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A Taxonomy of Objections to "Cis"
Anyone who is unwise enough (as I occasionally am, though less often now than in the past) to get involved in the comments pages of newspapers when trans subjects are discussed, will have noticed that any use of the words "cis" or "cisgender" is likely to draw angry protests. I think those of us who find "cis" a useful and uncontentious word are frequently taken aback by this - what could anyone have against a neutral descriptive term, simply meaning "not trans"?

This post is an attempt to look at the various objections in a less febrile setting. I welcome comments and additions.

Origin of "cis"

Most of my friends list is familiar with this terminology and its origins and should feel free to skip this part, but just in case anyone isn't, the historical origin of "cis" (which is apparently celebrating its twentieth birthday this year) comes from the perceived need to find a non-value-laden term to describe people who are not trans. Previously, there was no word available other than some variation on "normal" - which is clearly loaded. Even "non-trans" carries the implication of a default, of the absence of a condition, and thus disguises the fact that people who are not trans have a gender identify of their own, a gender identity that (like trans people's) has some kind of relationship with their body and with the ways that they are perceived and treated by others. A very close analogy would be "straight" or "heterosexual", as used to describe someone who is not gay.

The choice of "cis" in particular comes from its being a Latin prefix opposite in meaning to "trans": compare Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul, for example.

What do you sound like?

Most people who understand "cis" in the terms I have described, including myself, find it quite hard to get their heads round the visceral strength of other people's objections. After all, it's not as if the word "cis" in any way implies approval of trans people. Even homophobes are generally happy to be described as "straight" or "heterosexual" (in fact they frequently insist on it); why would "cis" be different? But in newspapers and in Facebook pages across the land, conversations like the following are taking place:

A: Today we're discussing trans issues. Can I ask you to comment, as a cisgender woman?
B: How dare you label me like that! I'm just a woman!
A: But---
B: You people object to being called "shemales", so please extend me the same courtesy and don't foist a label on me that I find offensive!

To me, this makes as much (or little) sense as the following:

A: Today we're discussing attitudes to same-sex attraction. Can I ask you to comment, as a heterosexual woman?
B: How dare you label me like that! I'm just a woman!
A: But---
B: You people object to being called "faggots", so please extend me the same courtesy and don't foist a label on me that I find offensive!

I'm not saying the second exchange could never happen, but I've never come across it - whereas I see versions of the first all the time.

What's going on? Is there some fundamental dishonesty at work? Some element of denial? Is the world just full of stupid people? Or am I missing something important?

I've come up with a few possible explanations.


One way that the anti-cis argument is used is as a deliberate (and very successful) derailing tactic. Trans-exclusionary feminists often leap on the word as a way of diverting any discussion of trans stuff into the Semantic Swamp. However, this is not a sufficient explanation: for the tactic to gain the traction it frequently does, it must play on some real concern - so let us keep looking...

Ugly "cis"

I include this not because it has any serious merit as an argument but because I've seen it raised many times for want of a better. This is the idea that "cis" is an ugly word in itself, so that its use is necessarily insulting on aesthetic grounds. Oddly enough, though, I've never heard anyone object to being called a "sister". A variant on this argument is that there's something effetely academic about using a Latin prefix, that shows trans people are "educated beyond all common sense and honesty" (to quote Julie Burchill). Does that argument merit refutation? I think not.

Insulting "cis"

Some words are always used in an insulting way, to the extent that it's fair to say that their very use is insulting. "Faggot" would be one example - and I'm sure you can supply others. One argument against "cis" is that its use is insulting in this way.

This isn't borne out by usage, however. The vast majority of uses of the word "cis" that I've seen - and all the ones that have engendered the kinds of argument that sparked this post - have been pretty neutrally descriptive. (I'm not sure any word can ever be entirely neutral, but that's an argument for another day.) It's true of course that, like any word, "cis" can be an insult if used insultingly. I've occasionally seen trans people - usually after they've been at the receiving end of some pretty horrible treatment - refer to "cis bastards", etc. It does happen. Similarly, I've heard women say "Men are bastards". This does not make "man" an insulting term in itself, and no more does it make "cis" one.

