Intro to cis and why having to write this annoys me

Louise Mensch said yesterday on twitter that ‘cis’ is “an offensive term that I don’t recognise”[1]. This inspired the tag #ThingsMoreOffensiveThanCis which is about equal parts hilarious-things-that-aren’t-offensive and really poignant transphobia.

But, I accept that there are people who may not yet have heard the term ‘cis’ and may want an intro. The briefest definition I can give is: Do you know what ‘trans’ means? It’s the opposite of that[2].

The main reason I’m offended by the constant questioning of ‘cis’ and people calling it an abusive term, is that it suggests that when we talk about gender, cisgender people are automatically ‘normal’, and transgender people are to be singled out. It posits cisgenderism as the default. As many homo- and bisexual people have said over the years to heterosexual people: you’re not normal, you’re just common.

In fact, just about every argument against using ‘cis’ has a homologue in the use of ‘straight’ as the opposite of ‘gay’. If ‘straight’ were to be challenged in any of these ways, it would be seen immediately as homophobic.

These arguments, laid out by CN Lester (and each well-defeated in the space of a tweet) boil down to the following:

1) Cis is a new word and I don’t know it

Well yes. That’s the nature of language, it evolves. You didn’t know what “smartphone” meant ten years ago and yet you’re probably using one now. It’s also not new, having been used since at least 1994 online, and in peer-reviewed work since the late nineties[3]. The reason you don’t recognise it is because you have not been actively involved in debates around gender. Thankfully these discussions are becoming more mainstream now.

2) I don’t ‘identify’ as cis

I have never particularly identified as white[4] but that doesn’t mean that I don’t experience white privilege. I am able to see that my whiteness means that I am not subject to the same racist forces which deny opportunities to people of colour. If you lived in a society where you were regularly being told that you were trans, but did not feel trans, I suspect you would identify strongly as cis. This is again because we have been trained to equate cis with normal. Once you accept that it is not the default state, it becomes easier to identify with this label as a neutral term, without any assumption of shame or pride.

3) You shouldn’t label me without my consent

Why not? I’m sure you have no problem with me labelling you as human, as literate, as an English-speaker. The issue with consent here stems from you not liking the concept of cis. Which goes back to wanting it to be the default state which doesn’t require asserting. Whether you personally identify with the label, get a tshirt printed and go out declaring your cis pride is up to you. The fact that you are cis is just that, a statement of fact.

4) Why can’t I say ‘non-trans’?

Because, again, this suggests that ‘non-trans’ is a default state and thus that trans people are abnormal. How about black and non-black; or woman and non-woman? Do those make sense to you?

5) Why can’t I just be a woman/a man?

Because trans people are often denied that opportunity. And I highly doubt you ever identify as just a woman or a man. What about your sexuality? Your politics? Your job? Your relationship status? Your religion? These are all single facets of your identity, and cis is just another one.

It is important that we are able to distinguish characteristics like this in order to be able to discuss them. There is serious, often deadly, discrimination facing many trans people, and that discrimination needs to be dissected and destroyed. In order to do that we need to be able to separate trans peoples’ experience from cis peoples’. Referring to ‘people’ and ‘trans people’ would be hugely othering[5].

6) It’s all part of your trendy online clique!

As I said in point 1, the word has been around for a long time. But the spread of the internet, forums, blogs and twitter has the specific advantage of helping to level the playing field. Everyone with access to a computer/smartphone and an internet connection (which is not everyone, by a long shot) is able to have their say. Thus the people with the large platforms in traditional media are pulled up when they say offensive things. Things like “cis is an offensive word”.

7) Cis is too hard to explain!

It’s the opposite of trans. If you understand trans then you can explain cis. If you want more, it means someone whose gender identity is the same as the one which was assigned to them at birth.

If you’re into etymology, cis has its roots in Latin; meaning “on this side of”, in comparison with trans meaning “across, on the far side, beyond”.

Really, I can’t think of any reason that someone could be genuinely offended by the term cis, unless they are deeply attached to the idea of trans people being some sort of special kind of sub-set of a given gender. It is simply and literally the antonym of trans. If cis is offensive, then so is trans.

I’m incredibly happy to see how many cis people are standing up now and saying that they recognise the need for this term to become mainstream, and that it is clearly not offensive. I just wish that more of the cis people with the largest platforms would get on board too.

[1] Being a bit facetious, at the time I went with the ‘don’t understand’ meaning of ‘don’t recognise’ and questioned how someone can be offended by something they don’t understand. I still think it’s a valid point. Go ahead and refuse to recognise a word, but you can’t also be offended by it.

