steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

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?
Tags: gender
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