Labelling "cis"

"How dare you pin a label on me that I don't accept!" I think this is the commonest form that the objections to "cis" take, and in some ways it's the most complex - in fact, the next three on the list might all usefully be seen as facets of this one. For now, though, it's worth pointing out that simply applying adjectives to someone - describing them as, for example, English, dark-haired, right-handed, etc. - is not generally seen as an offensive activity, as long as a) the labels are factually accurate (it would be insulting to describe a Scot as English), and b) the context does not make it egregious. That is, while it might be offensive - and illegal - to mention someone's race in the context of a job interview, it could be appropriate in a discussion of their experience of racism. The people who object to the word "cis" on the grounds that they don't like being labelled generally do so in the context of discussing trans identities - which seems much more like the latter than the former situation.

Another point worth mentioning here is that of "community". I've posted before about my ambivalence around the idea of "the trans community", but I think it's fair to say that in a lot of people's minds being trans is associated with some kind of group identity, so that by analogy they feel that by being called "cis" they are being pressganged into a "cis community" - which of course they don't feel part of. I think this stems from a misunderstanding of what the word "community" means in this context - for more on which, see my earlier post.

Contaminating "cis"

The objection to being labelled "cis" is frequently followed by a phrase on the lines of "I am not a cis woman, I am simply a woman!". (I'm putting it this way because in my experience the vast majority of people who object to "cis" are women.) Given that the same people would not generally say "I am not an Englishwoman, I am simply a woman!", or "I am not a right-handed woman, I am simply a woman!", the implication is clearly that "cis" is some way qualifies or detracts from the authenticity of their womanhood, in a way that being English or right-handed would not. I'd love to hear an alternative explanation, but my understanding is that people who take this view don't hear the "trans" in the phrase "trans women" as an adjective on the lines of "right-handed". To them, a "trans woman" is not a woman who happens to be trans (as well as being many other things, of course), but a different kind of creature entirely, something other or less than a woman. By analogy, for them to be "cis women" would involve a similar contamination or qualification of their identity as women. In other words, this objection is born of simple transphobia.

"It implies that I buy in to the whole trans agenda"

I suspect that some people dislike the word "cis" because to them it suggests a general way of thinking and talking about gender that they don't hold with, a way of thinking that comes with a political agenda attached. Ultimately this is a view that will either be confirmed or refuted by lived experience. If trans people really do exist, then they need a way of talking about their lives, and "cis" (for reasons I outlined at the top) is a part of that. To deny that reality, or to reject the language that allows you to describe that reality, may be comfortable, but ultimately it's a doomed project. If trans-ness is just a fad, then fine - count to a hundred, and when you open your eyes maybe we'll have disappeared! As for the agenda part, I refer again to the fact that many homophobes are able to talk about people being "straight" and "gay" without in any way feeling they're buying in to the "gay agenda". This is really no different - so the good news is that using "cis" needn't stop you from holding transphobic views! On the contrary, you'll be able to express them with greater precision and economy.

Binary "cis"

I include this for the sake of completeness, more than because it forms a noticeable proportion of the anti-"cis" outrage I see online - but just occasionally I've seen people object to "cis" on the grounds that the "cis/trans" binary erases people whose gender identity lies somewhere in between, or elsewhere, or is fluid. I have some sympathy with that point of view, in fact. God knows, bi people and others sometimes feel similarly caught between the semantic behemoths of and gay and straight. Still, having words like "gay" and "straight" available is still more useful than not, and I would argue similarly for "trans" and "cis".

"We are many, you are few"

A couple of days ago, I met this argument for the very first time in the comments pages of the Guardian. I quote: "What next ? Is every minority group going to coin their own label for us just to ease their own feelings ? I, for one, am not ok with that."

I say I met it for the first time, but in fact I think it had been lurking behind a lot of other comments - this was unusual only in its explicitness. Essentially, it boils down to "How dare you speak back? How dare you look critically at us the way we look at you?" This isn't a trans-specific phenomenon of course, it's the voice of unexamined privilege everywhere. To test that hypothesis I asked my interlocutor whether they also found "neurotypical" offensive. (They did.)

And that's it - I'm out of ideas. As you can see, I've not managed to find one halfway decent argument here - but I hope I've at least managed to provide a useful taxonomy (I'm all about the taxonomies). Did I miss anything?

Heaven forefend that a bunch of uppity trannies (and before anyone jumps down my throat, it's okay, I am an uppity tranny, so I own the word) should dare to create definitions that allow them to analyse a complicated society which does its damndest to exclude, deperson and vilify.

Fancy being allowed to place a label on a societal group.

Oh, wait............

