Many people in my closest social circle are on at least one of the LGBTQ+ spectrums of identity, and I’ve done my campus’s available Safe Zone training and proudly display my associated sticker on my door to welcome students, and generally my ally status is pretty secure and obvious. But despite all that, I myself am entirely cisgender and heterosexual. I’m simply not in any way LGBTQ+. And I’m going to be a little selfish today and talk about how things that benefit LGBTQ+ people (and especially people who are transgender) also benefit me as a cishet person.
If we built a truly inclusive world, where people who are LGBTQ+ have nothing to fear because of how people respond to that dimension of themselves, it would be a really beautiful world. The first and most obvious benefit to cisgendered, heterosexual people like myself would simply be living in a world with less suffering. The second, of course, would be free association with all the wonderful people who have had to hide themselves away, or have been pushed away, or have been silenced, or otherwise marginalized. A happier world with more available friends who can be more authentically themselves? I honestly see no downside here.
But there are other reasons why homophobia and especially transphobia hurts everyone. Obviously, it hurts people who are LGBTQ+ the most, and that should always be our first concern, because direct victims’ experiences should always be an immediate concern, and in no way do I want to silence that. But in addition, the kinds of bias, microaggressions, violence, shame, etc that allow homophobia and transphobia to flourish also hurt cisgendered and heterosexual people in smaller but still noticeable ways. And since the stories of the direct victims aren’t mine to tell, but the stories of the ancillary harms done by these thought systems are in some part mine to tell, that’s what I’ll tell here.
A few weeks ago on Twitter I saw a transgender woman asking if other trans people struggled with having to shave their faces despite using hormone therapy, which would be expected to reduce facial hair. I wanted to respond that, even as a cisgender woman, I have to shave my face constantly. I didn’t reply, because I recognized that conversation wasn’t mine to entered (I hadn’t been asked, and I don’t like to be a bother on Twitter), but it got me thinking hard about the ways that my body, in many ways, isn’t feminine “enough,” and how, if we lived in my perfect world where LGBTQ+ people are fully embraced for who they are, then I, too, in my cisgendered but not ideally formed body, would likewise be accepted.
I hate that I have to shave my face, but a lot of women in my family do. It’s just genetics or something, and it doesn’t help that I have very light skin and dark hair. And it’s not like I have to shave because it’s somehow unhealthy to have facial hair, the same way that I don’t feel completely human until I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning. I shave because I feel shame because the hair is considered unfeminine. And because, as a woman, when I look in the mirror I expect to see someone “feminine,” I do what I have to to guarantee that that’s what I look like. Like so many women, I police my face carefully, inspecting it every day to make sure it’s still fitting into a “feminine” box and making adjustments until it does.
Likewise, I have a low voice (for a cisgender woman). It’s not necessarily a masculine voice, but it is in the lower ranges (I sing alto). Do I ever wish it were higher? Sometimes, but mostly when I’m trying to sing along with Nightwish or Epica, which front sopranos. But I have always found it easier to sing along with tenors, like Josh Groban and Simon and Garfunkel, and so I frequently find myself singing lyrics that are a male perspective, rather than a female perspective. And there simply aren’t a lot of lead singers out there singing in a truly alto range, and most alto parts are the least interesting line in a piece of music.
In one very telling incident, I once had a man tell me, when we broke up after dating very briefly and not exclusively, that he was looking for someone “more feminine” than myself. I honestly to this day don’t know exactly what he meant, but he was also kind of awful in a lot of ways, so it’s no big loss. But the comment still stings.
You see, when I see someone talk about a trans woman in ways that dismiss her womanhood or femininity, not only does it hurt because I’m seeing another human being attacked, but because, in a way, my own femininity is coming under attack at the same time.
TERFS and other flavors of transphobes like to say that they define femininity in ways that are biologically based, that it’s “science” (it’s not). They might say it’s chromosomal–you have to have XX chromosomes. What then of the cisgender women who don’t? Chromosomes aren’t as binary as such people would like. Genome and phenome are often very different in the messy world of reality, and many cisgender women who have different genomes from the XX we teach in elementary school don’t even realize it.
Or, they might say, it’s your ability to bear children, to get pregnant. I don’t know yet how fertile I am, because it’s honestly impossible to tell unless you’re actually giving birth, really. But I do know that a lot of cisgendered women can’t bear children, for a number of reasons. Some people’s reproductive organs never developed that ability; some developed dangerously and had to be modified or removed to save their lives. Given my own family medical history, I’m fully braced to be told I can’t if/when I try. Maybe I waited too long? Maybe I never could? I honestly don’t know if I’m able to bear a child in my body. Am I therefore not female? And what about menopausal women? Are they then not women either?
Or, maybe they want to regulate sports to exclude transgender people based on their hormones. Too much testosterone? You don’t get to play on a women’s team. Not enough testosterone? No men’s team for you. Then, many cisgender people can’t play. Circumstances at the time made it unwise to seek further testing or treatment, but I did once get a blood test back showing testosterone over the “female” limits; there are a lot of reasons that can happen, but I’m not that kind of doctor, so I won’t try to explain how hormones work. And now, every time I see arguments for hormonal testing for athletes, I find myself wondering “Would I have been allowed to play if that rule goes through?”
And in the larger project of normalizing cishet people, we have created binary gendered spaces, which in turn hurt cishet people as well. Consider, for instance, creating “girls only” and “boys only” spaces. These are spaces that, despite being cishet, I have never fully fit into. Sure, I love girls’ science camp, which was on a coed college campus, but I hated Girl Scout Camp and cried myself to sleep most nights there. I thrived in coed spaces, like church camp and school. My friend group was always mixed. In elementary school, when we had “boy-girl wars” as we called them, I was on the boys’ side. I wasn’t the only girl there. When our teacher decided to “solve” the problem by designating certain parts of the playground, which were the hotly contested territory in the wars, as “boy only” and “girl only” on certain days, I found myself not allowed to play with my friends. There I stood under the jungle gym, forbidden to climb it that day, while my male friends swung above me. I was on the boys’ team, but when we were forced to divide by assigned gender, I was left alone, despite being cisgender and thus, in theory, accommodated by a binary system. I can only imagine how much worse it might have been for a kid who was trans or nonbinary.
Or consider, for instance, bathroom bills, which are sold as “protecting women, children, and families.” Consider, for instance, when I was asked to accompany a friend’s young son to the bathroom, old enough to do most things for himself, but still young enough to need a little guidance. Which door were we to use? How much more stressful, then, for a father out with his young daughter, who might be expected to take his child into a space that is often not designed with children in mind at all, or for an adult disabled person who requires the assistance of a caregiver who happens to be another gender?
This list of reasons cishet people benefit from trans-inclusive and LGBTQ+ friendly policies is by no means complete, but I think it’s important to look at how when we define gender in narrow binaries, we also exclude the very people we thought we were including. I’m cishet, but in the situations I just described, at those moments, I find myself grouped as having more in common with my LGBTQ+ brethren than with other cishet people, and I know I can’t be alone in that. And all this despite the fact that, in no way, have I ever been misgendered or had my gender and sexuality questioned by someone else in the ways that LGBTQ+ people face.
When we build a more inclusive world, we build a better world. Not just for the previously excluded people, but for the people who were always included too.