Appearance, Gender and Why I’m Not “Cis”

bowiegenderCisgender: A gender identity where individuals’ experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth. – Wikipedia

Over the last couple of years the feminist porn movement has been drawing awareness to issues surrounding gender identity and trans issues. It’s led to me giving the issue a lot of thought in regards to myself. I’ve been thinking about writing this for months but I’ve hesitated because it seems like even speaking about these issues invites conflict which is not my intent. Rather, I just want to make a personal statement.

If you’re not familiar with feminist theory, the term “cisgender” has recently been coined as a way of discussing people who don’t identify as transgender. It’s use is a way of levelling the linguistic playing field, as it were, by not identifying trans people as “other” during discussions. That’s fair enough and I understand why it has currency. At the same time, I felt that the term “cis” didn’t feel right, at least for me. The thought’s been in my head for a while but I couldn’t really clarify why in a way that wouldn’t sound obnoxious or cause rafts of offense.

Then I read this piece which does a good job of teasing out some of the problems with “cis”. I also read this piece in which a butch lesbian talks about her desire to keep identifying as butch, simply because it suits her. These articles have clarified my thinking a bit.

So with those articles in mind, here’s my personal story about appearance, gender and why I don’t identify as cis.

I’m a child of the 70s. My parents were a mix of tradition and new ideas. I was brought up as a girl but I was never especially girly. I had dolls and dresses but I also had my share of non-gender-defined toys and clothes, as was the way of the 70s. Still, I was trained in “female” chores; I did the housework, my brother mowed the lawn.

When I hit puberty early, things got difficult. When I was nine my mother brought my first bra and I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified by it. I was proud to be so “advanced” but hated the restrictive elastic thing I had to wear. It was worse when I got my period at ten. Cue the surfboard pads, excruciating cramps, worry about “accidents” and the need to keep it all secret, a nightmare when I was still in primary school. I learned early that being a woman can really suck. And I’ve loathed menstruation ever since.

At the same time, genetics blessed me with a nice set of boobs and an hourglass figure. Everyone complimented me on my body and how well-made I was. I learned that sexiness equals power and that a nice pair of tits can get you places. By the time I was 16 I’d had my boobs groped by about 6 different boys (maybe they’ll like me now!) but I’d never been kissed.

Alas, genetics is also a bitch. When it came to my face, I ended up with a bunch of famous characteristics: Alice Cooper’s nose, Freddie Mercury’s teeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s chin. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not conventionally attractive, though on a good day I think I’m not too bad, offering a style of Angelica Houston ugly-sexiness that’s, shall we say, interesting.

Of course, in high school, such polite descriptions were not in the offing. “Fuck, you’re ugly,” one boy told me at a school dance, and for many years I took his words to be truth. How could they not be true, when – boob-gropers aside – potential boyfriends were non-existent, in spite of my best efforts to be attractive and fashionable.


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It needs to be said, I was a high school nerd. I was great at schoolwork but hopelessly unpopular. I failed spectacularly at wearing fashionable clothes and was cheerfully mocked by all the cool queen bees. I read Dolly and Cosmo magazines, I bought the best flouro socks and shoulder-padded jackets, I had eyeshadow in a cool shade of green and glitter gel for my flicked-back hair. But try as I might, I was always a dag.

Still, I had a group of friends who were also unpopular and together we braved our way through school. Being unattractive meant I had to look elsewhere to find self-esteem – my intelligence, my sense of humour, my writing, my art, my music. It was a backhanded blessing; I became a better person because I had to adapt and find ways to define myself that didn’t involve how I looked. I became one of those girls politely described as having a great personality because that’s the hand I was dealt.

And in the meantime, I’d started to hang out with my brother’s friends, playing in their three-chord garage band and learning to be one of the boys. I took up wearing black heavy metal t-shirts and jeans, and I liked the freedom of it. I wasn’t girlfriend material, I was just a friend and, even though I desperately wanted a real, proper, boy-girl relationship, I was happy to just hang out with them.

That changed when, at 16, I met the love of my life; he liked me for who I was and we’ve been happily together ever since.

In my first year of university (1991), I delved into feminism, just as I was consciously rejecting Cosmopolitan’s “advice” and limited rules on how to succeed as a woman. I decided I hated high heels, skirts, make up, diets and “what’s in right now”. I began to view fashion as an endless treadmill of trying to impress other people but never being good enough. I didn’t reject mainstream fashion by adopting an “alternative” style because that still revolved around appearance and fitting in with a different group. I didn’t want to fit in, I wanted to opt out of the whole business.