It strikes me as classic privilege behaviour: the outrage is because only those with hegemonic power are supposed to be able to define things and people (and especially their precious selves). It's close kin to 'not all men are evil! You feminists are oppressing teh menz'. The person in the socially privileged position simply cannot handle the idea of someone who is supposed to be subordinate setting out conditions of discourse, ideas or any sign of agency at all.

(no subject) - sartorias, 2014-03-21 01:17 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_, 2014-03-21 01:22 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - cmcmck, 2014-03-21 01:28 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - electricant, 2014-03-21 11:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2014-03-24 01:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - cmcmck, 2014-03-24 05:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2014-03-24 09:17 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Okay, so I wrote out this whole long comment and posted it and I'm sure you got it, and then realised, I really don't have the energy or mental capacity today for a conversation about anything more complex than reminding my housemate to buy sugar. So I've deleted it. Bye-bye, comment! The tl;dr version was basically just 'I shall choose my labels and let others choose their own' anyway. ;)

Edited at 2014-03-21 12:43 pm (UTC)

'It's a label that was imposed externally by people who are not me'

That's what I think grinds with a lot of people, but it never seems to occur that maybe the term 'trans' was foisted on me and those like me in the same way. We're not all 'out, loud and proud'- I'm 'out' as myself and tend simply to answer to 'me'. All that stuff was forty years ago anyway- the userpic's undergrad me back in the seventies when it was all a deal more complicated and one had to lie a lot to get through the next day in one piece.

Fwiw and since you are nice enough to share- left handed white English(ish) woman of working class, Jewish and Romani origins amongst others; straight,married, academic historian and all round general purpose nutcase. :o)

(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-21 12:47 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - cmcmck, 2014-03-21 12:51 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - mary919, 2014-03-21 12:51 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 01:01 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 12:51 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-21 01:07 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 12:54 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-21 01:09 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Actually, the "how dare you label me a heterosexual woman I'm just a woman" *would* have been a common reaction in the 1970s. And for the same reason. What the label does is to remind people the are not "the norm". You get a similar reaction with the word "bias", a perfectly normal, neutral word to thee and me but "I'm not biased! I'm middle of the road!"

My only issue with cis is that I am not sure it does apply to me and while I don't mind it for the purposes of group experience (ie I mostly experience life as a cis woman and have the privilege that goes with that) I would mind it very much if someone I knew well used it to identify me.

My... well, "objection" is far too strong a word, perhaps "niggle" regarding the use of "cis" (that probably indicates about the right degree of discomfort), is that, according to the definitions I've seen, I'm not cis. So I'm definitely in the "it's not a simple binary" camp and I feel that trying to apply blanket labels like "cis" to people who don't identify themselves in that way is not particularly productive. However, I'm not going to make a big thing of it unless, as fjm says, it's used by someone who knows me well and it trying to use it to define me personally rather than just a way of lumping me in with a majority group.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 04:32 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - cmcmck, 2014-03-21 05:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
At the outset I want to stress I am not defending people with that response. Everyone needs to take on concepts that matter.

However, I'd suggest one you missed out is "the shock of the new". To most people not already interested in gender politics (I'm not at all sure I like the use of the word "politics" here - it besmirches) it's a new concept, one they had not thought of before. I am not ever even going to try to explain it to my 88-year-old mother, for example. It challenges their habits of thought in a very direct way - and few people actually like that. Many academics do, but they are a tiny minority.

Moreover, a heck of a lot of people either know no transpeople or don't know that they do. They have arthritic thought-patterns when it comes to issues of gender identity, and find it hard to move beyond the drag queen concept. I linked to something on FB the other day, and commented that I knew about six transpeople (a bit of a stretch really, as one I've only met a couple of times and two are online friends exclusively.) My friend Rob, an avid campaigner against all forms of discrimination, was surprised and impressed that I knew so many.

In that context, neophobia tends to come into play. A person already unsettled may lash out at the one element they feel it's not uncool to attack - this is particularly likely to happen amongst people who see themselves as generally pretty enlightened.

As for the fact that you generally find this reaction amongst women, that's not so hard. The fact of growing up female makes one aware of the existence of privilege - but also the habit of feeling oneself excluded from the privileged group. The term "cis" explicitly (and, actually, appropriately) draws attention to their own level of privilege. Even if they are a member of half a dozen "minority" groups, this term places them firmly in a privileged and, by implication, oppressive group. No wonder they react badly.