[2] This entire post relies on the gender binary. It is definitely more complicated than that, but I’m aiming for an intro here. Apologies to those excluded.

[3] Link is to use of ‘cissexual’ as analogue to ‘transsexual’

[4] Largely due to the fact that every person I’ve seen with a strong white identity is also a massive racist *waves to EDL, BNP, SDL etc.*

[5] Othering = to other, make seem different and sub-human. A tactic used far and wide to justify discrimination.

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28 thoughts on “Intro to cis and why having to write this annoys me

  1. I only learnt the word cis in the past year, but never understood the problem with having a term to describe how i was. There is a huge analogy with NT that i use when people complain, when the aspie community first came up with NT there were some who complained, why did they need a word for being normal. Luckily however most allies knew that the people they cared should not be othered or described as not normal

    • I’ve never understood the problem some cisgendered individuals have over the use of the term ‘cis’. When I studied chemistry back in the early 70’s ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ isomers simply described two variants of precisely the same molecule. There is nothing pejorative about the term.

  2. My first exposure to use of the word cis came with a definite pejorative spin and seemed to often be attached to terms like “white” and “male” and “privilege.” That might be part of the reason some folks reflexively back away. Hopefully, what with people continuing to explain, shift will happen. Tired of explaining or not, sometimes it takes awhile for language to catch up with reality.

  3. I don’t know how long the term ‘cis’ has existed in reference to chemistry (don’t quote me, its been a while, but as memory serves it’s used when describing molecules whose atoms are either next to [cis] or opposite [trans] one another), but I would take a stab at well before ’94. Chillax people

    • As I said in my previous post I was using the terms cis/trans as a chemistry undergraduate in 1972 and before that at school. I guess they’d been in use for years before, but certainly since the structure of organic molecules was first researched.

      • The complementary terms “cis” and “trans”, meaning respectively “same side as” and “other side from” and used as prefixes, are FROM THE LATIN, and go back OVER TWO THOUSAND YEARS, q.v. “Transalpine Gaul” and “Cisalpine Gaul”. These two terms are part of the several hundred fundamental building blocks of English which we inherited from Latin, along with ante-, post-, pro-, anti-, in-, co-, p(a)en-, circ-, per-, ad-, ex-, ab-, de-, and many more you may recognize. There has been NO POINT IN THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH in which the prefix “cis” didn’t mean “on the same side as”. FOR LONGER THAN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE EXISTED, the opposite of “trans-anything” has been “cis-thatthing”. This is not up for any sort of a vote. These are the bones of English.

        Bigots are welcome to go on betraying themselves by declaring they don’t think there should be any term at all for people who are not transgender, but the next person who complains that the term is “cis” gets beaten to death with an unabridged Cassell’s.

  4. Its a good post, and I agree that the term “cis” is necessary but I think it gets used badly, and thats where the resentment kicks in.

    The analogy you use to gay/straight is a good one and I dont remember if there were similar debates around the time when “straight” as in “not-gay” was introduced, but straight in that usage suffers from similar issues that the current use of cis does – it erases anyone who doesnt fit into one or the other (esp bi folk) and lumps them in with straight. These days straight is generally used as heterosexual – and sometimes even as monogamous, vanilla, heterosexual, which is a much more precise use.

    Just as the binaries around sex and gender are starting to be destroyed, we are setting up a new one – as you allude to in point 2, and there are a whole load of gender non-conformant people who dont identify as trans but resent the label of cis (in a kind of combined objections of 2 and 3).

    In short, while cis as a concept is both valid and necessary as a label it can be stifling, many dont fit into either trans or cis, but because they are not trans – they are labelled cis so become resentful.

    I wrote a little on the trans/cis binary here that you might like…

    • I actually disagree with you (a few months late, whoops) very strongly. I am an agendered individual, and I consider myself to be trans*. I think that “trans*” would be better aligned with “queer” as an umbrella term – queer people can be bisexual, pansexual, asexual (though that tends to depend on the asexual you ask), homosexual… anything NOT STRAIGHT. Because the queer community is still not as loud or powerful as straight people, it does us good to band together because a lot of issues that affects ONE group also affects the other.

      So it is with trans* – it covers binary transgender (the traditional “MTF” or “FTM”, though not everyone likes those terms), agender, genderqueer… whatever NON-CIS GENDER we identify as, because most of the problems that plague one section of us plague the others. Hormones, surgery, misgendering, discrimination, legal issues, passing – these are things that may not all affect every single trans* person, but they do affect the trans* community as a whole.