So I grew out my leg hair and enjoyed grossing out my male friends with it, I took up cheerfully farting and getting drunk with the blokes. Sure, I could put on a dress and heels for special occasions – and I’d feel powerful flaunting my body in the process – but mostly I just wore what was comfortable.

And really, that’s what I’ve done ever since. I worked for four years as a librarian and had a dedicated wardrobe of cardigans, trousers and Doc Martins. Around that time I wrote an article for Australian Women’s Forum called “Ugly Chic” which was about how I’d embraced unfashionableness as a way of life.

And then I became a pornographer and I’ve spent the last 15 years working from home wearing tracksuit pants and pyjamas or tank tops and shorts while I earn my living on the internet. I wear men’s underpants because they don’t go up my bum crack and I often shop in the menswear section because that’s where the most comfy clothes are. I keep my hair long because I hate going to the hairdresser and I avoid bras if at all possible. I grow my body hair or shave it off as whim dictates.

Put simply, I’m a dedicated Comfortarian. And I can successfully go whole weeks without having to care about how I look. I’m a citizen of the internet where it doesn’t necessarily matter what I look like. My words and films represent me, not my face or my fashion choices.

So what has this painful history got to do with gender?

A lot, actually. Gender expression – how you look and present yourself to others – is a big part of gender identity. In the socially-accepted binary, you can present as either “feminine” – heels, skirts, flamboyant, pretty – or “masculine” – trousers, flat shoes, no-nonsense, business. Over the last 20 years, I’ve opted less for feminine and more towards masculine. And I’ve done this partly because the latter is more comfortable but also because I feel I was never very good at being “feminine” anyway.

To succeed at a feminine appearance it helps if you’re not ugly. Clothing, make-up, hairstyles; all are designed to draw attention to how you look. When you’re not conventionally attractive, “feminine” is hard work. People still treated me less well because they judged me on my appearance. And I never felt like I wore fashionable clothes successfully; it never represented who I was and I often felt disdainful of it.

When I dress up, I feel a bit like a drag queen; it’s a performance and it can be fun (who can deny the occasional appeal of sequins?) but it’s not really representative of me. What I wore to the Feminist Porn Awards this year probably sums this up. I tried to be over-the-top, to attract attention, to act the part of the porn queen, but I think I failed at it. I felt awkward in my outfit; the “image” I was presenting wasn’t really me. Far easier to opt for a stereotypical masculine expression, where external appearance is subsumed before who you are, what you do and how smart you are.

In this, I align with butch lesbians even though my sexuality is heterosexual. And I’ll admit, I don’t think I’d pass as a butch either. I don’t think I’m, well, butch enough.

The fact that I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for almost 25 years probably has a bearing on all of this; I’ve never felt the need to dress up to impress guys because I have a partner who doesn’t care what I wear (except he wishes I was naked more often). So my ongoing desire for comfort and more realistic-feeling clothing has not been constrained in any real way.

I think a lot of conversations about gender are couched in terms of how you present to other people and how those people treat you. I’ve engineered my life such that interacting with others is optional and I think it’s made a difference to how I approach my own gender. My hermit-like status means my perspective isn’t necessarily common (and it is one of privilege) but I do think it shows how appearance is a lynchpin in how many people approach the issue.

Fact is, I’ve spent half my life trying to get away from people judging me by my appearance. Yet discussions of gender and “cis” seem to insist on doing just that.

If I go beyond appearance and think about “identity”, I’ll admit to being at a bit of a loss. I’m not sure I fit in there either.


The “genderbread person” depicts four aspects of gender, each with a sliding scale that incorporates a variety of states of being/thinking/expressing. It differentiates between gender expression (i.e. what’s on the outside/appearance) and gender identity (what’s going on in the brain). With regards to this latter area, I will say that I find the concept confusing. I have no idea what “woman-ness” or “man-ness” might mean. Shania Twain might sing about feeling like a woman but if you were to ask me to define it, I couldn’t tell you – though I do know that the “perogative to have a little fun” isn’t limited to one gender.

