Louise Mensch said yesterday on twitter that ‘cis’ is “an offensive term that I don’t recognise”. 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.
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. 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 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.
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.
 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.