On ‘Cistem Failure’ by Marquis Bey

Book #1 in my 2023 Trans Rights Readathon week

Tucker Lieberman
8 min readMar 21, 2023

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white and purple stripes of electricity visible against a black background
Tesla coil by Christian O. from Pixabay

For the #TransRightsReadathon, I want to tell you about Marquis Bey’s 2022 book Cistem Failure: Essays on Blackness and Cisgender.

What Is Cis? What Is Trans?

On one definition, cisgender simply means not transgender. But as with all words, inevitably the meaning is broadened. A typical understanding of cisgender, as Bey writes, is that it implies “untroubled ways of being a gendered subject.” It implies that a cis person has “no need to question or examine your gender because you have departed from nothing, your home’s furnishings all remain tidy and unmoved.”

And yet, of course, being transgender isn’t the only way to profoundly question one’s own gender.

A word like nontransgender — emphasis on the non-prefix — might suggest that it’s a default state. The nontrans is whatever you haven’t changed (transed). But the word cisgender was created specifically to enable us to question the naturalness and normalcy of gender that isn’t trans. If cisgender — whatever exactly that is — were really natural and normal, people wouldn’t spend so much time teaching and enforcing how to be a man or a woman. How cisgenderness works upon people in the world is through “performative behaviors that are consolidated retroactively into a presumed natural identity”; how we can use the word cisgender in discourse is through our observations that the identity is not natural or inevitable and that imposed, enforced gender constrains and threatens all humans.

Therefore, Bey says, cisgender is a “constructed declaration,” a “categorical ruse disingenuously hailing those who nevertheless do not and cannot sit comfortably within it.” Cisgender normativity demands “linear and aligned form, being a good and proper subject,” performed with body, behavior, and thought “to maintain its coherency and imply its naturalness.”

Not All Nontransgender People Relate to Cisness

Many people are called “cisgender” — gay and straight, butch and femme — but the term “cannot capture some of us.”

  • For one thing, there’s no agreed way to “clearly demarcate the cis from the trans.” The…

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Tucker Lieberman

Editor for Prism & Pen. Author of the novel "Most Famous Short Film of All Time." https://tuckerlieberman.com/