When Cis Respectability Is Coded Language For Anti-Trans Violence

The bottom line is that this isn’t a left or right issue, it’s a cis issue.

Photo by Chelsea Manning’s Instagram

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump referred to Chelsea Manning with he/him pronouns when referencing the crimes she was convicted for. It’s become a vicious pattern for conservatives and their echo chamber to misgender and deadname the trans people they disagree with. But the truly sad part is that it’s not just limited to the political right.

Cisgender people have a unique power over their trans siblings. No other marginalized group of people can have their humanity erased simply by using a different pronoun or an old name. Deadnaming someone who is transgender is a form of outing them, by saying or publishing the name that a trans person was assigned at birth.

Cis people too often abuse this power, cajoling trans people into respectability by dangling the basic human respect of using our legal names over our heads. When trans people refuse to dance that cis dance, our dignity is snatched away.

Trans writer Sam Reidel, in a fantastic piece for The Establishment, breaks down why names have such power over the lives of trans people. “What we’re called has power, and hearing a blatantly masculine or feminine name applied to you when you’re trying to realign your gender in a different direction can be a source of profound, dysphoria-inducing anxiety. Hearing or seeing one’s old name can induce a visceral sense of terror that no matter how much progress one makes in their transition, the person they used to be (or pretended to be) is still there.”

Trans women of color, particularly, are targeted because of the cultural belief that trans women are “really men.” It’s not just dysphoria that can be triggered with purposeful misgendering, there are real world violent consequences in play. Laverne Cox, in a speech given at the 2014 National Conference for LGBT Equality stated, “Justice is what love looks like in public. When a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence. But loving trans people is a revolutionary act.” You cannot love us while wielding our deadnames and pronouns a cudgel to control our behavior.

Laverne Cox at the 69th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards 2017

It’s become a sad trope among my friends, the countless times they’ve had cis friends respect their identities until it became useful to hurt us. When called out, these same cis people claim that they have a right to free speech and that we cannot force them to use words they don’t want to use, but really this is just an empty appeal.

Chelsea Manning is the perfect foil to view this phenomenon. She’s a trans woman and a public figure, with a history of past actions that have divided public opinion. Many people respect her gender identity but condemn the crimes she was convicted for, but all too often her crimes have invalidated her womanhood for her critics.

An article in the National Review about Manning’s computation provides an inciteful example of how cis people will often sweep away our genders when they disapprove of our actions.

Not only does the headline deadname Manning, but the author of the piece—well known conservative pundit David French—straight up declares that Manning is not a woman because he thinks she’s a traitor. “Manning isn’t a woman in need of rescue. He’s a soldier who committed serious crimes. He wasn’t a ‘whistleblower,’ as many of his defenders claim.” Not once in French’s entire condemnation of Manning did he use her legal name or she/her pronouns. Her personhood quickly swept away because David French just didn’t like her.

Chelsea Manning is a woman. No, you cannot deadname her because that was her legal name when she first became well known. No, you cannot deadname her because you think she is a traitor. No, you cannot use he/him pronouns until you get confirmation of what’s currently between her legs. No, you cannot just invalidate her lived experience on a technicality. Either you respect all trans people, or you respect none. Our genders are not conditional on your approval.

Regardless of what you think of Chelsea Manning, she deserves to have her actual name used. She deserves the basic respect of using the pronouns that she’s chosen. Her gender and whatever your opinion of her decisions are should remain separate. If you didn’t like a married woman and you used her maiden name, people would rightly look at you strangely. Doing the same to a trans person is much more violent and should earn you social scorn.

Deadnaming and misgendering trans people they don’t like is not just an issue on the conservative side of the ledger, however. One of my frustrations as a trans woman is liberal allies who insist on deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner. Look, I agree her public statements can be disgusting and her unwavering support of Trump is deplorable, but she’s a trans woman just like I am. If you deadname Jenner, you’re giving license for anyone who disagrees with me to deadname me as well.

The bottom line is that this isn’t a left or right issue, it’s a cis issue.

I don’t know how to explain that you should care about the safety and well-being of trans people. There’s a long line of marginalized communities being made to dance the respectability dance to earn even basic respect from their oppressors, and trans people are no different. Chelsea Manning is a woman named Chelsea, her pronouns are she/her. Caitlyn Jenner is a woman named Caitlyn, her pronouns are she/her.

Neither of these statements are conditional.