Navigating gender and sexuality: know your CIS from your TRANS

Illustration of hands and banners around gender equality

To be true allies in the dismantling of patriarchy, men need to unlearn a lot of things, and unlearning requires a lot of learning. We need to learn,  for example, how our cis-het* status benefits us, in order to unlearn our privilege. But there are so many jargon-y sounding words surrounding feminist and queer theory; where does one even begin? We have compiled a list of definitions for words that may pop up in our quest for gender enlightenment.

This is a gender-based hierarchy in society that puts men at the top and rewards maleness or masculinity and ultimately oppresses women and non-binary people. But patriarchy also hurts men in an insidious and invasive manner. Masculinity is so fragile it requires constant and accurate performance of manhood. Maintenance of the ‘privileged’ position usually requires the oppression of those considered subordinate.
Gender binary
This concept ignores the plausibility of gender fluidity. It views genders/sexes as opposite instead of different. It is a social construct which thrives on the erasure of diversity. Gender binary only recognises two genders and expects the proper performance of these genders.
Heteronormativity encourages strict gender binary and in turn, male dominance and female subordination through the requirement of accurate performances of patriarchal gender roles. This system denies the existence of non-binary gender and sexual identities.
It normalises “Women belong in the kitchen and men are breadwinners” or “Cars are for boys and dolls are for girls” and treats everything else as unnatural.
Feminism is a social political movement which seeks to free humanity from gender oppression. You have probably come across Ms. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of a feminist: “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. This definition implies that feminism is for everyone. It is not only for women even though it might appear like that because they are at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Womanism is a term coined by Ms. Alice Walker as a rejection of the “one size fits all” mainstream feminism which was centred on white middle class womanhood and failed to understand black womanhood. Womanism is, in the same breath, an alternative and expansion of feminism. “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” Ms. Alice Walker has said.
Misogynoir – which combines the words misogyny and noir (French for “black”) – was coined by black queer feminist scholar Ms. Moya Bailey to describe the special type of racialised sexism that black women face. This is where gender and race identities and ultimately sexism and racism intersect. This concept is grounded in the theory of intersectionality that mainstream (read: white) feminism ignores. The utility of intersectionality as a framework for studying oppression is highlighted here.
Tropes such as the Angry Black Woman and Strong Black Woman, as harmless as they may seem, actually perpetuate misogynoir. These stereotypes dehumanize black women. When black women voice their opinion about issues or express their frustrations they are dismissed as irrational because they are inherently angry. It is used as a pacifying tactic. The writer Ms. Afrika Bogatsu once said: “Don’t call us strong black women when you put us through so much shit we have no choice but to be strong,” at one of our Imbawula storytelling nights. And that is why the Strong Black Women trope is problematic. It creates the impression that black women can withstand any amount of emotional and physical abuse because they are immune to pain.

“Don’t call us strong black women when you put us through so much shit we have no choice but to be strong.”

Queer is used as an umbrella term for the LGBTI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Intersex) community. This term advocates for the blurring of gender boundaries and recognises both sexual orientation and gender identity as potentially fluid.
Even though queer was, for many years, used as an insult by members of society with heteronormative views, many members of the LGBTI+ community have, in recent years, reclaimed the term.
Cisgender refers to people who identify themselves with the gender they were assigned at birth. The “cis” in cisgender is Latin for “on this side of”. This term was invented in the 1990s to mean the opposite of transgender.
Someone with a gender identity or expression that does not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth. This term can include transsexual and transvestite. The “trans” in transgender is Latin for “on the other side of”. It is the opposite of cisgender. Transgender people may be straight, bisexual, lesbian, gay, or asexual.
This term refers to a person who has no sexual feelings or desires either within or outside of relationships. Asexuality is misunderstood and often denounced. It is not necessarily abstinence or celibacy (choices to refrain from sexual activity for religious/ideological reasons); asexual people can still have sex even though they lack sexual attraction. Abstinence/celibacy is a choice and asexuality is an orientation. Lack of sexual attraction does not mean lack of sexual arousal. Some are repulsed by sex and some are simply indifferent to it.
Under the asexuality umbrella, there is also demisexual (a person who only feels sexually attracted to those with whom a close emotional bond has been formed) and graysexual (a person who experiences sexual attraction least often or to a minimal extent).
Intersex refers to someone who is born with genital ambiguity. They may have reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Because of this, intersex anatomy is not always visible at birth. Some people only find out when they reach puberty and some even die without knowing. Intersex people can identify as either female, male, nothing or intersex.
Transphobia is defined as an irrational fear of, and/or hostility towards, people who are transgender or who otherwise transgress traditional gender norms. This backlash is a direct result of heteronormativity or gender binary. It is caused by a misunderstanding (sometimes wilful) of non-binary people. Transphobic people believe that gender is rigid and refuse to acknowledge or accept gender fluidity as natural so they view transsexuality as an abomination.
This term was first introduced by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw and it describes the many ways in which oppressive system are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. It insists that the conversation be well nuanced and rejects a one-size fits all feminism.
Feminist icon Ms. Bell Hooks started to use the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” as a short cut to affirming that these things function simultaneously at all times. This is an example of intersectionality. By recognising how these oppressive systems intersect, it makes it easier to understand experiences and enactments.
The most important aspect of intersectionality is analysing our own privilege in order to understand issues and identities that do not personally affect us and how that privilege might be upholding oppressive systems. This requires a lot of self-work and listening.
[This list is in no way exhaustive, go forth and discover]
Illustration by Valentina Quinonez.
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