What the words ‘cis’ & ‘cisgender’ really mean

What the words ‘cis’ & ‘cisgender’ really mean
Photo: YouTube
A debate raging on social media since Saturday about the word “cisgender” has captured a lot of attention and generated a ton of internet heat. It started with a post by a prominent gay advocate that warned the transgender community “If you want to keep us as allies, start by not calling us things we don’t like.” Specifically, those things are the words “cisgender” and its Latin root, “cis,” which in practical use is intended as shorthand for, “not transgender.” Artist and actress Gillian Cameron shared this handy reference image on Facebook:
Facebook/Gillian Cameron
But to some, the word is offensive for a number of reasons. One of which is the general dislike for labels, another is being tagged with a word that a person does not wish to be identified as, and yet another is a new complaint, that the word “cis” too closely resembles the word “sissy” in how it sounds. Those citing that last complaint say the word triggers memories of ugly confrontations and bullying in their youth. The original Facebook post has been shared hundreds of times and the thread of comments runs longer than a paperback novel. There are people on both sides, some with views you might not expect: cisgender supporters of the word, and transgender opponents. But what’s important is not the debate, but the word itself. First, here’s our Bil Browning with some easy to understand graphics from a 2013 post to explain.  Whenever the word “cisgender” is used to describe a non-transgender person, there’s always someone who gins up outrage and claims that it is a derogatory word that’s only meant as an insult. It’s not, of course, but that’s never stopped a good case of the vapors. This tongue-in-cheek infographic really puts the whole thing in perspective.
know-a-cisgender-person.png?auto=format&auto=compress— Bil Browning. Here’s a video from YouTuber Stef Sanjati that might help explain things further.
Finally, our Alex Bollinger gets to the heart of the debate in a Bilerico post from way back in 2009: There’s been a debate raging that no one here at Bilerico has been willing to touch with a 10-foot pole: Is it OK to call non-transgender people “cisgender”? Well, the debate is mostly a small group of gay and lesbian cis-people who don’t particularly like the word, and everyone else who either likes it or is OK with it in certain situations. I don’t know who gets to speak for the hundreds of millions of English-speaking cis people out there, but since most people don’t even know the word exists, it’s worth having this debate now.

The word was created, as I understand it, to have a word for people who aren’t transgender in any way. It makes sense, since words used before for that concept weren’t always too nice to trans people (like “normal” or “biological” or “real,” as in a “normal person,” a “biological woman,” or a “real man”). It comes from the literal, Latin opposite for trans, which is defined by Webster’s as:

1 : on this side <cislunar> <cisatlantic>

A cisatlantic flight as opposed to a transatlantic flight. I remember my organic chemistry professor telling us to use the mnemonic device “Carbon In Same” to remember the difference between the cis and trans versions of different molecules. I personally can’t think of a more value-neutral way to describe people who aren’t transgender.

It seems to me that opposition to the word has less to do with the word “cisgender” itself and more to do with people who don’t want a word for non-transgender people at all. It’s nice to not have a word for something – it becomes the normal version of whatever. That’s part of the impetus behind developing the word “cisgender” in the first place – to remind everyone who isn’t trans that they aren’t normal (although as long as being trans is medicalized as it is, I don’t see transgender or transsexualism ever being considered on equal footing with society at large. That probably speaks more to the need to develop a new paradigm for understanding medical conditions and illness and variation outside of the current “here’s a normal body, anything different is wrong” model. The same for homo- and bisexuality; we can call heterosexuals “straight” all we want, they’re still going to think they’re the norm by which everyone else must be compared).

One opponent of “cisgender” on Pam’s House Blend said:

If people can accept the fact that there is no “normal” and that we are all unique individuals, terms like cisgender and uniracial have no place in conversation.

It sounds a whole lot like “I don’t see race” to me. Consider the fact that he said that the term “cisgender” has no place if everyone’s a unique individual, not the term “transgender.” That will still be necessary in this brave, new world where everyone’s gender identity is unique and personal and in no way related to or even like anyone else’s, because… well, we need a word for them.

Another opponent said:

For the record, I find cis- to be offensive. In general, I thought our community (I mean the whole LGBT rainbow here) uses terms that are acceptable to those being described. That is, we use the preferred gender of trans people, we call someone bi if they identify as bi, we don’t say tranny, etc.

