Thursday, 5 September 2013

Chelsea Manning - Cisgenderism at Wikipedia

In a few weeks time I will be publishing the first of a number of academic papers about what I have termed "cultural cisgenderism".

Distinct from transphobia, cisgenderism is a culture which

  • erases trans identities, 
  • views gender as entirely binary, unchangeable and fixed at birth and 
  • something which should be imposed on others from outside. 

It is a culture, however which, although prevalent throughout Western society, is almost entirely tacit; this means that it is a culture that is not expressed in language and which is communicated without language. It is just something people know, without having to talk about. The great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called this sort of thing a "doxa". In other words it is a culture (or ideology, these concepts are closely linked and overlap) to which people are largely unaware they are adhering.

Cultural cisgenderism is the problem at Wikipedia. Although Sue Gardener's blog excellently explains some of the internal problems at Wikipedia over the way the decision to change Chelsea Manning's entry back to Bradley, it does not explore the wider cultural influence of cisgenderism which has also had an influence on Wikipedia. Here we see all three main features of cultural cisgenderism at work. Wikipedia, by changing Chelsea's name back, has, in effect, erased her identity, it has viewed her identity as unchangeable, but mostly it is engaging in the external imposition of gender.

The external imposition of gender is one of the most significant features of cultural cisgenderism, not merely because it disempowers trans people and hands the power to decide someone's gender to other people, but because it is largely viewed as unproblematic by those who are doing it. As such the individuals at Wikipedia who consider that they have a right to vote on Chelsea Manning's gender, clearly do not view their actions as in any way unreasonable. Yet they have clearly decided that they know better than Chelsea Manning what her name and what her gender are.

Of course there are transphobes who deliberately misgender people as well, and one of the things to remember about cisgenderism is that it often has the same effect as transphobia. This apparent isomorphism should not blind us as to the causes. It is entirely possible that some people in Wikipedia are transphobic but it is unlikely that a large number are, so this needs to be put down to cisgenderism,  and dealing with cisgenderism is different from dealing with transphobia.

As anyone who has had any dealings with TERFs (Trans Exclusionary "Radical" "Feminists") knows, their transphobia is an individual prejudicial attitude, which, like racism, rapidly descends into verbal violence and name-calling, and is based on an irrational fear and hatred of trans people. This is something which cannot be reasoned with. You can no more have a reasoned discussion with a TERF than you can with a White Supremacist, their prejudice is based on nothing more than emotional hatred.

But cisgenderism is something which, when discussed in a reasoned and non-accusatory way, and a way which seeks to educate rather than blame, is possible to overcome because it is not based on an emotional hatred in the same way transphobia is.

It is important to realise that everyone is affected by cisgenderism, it is a culture to which we are all exposed, whether transgender or cisgender, from early on in our lives. It is a culture we internalise without realising it. It is one of the reasons trans people have so many problems in coming out, in being ourselves and in fitting into society. It is also the reason why Chelsea Manning was not able to come out as herself when she was 5, and it may have been one of the reasons that she chose to join the army.

Because cultural cisgenderism is a tacit culture/ideology which is rarely expressed or communicated in words, the goings-on at Wikipedia have thrown up a rare opportunity to observe cultural cisgenderism manifested in langauge. As such it is important that their discussions are recorded and made available to analyse this phenomenon and illustrate its functioning and its effects.


  1. The bottom line is that Chelsea Manning will have changed her name and title via deed poll or similar - and one of the conditions of a deed poll is that you must exclusively use your new name and title once you have changed it, and likewise you must get other people to refer to you by your new name and title too. So, surely, Wikipedia should also abide by her wishes, and refer to her as Chelsea?

  2. People who live in a strongly white supremacist society are steeped in racism, to the point it permeates their subconscious. A lot of POC internalise racism and have beliefs which hurt themselves. And a lot of white people have a lot of unexamined racism lurking in their heads. Even people who are anti-racist have 'truths' they received as kids that they have not yet examined and may sometimes express without having thought about it. Or they want to be good allies to POC, but because of how toxic and segregated their society is, they feel nervous when they're actually around POC. Obviously, white people in this condition need to sort themselves out. We don't need to invent a special term to describe the invisible and unconscious racism that plagues even these apparently (but insufficiently) well-meaning white folks. It's just racism. That it's not deliberate or that it comes from a toxic society does not change that it's racism.

    While I don't mean to suggest that racism and transphobia are equivalent, I do wonder why we need to invent a special term for unexamined cis privilege in a cis privileging world, instead of just using the -ism (-phobia) term that already exists to describe this.

    Which is to say, I think you're letting wikipedia off much too easily.

  3. According to my suggestion,Chelsea has made right decision by changed her name and title via deed poll. for updated information about Chelsea i am getting info from Can anyone guide me from where i can get for more info about Chelsea.