe that they understand trans people, but after talking to them for a while I have to wonder if they understand trans people.
When I enter a space I consider to be relatively safe, I am usually quick to disclose that I am a queer woman. Upon the disclosure cis people tend to respond in one of two ways. First, some cis people respond by asking creepy questions about my experiences as a trans person. They ask all about my sex life or, more commonly, my genitalia. They want to know if I am going to have “the surgery”. Offhandedly I can think of eight surgeries a trans woman might want as part of her transition, so I am put off when cis people make the surgery a homophoric reference to the one that involves a penis. But I digress. Other cis people respond by asking non-creepy questions about my experiences as a trans person. For example, they might ask me whether I have encountered discrimination on account of my trans status. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. In these situations my problem is not with the questions that are asked but with the questions that are not asked.
Can you, dear reader, guess what the lacuna is in cis people’s responses? What sort of question do you suppose I would hope to hear upon my disclosure that I am a queer woman? If I disclose that I am disabled or working class, do you suppose that I expect to hear people ask, “What is it like to be trans?”
There are two questions cis people do not ask me:
What is it like to be a woman?
What is it like to be queer?
If someone wants to argue that these are overly broad questions that no one would ask a cis queer woman, I would concede the point. But the trouble is that cis people do not even ask me more specific questions like, “Do you encounter sexism at such and such a place?” or, “Do you encounter heterosexism at that other place?” Cis people do not ask me, “Do you think our organization is falling short of meeting the needs of women?” even while soliciting my feedback on how well the organization is meeting the needs of trans people. Cis lesbians do not ask me specifically, “Doesn’t a woman seem so much hotter when you find out she’s queer?” even though I have known them to ask this question in other situations.
It is not for a lack of opportunity. There are people who have visited this blog, undoubtedly seeing the subtitle “A Queer Woman’s Blog”, and still only want to engage me in conversation about my trans status. There are often situations in which I find it natural to ask cis women about their experiences as women or cis queer folks about their experiences as queer folks, and they do not hesitate to answer. But they do not follow up by asking, “And what is your experience?” When an opportunity to ask me what it is like to be a queer woman presents itself, cis people are silent, and that silence speaks volumes.
Some cis folks might say, “Oh, Veronika, I do get that you are a woman. It is just that your experiences as a woman are so different that I do not know what to ask you.” I don’t buy it. Most cis folks know a cis woman who has to shave her facial hair, who does not menstruate, or who does not have noticeable breasts, and they still find a way to talk about their experiences of gender. Also, if it is a lack of common ground that keeps cis folks from talking about my gender, how is it that they have no difficulty asking me questions about my experience as a trans person—an experience that by definition no cis person has had? As I said before, a non-creepy question that involves my trans status is not bothersome in and of itself. So why don’t cis people ask, “What is it like to be a woman, when everyone around you insists you are a man?” or, “What is it like to be a queer woman, when everyone around you insists you are a straight man?” If they did, they might uncover differences that would help them better approach topics of gender and sexual orientation with me. Or they might find out I am not so different from cis queer women after all. Either way, they will have learned something about my experience as a queer woman.
And, yes, I am generalizing. There have been times when conversation naturally led to talk about my experiences as a woman or as a queer person; I do not remember now if these situations began with questions, but I felt that the other parties got it, so I will count them as exceptions. Also I do recognize when cis folks get it, even when they are simply making a statement. I was recently at a party where someone turned to me and said, “It is hard being a woman,” and I knew from her delivery that she was not saying this to inform me but because she knew I would understand. I get teary-eyed just thinking about this—this moment that would have been unremarkable, had I been a cis woman—because for me moments like this are so few and far between.
As you have probably guessed, if a cis person comments on this post merely to ask, “What is it like to be a woman?” or, “What is it like to be queer?” I will not answer. After all the point is not to take just one moment to ask a trans person a couple of questions, never to engage them on the matters ever again. My hope is that the cis folks who read this will make a continued conscious effort to recognize when they fail to seek input from trans folks, when they would seek the same input from other cis folks. I will believe cis folks are sensitive to me as a trans person, when they treat me the way they do other people who share my gender or sexual orientation. I will believe cis folks are sensitive to me as a queer woman, when they understand that they cannot know about every queer woman’s experience without asking me about mine.