      To simplify, I feel like the way that you’re setting up “cis” and trans*” is as if they are “white” and “black” (thus excluding all non-black POC from the discussion/binary), when really they are more like “white” and “people of color”.

      I can’t actually tell from a quick skim of your blog if you are trans* or not yourself, but if you are NOT trans*, specifically if you’re not non-binary, I would caution you against stating things like “the cis/trans* binary erases people” because I, as a non-binary trans* person, have yet to meet a non-binary trans* person who felt like the term “trans*” erases them. If you ARE non-binary trans*, and this is your experience, I’m sorry you feel that way, but while it IS an issue, I think it’s disingenuous to say that ALL non-binary people feel the way you do, and do in fact identify as trans*. That’s like saying “all non-straight people dislike the word queer” because you yourself do not like the word when in fact a large number of non-straight people self-identify as queer.

  5. Cis person here. By virtue of being cis, I grew up largely ignorant of the difference between gender and biological sex (I thought for the longest time they were one in the same), as well as used a lot of terms I now know are either archaic or flat-out slurs.

    I know now why we cis get upset at being called such: it’s the same as when a white person is called white or when a straight person is called straight. Privilege is being brought out from between the couch cushions, ugly and dusty and uncomfortable.

    Point #4 is a very familiar and sore reality with me. As a biracial (and not white passing) woman of color, I’m constantly singled out as ‘non-white’ or ‘a female’, surrounded by language that regularly reminds me that I don’t fit in or I’m not normal. It made me much more receptive to what trans and non-binary (not so sure about this term?) individuals go through. I didn’t like being singled out by not adhering to an already broken and narrow standard: why do it to someone else?

    This education is very, very, VERY important. I had to swallow a lot of pride when my friend, self-identified non-binary and lesbian, called me out multiple times on my cis (as well as straight) privilege. The sooner you realize how little you know, the more you learn.

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  7. Good lord. I am a cis straight person, and I SEIZED on the term “cis” when it was first explained to me, because it made conversations on the subject so much simpler. How anybody can object to having a word for the concept boggles my mind.

  8. Pingback: Intro to cis and why having to write this annoys me | Operationalising the Oxfam Doughnut

  9. I have to argue otherwise. Any person has the right to ask that you not call them a certain word. The problem I have with being called cis is that it implies I fall in line with all the societal expectations of my gender, that because the doctor said I was female and my gender coincides with that, I subscribe to a certain kind of femininity. That might not be the way some see it, but it is the way that others use that word, and I dislike it. I am not trans*, but until some learn to recognize that cis really does just mean the opposite of trans*, and that cis people sometimes experience gender dysphoria without /being/ trans*, I’m not comfortable with being called that word. And I have the right to request that people don’t call me it, just as anyone has the right to request that you not call them any other word (such as, to use your example, ‘human’ – look at otherkin). I am not the default. I know I am not the default. So please do not presume that because I dislike the word ‘cis’, that I refuse to recognize that. Because it’s not only condescending to assume that I’m incapable of getting it, but rude to assume that there is shame or pride involved when it’s a simple matter of refusing to be named with a word I have not given permission for anyone to use in reference to me, in the same way that anyone else would request to be or not to be called a certain name or pronoun.

    • Hi! Thanks for the comment. I have a few thoughts:

      I don’t think that being cis requires conforming to all societal expectations of gender, but I can definitely see that many people may feel that way (given that they are societal expectations, they’re clearly held by the majority). I had the great privilege of being raised by a radical feminist and KNOWING that being a girl did not mean I had to behave in a certain way or wear certain clothes. Only as I’ve gotten older am I consious of being subjected to those expectations, but I am still happy to ignore the ones I don’t like, whilst also embracing being cis. I don’t think that rejecting social gender expectations is the same as experiencing gender dysphoria (caveat that as I’m not trans I don’t know what it does feel like). I spent most of my teens incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of wearing skirts and dresses, but that isn’t the same as being uncomfortable in your own skin.

      I’m concerned by your statement “until some learn to recognize that cis really does just mean the opposite of trans*” as it suggests that you’ve heard the word used in other contexts. I have seen people state that it is used as an insult, but have never witnessed this myself. But I think that if some people are using a word badly, that is more reason to try to spread the correct definition. An obvious example at the moment would be Feminist. I know many intersectional feminists who are increasingly uncomfortable with a small, vocal group of radical feminists who are actively exclusing trans women from their movement and events. To me, this is reason to make sure even more of us wear the label with pride, and show that they do not speak for every feminist.

