System Shutdown

It must be something in the air: we seem to be having another round of the Great Cisgender Debate. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the question is whether or not it is appropriate to refer to people who are not trans with the term cis, short for cisgender, as trans is short for transgender.

Cis, like trans, is a Latin prefix, and they are essentially antonyms: trans means across, and cis means on the same side. The Romans had provinces named Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul, indicating which side of the Alps they were; and in organic chemistry, the source of the entry of the term cis into gender discourse, they are used to distinguish where chemical bonds are located on a molecule. Cisgendered, then, is the opposite of transgendered.

Trans activists and gender theorists began using the term to correct a troubling lack in the English language: there was no word for somebody that wasn't trans. People are either trans or...something. Not-trans. And makes trans people the exception, rather than simply another form of human diversity. It makes it impossible to talk about people who aren't trans without talking about people who are trans. And all too often, when one group is marked linguistically that way, it become easy to think of people who aren't marked that was a "normal," alienating and even contributing to the oppression or persecution of the marked group.

All of this seems uncontroversial enough: cis serves the same function that "sighted," "hearing," or "able-bodied" serve in discussions of disabled people, or even "straight" versus "gay" does in discussions of sexual orientation. As progressives have striven towards greater and greater inclusion of marginalized groups (including attempting to de-center discussion from privileged groups), it would seem natural that cis would enter the parlance, perhaps as rapidly as "transgendered" has entered the popular imagination (and popular culture.)

And in progressive spaces, this seems to be happening: feminist blogs such as Shakesville, Feminisiting, and Feministe have many examples of cisgendered people using cis to refer to themselves. The problems seem to be happening more often between allies within the LGBT community.

It must be said that some of this resistance stems from the way the term is often used by trans activists. Cis often comes up in discussions of privilege, specifically how feminists or LGB allies are exercising privilege over trans people. Emotions can run high on both sides, and both sides get defensive. It hardly helps trans people to say that cis simply means "not-trans" when it is often coupled with "bigot."

But that in itself should not be enough to suppress the term, or only use it in "approved" spaces, as helen boyd seems to be saying:

"So, yeah. I love it as theory, in classrooms. I teach cisgender & cissexual privilege. But as a cissexual person, I don’t want to be called cis, or cisgender. It’s not my identity. I have lots of genders, but I’m not trans."

Now, I have two issues with this: first, the act of opting out of "cis" when trans people hardly have the option to opt out of "trans" is indeed an exercise in privilege. Even more important, however, is the misperception that cis is an identity, when instead like trans it is merely a descriptive term.

It may seem startling to claim that transgender isn't an identity: after all, isn't that what people say? "I identify as trans." (I say that, for example.) But trans has the characteristics of an identity for the same reasons that being black, or Jewish, or disabled do: because of the oppression, because of the way that it is marked as abnormal, Other. Being called trans tells you nothing about how a person feels about themselves, exactly what their gender is, about how they express it: it only tells you that they have enough variance from their assigned gender that at least some of the time they want to appear to be a different gender.

There is no need to accept a "cisgendered identity," because it isn't one. It doesn't even indicate that there isn't any variance in the person's gender: all it says is that they don't go so far as to identify (even temporarily) as a different gender than they were assigned. So an effeminate gay man can be cisgendered because he always identifies as a man (and indeed, nothing proves this more than the fact that when he stops doing that, we call him something else.)

If trans people have a responsibility to be more judicious in their use of the term, cis people have a responsibility to not conflate cis with an insult as well. Especially given that they are the privileged group in the argument. If we were to buy the argument that the word must be suppressed or limited to academic settings, then today nobody outside a gender studies class would ever have heard of the term male privilege. We deserve our right to talk about cisgendered privilege, and cisgendered people, without forever being reduced to the role of outsider.

transfeminist comes to us courtesy of The Second Awakening

Creative Commons License