Thirty years ago I might well have had some of those reactions. I have tried to learn and extend my understanding. It's a partial and ongoing work. Many people, perhaps most, have been less fortunate than me in terms of the people they have met who have been ready to share and explain. All one can do is hope that they will learn to accept that they have no control over most of their world and that we all need to check our privilege.

My gawd, I sound sanctimonious. Sorry about that.

You don't sound sanctimonious at all! And that's an interesting point about neophobia (a new term to me, ironically).

You're also right of course that recognizing privilege in yourself is especially difficult and threatening if you're used to thinking of yourself as being in an unprivileged group.

(no subject) - gillo, 2014-03-21 01:15 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - cmcmck, 2014-03-21 01:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 01:27 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-21 01:13 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillo, 2014-03-21 01:17 pm (UTC)(Expand)
If the objection comes mainly from women (although I've seen plenty of men object to it online), do they object more if it comes from male to female trans people, or vice versa? Might be impossible to say.

My impression - and it's only that - is that many of the objections come from radical feminists (self-styled), who tend to be far more focused on trans women anyway, and on erecting a cordon sanitaire around their own preferred definition of "women".

Edited at 2014-03-21 04:37 pm (UTC)

(no subject) - mevennen, 2014-03-21 04:38 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-22 08:14 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2014-03-22 08:15 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-22 07:44 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-22 09:29 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Until this post, I had not heard anybody publicly object to the term "cis". So the whole problem is a surprise to me. But then, I hadn't seen the term used outside of some fairly specifically trans-oriented literature, so I suspect many anti-trans bigots haven't even seen it. Of course I guessed what it meant the first time I saw it; that much Latin I've got.

But I'm rather uncomfortable with this post. We've had drilled into us for so long that minority groups get to be called whatever the consensus among them is to call them - for this reason, there have been four successive polite terms for Americans of African ancestry during my lifetime alone, and I still tiptoe around the question of what to call Americans whose ancestors were here before 1492, because the consensus among them isn't clear - that it bothers me to see an argument that the situation isn't commutative and the majority has to accept whatever names the minority decides to label them with. Whites used to be called "honkies." And then to have their motives for disliking it psychoanalyzed into the bargain - that's a bit much.

I suspect some of the objections come from confusion (you hear a lot of people say "I don't know what I'm supposed to call them [for whichever group] now" and to an extent this is understandable - terminology does change quite a bit, there's dissent over it, and often a backlash if the 'wrong' term is used, even if that term used to be OK with the then-defining minority.

I really don't care if I'm called a girl, for instance (I find 'my lover,' to which Steepholm as a resident of Bristol will presumably be accustomed, a bit grating as it invariably invites a facetious response, but that's my problem). But some women obviously do. So if you're a well meaning man, and you try to say the right thing, only to get contradictory instances all over the place from feminists who take different approaches to language, you'll probably just give up.

In an ideal world we would all go forth and look stuff up and educate ourselves, but at the moment most people are struggling to maintain their own realities, let alone someone else's.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 04:38 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - mevennen, 2014-03-21 04:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - gillo, 2014-03-21 10:23 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ashkitty, 2014-03-21 11:38 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-22 03:27 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Unlike the terf objections, which I see all the time, I haven't seen a non-binary-identifying person object to "cis," but I believe you that it happens -- and it makes no sense to me. I say this as a person who identifies as somewhat genderqueer myself. In the broader world, most people assume I'm cis (whether or not they're using the term); among people who know me well, most know that I don't feel quite entirely cis. I receive a lot of cis privilege but not 100% of it. Cis is a term we absolutely need.

To use one of your examples, would it be better for bi people if "het" did not exist as a concept, and there were "gay" and "lesbian" but no term for the other side of that binary? We use binaries even though they're incomplete. We need to. In some ways, we need to grow away from them and allow more options, but in other ways, there are times when they exist and are the actually right thing.

I think what I mean is, in my opinion, the term "cis" does not distract from or dilute the non-binary or gq experience in the slightest. It adds an important term, and then we go ahead and add more terms. It does not by its existence imply that anyone who is not trans is the polar opposite of trans. We can say "actually I'm not 100% cis" when we want to -- the assumption that we are cis if we're not trans already existed and would have existed anyway without the term "cis."

Even if it did in some way distract from the existence of non-binary/gq people, we would still have to wrangle with that problem, not just toss out the term cis. It's that important that we have a term upending cisness as default.