      For your last point, I can accept that you have the right to specifically request that people don’t use a certain word for you personally, if you do not identify with it; but that is not a solution that will work across larger groups and language. Words have to have a commonly understood meaning in order to be usable. Someone may request that they are referred to as ‘otherkin’ (I have never heard of this before), but a person doing research on humans would still include them in the category.

  10. This is absolute nonsense. Most transgendered people constantly moan and complain about being labelled wrongly or that society doesn’t ‘get’ them, so if so-called ‘cis-gendered’ people complain about that label being shoved onto them they’re wrong and have to get in line? You’re entire blog post is pretty much the definition of unfairness.

    • Please show me where these “most” transgender people are. I don’t know anyone who is trans who doesn’t use some part of the transgender umbrella. But as pointed out in the comment above, an individuals’ label is not the point here, it’s about language to describe an entire group.

    • You’re complaining about the use of ‘cis’, and this article, but you just used ‘transgendered’. If you’re so opposed to ‘cis’, why are you not opposed to ‘trans’? Surely you should be railing against both descriptors equally.

      If you want people to treat you in the manner you wish, you’re obligated to treat them with the same courtesy. Are you prepared to stop referring to people as trans?

  11. “The fact that you are cis is just that, a statement of fact.” — Trans people don’t like it when we say the same thing about them being actually male or female. If you get to pick your pronouns and labels and gender, then we can reject your “cis” word.

    • No. You’ve misunderstood something here. I’m going to make an assumption about your comment because it’s not clear. You said:
      “Trans people don’t like it when we say the same thing about them being actually male or female.”

      I think you mean:
      “Trans women don’t like it when we say the same thing about them being actually male, and trans men don’t like it when we say the same thing about them being actually female.”

      That’s not fact. That’s transphobia.

      Saying that you are cis is not denying your gender identity. It is a fact.

    • Also, I’ve allowed this comment because there’s the POSSIBILITY you don’t mean to be transphobic. But I’ll not allow any more transphobia on my blog.

  12. Unless there’s some facet of it I’ve missed, “cis” means when one identifies as the gender they were born. Which is most people are. It is what used to be called “normal”. But in recent times, the word “normal” has itself become a pejorative, as it is argued it implies that those that are not “normal” are “abnormal”, which certainly can be taken as an insult.

    My daughter has Aspergers, and the new term in the psychological community is “neurotypical”, a term which already has detractors, as they maintain there’s really no “typical” psyche. Again, it’s a word which, when discussing Autism, means to most people “people who are not autistic”. I don’t mind when people use it, assuming a pejorative tone isn’t clear in their voice.I use it myself, thought I usually couch it in “air quotes” for sarcastic “effect”.

    I totally get that when one is not a member of a majority group, having that larger group defined as “normal” can feel at best uncomfortable. But again, “The norm” can more often simply mean “the average”, as opposed to “what you must be”.

    I think a great many, bordering on most, people simply use it to mean “what most people are”, and do not intend offence. It’s hard to tell unless it’s a person who’s known to you, and usually, even more difficult in the inflection and context-free world of the Internet. If you prefer a different term, you’re certainly within your rights to ask for one to be used. When people use it in a more…snide tone, I quietly guide them to a more polite and understanding mindset And I know that can get tiring. But I’m ever afraid of making myself sound more like the popular “straw” parent of a kid with special needs. Because I’ve seen those folks in action, and nothing shuts down a person’s desires to help than getting scolded over an offense never made.

    I’m curious how often such responses stray to the testy in gender circles. And how many eyes roll when it does.

  13. I’m a super-liberal guy living in a very queer-leaning house that generally identifies as “heteroflexible”. I dislike the word cisgender. Not because I’m offended at having a word to describe that concept (I think it’s great that we’re starting to talk about these things!), but because it’s an inelegant word. S before G doesn’t work for me, and I don’t think we should settle for a word just because its Latin roots tell us it’s what we should use.

    • Heh, well at least this is a new critique! Thanks for the comment.

      But the same S before G applies to transgender too. Have you got any suggestions for alternatives? I think it’s too late though.

      In practice, once these words are well-established within groups, they tend to be shortened to just the prefix anyway.

  14. Pingback: Cis Privilege | Cis Is Not A Dirty Word

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