I am me. I live my life in this body but I can’t say if it “feels” like being a woman because I don’t know anything else other than my own self. I am an amalgam of my genetics, my upbringing, my relationships and my life experiences and I couldn’t say if any of those makes me more or less of a “woman”.

I can say that I experience the frustrations of having a female body – the periods, the bouncing boobs, the strength differences (I’m crap at opening jars), the pap smears, the estrogen. I’ve experienced the various social discriminations that are part and parcel of being a woman. And I know that my personality exhibits “feminine” characteristics – I am quietly spoken, I cry easily and try to be unassuming if at all possible. That may be my upbringing or it may be my introverted nature, which makes me generally antisocial. I can’t say that any of this gives me an innate “woman-ness” that is part of my brain.

I’m also child-free by choice. I’m not really the mothering type though I did agonise over the decision for a long time. Childbearing is often considered to be the ultimate act of womanhood and it’s something I’ve chosen to forego, another life choice that pushes me away from the gender I was assigned at birth. Would having a baby make me “feel” like a woman? I don’t know.

I’ve sometimes wished I could have male body parts; I’d love to have a beard to enhance my chin and I think it would be fun to have a penis, not least because you can pee standing up. And there’s been times I’ve really disliked my female body. But I’ve never wanted to live as a man or be one, it’s just not something that appeals. It can suck being a woman but I think men face plenty of difficulties in their own lives that I don’t want that in my life.

So I do know that I’m not a trans person. For all my complaints, I don’t feel like I have the wrong body or that I am living a compromised or distressing life on account of being born female. In this, I am very lucky and thankful that it turned out that way. Perhaps this is the one way I could be defined as “cis” – simply, “not trans”. But it’s a little limiting being defined according to what you’re not.

In theory, I could identify as genderqueer; I do like the idea of living outside of the gender binary and I suspect that’s the space I’m living in right now. But it doesn’t seem right for me. I think the term means something specific, like the life that Jiz Lee is living; unconstrained but also very visible and out there. It feels political and vital but I also think I don’t really belong. I don’t feel that I am neither gender. I am also too introverted to make grand visual statements and it feels like too much social interaction, to be honest. On top of that, I’m no good with the pronouns; my inner English major voice stumbles with non-binary language.

For me, I’m happy to accept the idea that I am female and a woman. That’s who and what I am. What I don’t accept is that those two words mean I have to live a certain way, think and act a certain way, dress a certain way or accept a certain role in society. I refuse to adapt myself to my assigned gender; rather, I’ve redefined the words to suit myself.

I am a woman who wears what she likes, who created her own non-traditional job, who both loves her body and finds it annoying, who thinks and feels and acts according only to what makes her happy and comfortable, doing her best to ignore the constraints placed upon her by society. I am she and her but I am not my gender, I am not my sex and I’m not a label; I’m just me.

And this is why I’m not “cis”. Because I don’t fit into that word. It’s too narrow for how I live and feel about myself. I’ve created a life where I (mostly) don’t have to care about how I present to other people and that has freed me from the gender binary. I may occasionally present as a femme woman but that’s not the whole of me and my appearance is not who I am. And I don’t have an inner “identity” that I can say is inherently associated with only one gender.

I should also say, I’ve seen “cis” increasingly used with a slight derogatory tone, in the same way that people sometimes refer to “vanilla” sexuality. It can imply a blind acceptance of the status quo, an unquestioning approach to gender or sex and also an aggressive attitude to those who are different. As someone who has made a life out of exploring these issues, I can say it ain’t me. If “cis” has become shorthand for “redneck”, you can definitely count me out.

As I said before, this post is a personal statement. In making it, I am not trying to deny or undermine the experiences of anyone else. I respect the right of people to define themselves and to have that identity accepted without question and that includes using the word “cis”. It’s just that it doesn’t apply to me. And I won’t be assuming that other people are cis either. It’s up to them to apply the label to themselves.

Note: I’m not allowing comments on this post because I’ve seen these kinds of discussions very quickly descend into flame wars about language and I just want to make a simple personal statement here.

Also, I haven’t put an asterisk in trans because there’s conflicting views on whether I should or not. In theory what I’ve just written makes me an asterisk but I’m not sure I’m one of those either.

Edit. Today I read this piece which gave me much to think about, even if I don’t agree with bits of it. What stood out is the idea that “cis” assumes that the majority of people are accepting and happy with their societally assigned gender roles but that may not be the case. My personal experience as related here is that I was not happy.