So why is it okay for (some of) the trans community to call us cis-? If members of the trans community said “stop calling us trans, we find it offensive” would we here at PHB continue to say “trans”? I doubt it very much.

Why the lack of respect in the other direction?

Good point, although it isn’t easy to put into practice. Suppose, for instance, I didn’t like the word “man,” not because I’m not a man or think I’m more complicated than that or whatever, but because I just don’t like the way it’s been used in the past. Could I make up a new word like “waggup” (I don’t know) and expect everyone to use it? In the real world, no. Does the fact that I’m one of the only men who doesn’t like the word mean that I have to suck it up and take it? In the real world, yes.

That example is actually quite generous; I have yet to see someone opposed to the word “cisgender” suggest a replacement (maybe I missed it).

Autumn Sandeen gets to the heart of the issue with this chart:CisTermsTable2_thumb.jpg?auto=format&auto=compress

Many people who have an issue with “cisgender” do so because it’s often used in phrases like “cisgendered, transbigoted privileged assholes.” But that speaks more to the words “transbigoted privileged assholes” than the word “cisgendered” (past participle now?). As Autumn called it elsewhere, it’s a “weaponized” used of the word cisgender.

Fritz makes a similar point:

I believe that one of the reasons radical feminism has failed to result in real equality for women is the movement’s casual use of divisive language. “Male chauvinist” is a term that should have never been uttered outside of feminist workshops. Today, many men wear the label of chauvinist with pride. It has become a hackneyed term that is more widely used in crude jokes aimed at women. It is sad to see so many transgender activists follow in the footsteps of failure.

(For the record, I disagree with his assessment radical feminism’s failure, but that’s not the topic here.)

The thing is, “male chauvinist” isn’t value-neutral. “Man” or “male” are. “Cisgender” is value-neutral; “cisgendered, transbigoted privileged assholes” isn’t.

It goes back to how being called “stupid” doesn’t, for some reason, hurt as much as being called a “stupid woman,” or being called “lazy” doesn’t hurt as much as being called a “lazy Mexican.” In one case, you were at least put on trial, one assumes, as a person; in the other, it’s just because of something you don’t have control over or some other quality that’s not related at all to the insult that’s put you there. It erases a person’s individuality.

Which is part of the problem with many of the people who are using the word “cisgender,” and I’ve noticed it for a while: they seem to repeat the same “my oppression is the worst ever”/”everything should be seen through the lens of my identity”/”everyone who isn’t in my oppressed group is out to get me” mentality that haunts far too many (generally) white, coastal-urban gay men and white, second-wave feminists. It assumes absolute privilege on the part of everyone who’s not a part of that oppressed group and ignores intersectionality and class-privilege (since I have yet to hear an American say that rich and middle-class people, no matter their religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, or sexual orientation, all have a privileged life, even though that’s a whole lot closer to reality than people who say or imply that all straight or cisgender people, no matter their race, ethnicity, sex, religion, income-level, or social class, live a privileged life. Funny how that works).

And it’s annoying to people who don’t feel all too privileged to be referred to as either a “privileged cisgender person,” just as it’s annoying to many white people to be referred to as a “privileged white person” even if they can’t get ahead. Yes, privilege exists along the lines of gender identity, race, sexual orientation, etc., but referring to someone as a privileged person, flatly, is an easy way to get them to stop listening because everyone thinks the hand they were dealt is shit. That’s pretty much the only thing that unites all humans.

Pointing out that people experience privilege in a specific situation, on the other hand, might open up minds of people willing to listen. And the point of a term like “cisgender” is to make people think in different ways, not harden them up. Yeah, they have a responsibility to listen, it’s not a minority’s job to educate the majority, yada yada yada, but the majority won’t listen if they feel like they’re being attacked and telling them it’s their fault they’re not listening or that it’s their privilege that’s preventing them from opening up their minds isn’t going to change anything.

If the issue is with how “cisgender” is being used, then let’s deal with that. Because if we come up with an alternative, and the issues with “cisgender” haven’t been dealt with, they’ll just be transferred right on over.  — Alex Bollinger


Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Watch Karen Handel tell a mother that she’s against her child’s right to adopt

Previous article

NOM held a hate rally and almost nobody showed up

Next article