I am a cis man. For those who haven’t come across the term that means, very basically, that when I was born someone said “It’s a boy!”, and I’ve never seen any particular reason to argue with that assessment.
As a cis man, I am fairly clueless when it comes to issues of gender identity, on an almost Peter-from-Fist-of-Fun level (“ladies… they’re the ones with like, eyes, on their chests?”). However, rather amazingly, it seems there are a lot of people with even less Clue than me. The only thing I can think, since there are many, many, explanations of all this stuff online, is that those people are waiting for an explanation from someone “like them”.
Therefore, a guide for the clueless, from the very-slightly-less-clueless. What follows will undoubtedly be full of inaccuracies and wrongness, and will probably make those with actual Clue cringe, and I apologise for that. But the idea here is to hammer some basic points into people who are even wronger than I am, but who are more used to hearing things from straight white cis men than from anyone who isn’t that.
1) Trans men are men. Trans women are women.
2) No, really. I know you’re about to say “but by definition and then go on to talk about genitals or chromosomes. It’s you, not them, who’s using the wrong definition, because when we talk about men or women in normal conversation, we’re not talking about genitals or chromosomes. I have never run a DNA test on any of my friends, and the number of them whose genitals I have personally inspected is very small (and I’m sure the rest are very grateful for that). Nonetheless, I can tell which ones are women, because they’re called things like Jennie or Emily or Debi, and they look like women, and they sometimes say things like “I am a woman”. Similarly, the ones who are men are called things like Dave or James or Richard, and often have beards or male-pattern baldness or say “I am a man”.
If you’re at all honest, you’ll admit that that’s how *you* tell men from women as well. If the chromosome or genital-configuration tests give a different result, so much the worse for those tests.
3) No, you don’t need to play devil’s advocate about this. While the precise boundaries of gender definition may be of great academic interest to you, arguing that trans people aren’t “really” who they say they are leads to greater prejudice against them. Given the horrific rates of attempted suicide among trans people, and how much lower those rates are when the people in question are in a supportive environment, maybe you could just shut up about your thought experiments for a while?
4) Some people are neither men nor women. If you don’t understand that, just take their word for it. They know better than you who they are. This does not, however, negate point 1 above. Trans men are men, trans women are women, non-binary people are non-binary people.
5) No, “cis” isn’t a slur. It just means “not trans”. On the other hand, pretty much any term you’ve ever heard for a trans person, other than “a trans person”, *is* a slur. Generally speaking, if you learned a word from porn, you probably shouldn’t call someone it, unless you’re in the kind of interesting situation that this post does not cover.
6) No, no-one wants to make you feel bad about being cis. Most trans people don’t care about you one way or the other. If you act like an arsehole, though, they probably do want you to feel bad about that.
7) The fact that some prominent feminists say trans women aren’t women doesn’t make it the case. Having a column in the Guardian doesn’t make you the repository of all truth, and just because someone is left-wing doesn’t make them immune from bigotry. Arguments should be examined on their own merits, not on authority, and so saying “but Julie Bindel/Germaine Greer/Cathy Brennan says…” doesn’t make the argument any less fallacious.
8) No, you shouldn’t ask someone if they’ve had surgery. Among the things that most human beings consider the most private are their genitals and their medical history. Asking a question about both at the same time is rude and intrusive.
9) No, you shouldn’t ask what their name used to be, either. For many trans people this can be a very, very sore subject.
10) Most important of all, you should NOT BE LIKE ME, AND NOT LISTEN TO ME. Seriously, did you even read the bit at the beginning about me being clueless? I wrote this out of frustration that I see the same stupid arguments being made over and over again by clueless cis people who are completely unaware of their privilege or of the harm they’re doing, partly because I used to be one of them myself until I got clued in by knowing some actual trans people.
And I do think the half-joking stuff about being a straight cis white male and therefore OK to listen to has something of a point, and that sadly there are people who will read this who wouldn’t read it coming from an actual trans person.
But fundamentally, I don’t have a fucking clue, and neither do you. And the only decent thing to do in those circumstances is shut up, listen to the opinions of people who know what they’re talking about, and not give opinions unless they’re asked for. Advice which I shall now take myself.