Cis

Readers may note that I use the term “cis” a fair amount in reference to gender. In a nutshell, “cis” is derived from a Latin word meaning “on the same side.” When used with reference to gender, it means that someone’s experience of gender matches ou’s gender assigned at birth; a person born with a penis and testicles who is assigned male and identifies as male is a cis man.

“Cis” is a neologism which was coined in the ongoing struggle to define gender and talk about gender issues. It was specifically invented so that a word would be available to talk about people with gender identities which have always matched their sex. It’s not appropriate to refer to these people as “normal” or “regular” or “real” when contrasting them with people on the trans spectrum, and “not trans” is kind of a clumsy term to use. So, we use the word cis.

Readers may also note that I use cis with a space when talking about gender identity: cis gendered, cis man, cis woman. I do this for the same reason that people use a space with trans: trans gendered, trans woman, trans man. This is done for a number of reasons, with the basic idea being to pull the focus onto using “trans” or “cis” as an adjective when referring to people, rather than as a modifier of someone’s personhood. Much as we don’t say whitewoman or gayman, we should say trans woman or trans man.

Cis is also used in several related terms. Cissexual is sometimes used like transsexual, with cissexual referring to the experience of someone who has never experienced a conflict between ou gender identity and ou sex. “Cis” is also used in the term “cissexism,” which describes a type of prejudice rooted in cis privilege and cis identity.

All of this seems fairly straightforward and uncontroversial, at this point. An adjective was needed, an adjective was created, and people use that adjective.

But, among some people, “cis” has become a loaded term. These people are, almost invariably, cis gendered, and they take the term “cis” to be something offensive. Some even go as far as to call it ungendering. Which is funny, coming from people who often use the wrong pronouns to refer to trans gendered people.

They argue that they never asked for this label, and that it’s rude to label people without permission. Or they think that no label is needed for people who do not fall under the trans spectrum. Which, you know, when you are not trans gendered, makes perfect sense to you, because surely you are “normal,” and we only need labels to describe things which are abnormal. My favourite argument is centered around the idea that labels just act to separate people, and that things like gender (or race, or disability) shouldn’t matter, so we just shouldn’t distinguish. This is an argument so problematic that I’m not even going to dignify it with a response, although I will point out that it shows up on any number of bingo cards.

People also like to claim that “cis” is a term which somehow marginalizes people like butch women or femme men. This could not be further from the truth; cis is not about enforcing gendered behavioral norms, but is rather about creating a vocabulary which can be used to discuss the diversity of the gender spectrum. When I say that someone is a “cis man,” I mean that he identifies as a man and is sexed male. What he wants to do with himself beyond that, whether it’s pursuing hypermasculine activities and a very male presentation or exploring his femininity, is not infringed upon by calling him a cis man.

So, here’s the thing, cis people who have a problem with “cis.” I am going to politely request that you get over it.

Because we do need a label to describe people who are cis gendered, and “cis” is a really good label to use because it is value neutral. “Not trans” carries a whiff of a suggestion that there’s something wrong with being trans, just as “not disabled,” again, suggests that there is something wrong with being a person with disabilities. “Normal,” “real,” “regular,” biological,” “natural,” and so on also carry negative connotations, because that means that trans people are “abnormal,” “not real,” “irregular,” “not biological,” and “not natural.” I would hope that people can see that being called “not real” would be offensive to someone who is trans.

Cis is not being used to divide or separate people. It’s being used as an adjective, to distinguish people with a particular type of gender, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. We have a whole family of words to describe people through various characteristics. Just as I have no problem with being called a “white person” because, uhm, I’m racially white and a person, cis folks shouldn’t be upset by being called “cis people.”

I like the fact that I can use “women” as a generic for all women, and that I have specific terms which I can use to refer to particular groups of women, such as trans women and cis women. Just as I like that I have specific terms which I can use when talking about racial issues. It would be really annoying, for example, if I had to say “not a person of colour” when referring to a white person, both because it would be clumsy and because it would imply that “white” is so normal that we don’t even need a word for it, just like people think that cis gender is so normal that we don’t even need a word for it.

I think that a lot of the resistance to cis stems from the context in which it is used. This term often comes up in the context of discussions about cis privilege and cissexism, and cis people probably get uncomfortable when reading discussions like these because people with privilege don’t like being reminded of their privilege, and people seem especially uncomfortable with discussions of -ism stemming from an identity group which they belong to, even if they don’t personally engage in said -ism. Just like white people don’t like to hear the word “racism” because they somehow automatically assume that they are being accused of something (seriously, try it some time among a group of white liberals; just say the word “racism” and then sit back and watch the fireworks), cis folks tend to dislike the word “cissexism.”

And, as many folks of all genders and gender identities have pointed out, some of the resistance to “cis” also comes from a place of privilege. People with privilege are used to being able to make the labels. When the tables are turned and labels are applied to them, some seem to have a major problem with it. Apparently, struggles over relinquishing control of the label maker are not limited to the office.

It’s important to note that cis and trans are not reinforcing a binary. “Trans,” for starters, is an umbrella term which refers to many people who transcend gender. And the use of these terms also does not erase intersex people. “Cis” is simply used because it is needed, because a value neutral term which describes people with a gender identity which matches their sex was required.

And, you know, if you aren’t cis gendered, just say so. If you have a trans gender identity or you are intersex or you are questioning your gender identity, then, yeah, “cis” is not an appropriate word to use when describing you, and it’s entirely appropriate to ask people to use a different word. Gender terminology is complicated and it’s evolving, and these terms are being used to more precisely define people with the goal of having clear, thoughtful conversations, not to mislabel and exclude people.

All of this argument over whether or not it’s appropriate to use the word “cis” is distracting from far more critical and important issues. Just think, I could have written a post which was actually about something today, instead of going over tired ground about appropriate terminology.

6 Replies to “Cis”

  1. I have to say, people who are bothered by the ‘cis’ construct really puzzle me. When I first heard it, I was like “Oh. That makes sense. I’m cis! Just like I am male, and white-looking*, and have brown hair”. Like…really. It’s not complicated, and the reasoning behind its use (which you covered in an extremely clear fashion, I felt) is impeccable.

    *I say ‘white-looking’ because, while I am M├ętis, my complexion is such that I’ve always had white privilege.

  2. Thanks for this! I have been using “cis” for a long time without really knowing what it meant, just what it denoted. So, I’m really glad to have the linguistics and history lesson.

  3. Actually, I liked cis and trans as soon as I heard them. They are terms from chemistry. Cis turns one way and trans the other. Makes total sense intuitively.

  4. I really liked the term cis the first time I encountered. Finally, a gender identity term for me! Something concrete to hold on to after questioning my identity and finding that no, really, not actually trans. I’m getting more and more sure that I’m not actually quite cis, now – but it’s still a useful, stable point on the gender spectrum.

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