If this doesn't make sense, put it down to brain fog and lack of sleep. :)

(no subject) - mevennen, 2014-03-21 06:42 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - electricant, 2014-03-21 11:32 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 11:46 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - diceytillerman, 2014-03-22 12:14 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 09:01 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - mevennen, 2014-03-21 09:50 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - diceytillerman, 2014-03-21 10:37 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I didn't know the origin of "cis", and only worked out the meaning through earlier posts of yours, so thank you for educating me.

Is it possible that people are, consciously or not, connecting it with the definitely insulting "sissy"?

That particular insult is more likely to be fired at trans folks.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-21 09:02 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Yeah, it's always struck me as neophobia with a side of entitlement: 'I shouldn't have to learn this new word/concept because I am not the weird one here'. Plus, acknowledging it as part of one's self-concept is a perpetual admission that alternatives exist. If you asked a white, straight, middle-class unmarried young woman with no disabilities for self-identifying terms in, oh, 1960, you'd probably get white, and single, and young, and female, but you might or might not get middle-class as something that even occurred to the person, and you certainly wouldn't get 'able-bodied' because that involves consciousness of the alternatives, and you wouldn't get straight unless you specifically asked... so these days cis as a self-identifying term does indicate a certain amount of awareness of the concept of trans. And hopefully it will just become an identifier on the level of straight, where it certainly isn't adequate for all cases and has its problems, but we don't have people denying the very existence of the discourse in which it functions.

I agree with this analysis. And I do think this will happen.

(Deleted comment)
I'm glad you found it interesting - so did I!

You have had a lot of comments!
I read the article and some of the comments before becoming irritated by the attitudes displayed. It did teach me the meaning of the word cis, which I had wondered about...but not with any strong feelings either way.
It was mainly useful as a way of reminding me that one does not need to ask personal questions, they can (and often are) be offensive.
I have wondered, and this isn't a question, but while we are skirting the transgender subject, how often gender and sexuality follow each other? As I said, my niece has married a woman, and so I assume, although it is dangerous to make assumptions, that she always fancied girls, and her gender wasn't relevant to this, whereas Radclyffe Hall, whose biography I read recently, seemed as though she might well have chosen to be a man had there been the possibility, none-the-less she only fancied women. Her partners were all previously hetero, and the evil Una Troubridge, having abandoned her husband for Radclyffe, then went off with a toyboy (and of course Radclyffe's money) after her death.

As ever, I don't pretend to expertise, but there are certainly straight and gay (and bi, etc.) trans people, just as there are cis people.

It would be interesting (if only out of intellectual curiosity) to know whether there is a higher proportion of non-heterosexual trans people. I suspect that's the case, for a couple of reasons, but this is purely speculative.

First, we live in a heteronormative culture. Anyone brought up here as a boy is going to be encouraged to see girls as objects of sexual desire (and similarly in reverse for people raised as girls). This means, in effect, that our culture pushes trans girls to be lesbians and trans boys to be gay men. If there is even a small degree of nurture as well as nature involved in determining sexual orientation, then the net effect will be to increase the proportion of homosexual trans people.

Second, if you have come out as trans and you also happen to be gay you are arguably more likely than a cis person to come out as gay too, since (at least in the UK in 2014) being gay has greater mainstream acceptance than being trans - so why would you be open about the former but not the latter? (Of course, this will vary dramatically from individual to individual - I speak only of averages.)

Obviously I don't know what went on inside Radclyffe Hall's head, and wouldn't presume to speak for her. But living as a butch lesbian might seem to be one option for a trans man of that era (and later ones). Not ideal, perhaps, but a kind of modus vivendi. Whether that was Hall's situation, I don't know.

(no subject) - wosny, 2014-03-22 10:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2014-03-23 05:00 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2014-03-23 05:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2014-03-23 07:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
as a cis woman, the last one strikes me as being most true - I'd expand and say that people - especially cis women, and especially feminist cis women - feel uncomfortable being characterised under their privilege (cis) because they might at that moment (on the feminist internet) be preoccupied with the non privileged part of their identity as a woman, and not feel up to dealing with the fact that they have privileges that other people dont because its uncomfortable. Its like how some people might get defensive about being called white and middle class in the same sentence, even though they are. they want to be part of the non privileged conversation because thats what they signed up for. which is obviously a very spoilt and unhelpful attitude, but as you say, you can see how it comes about