Leveling the field between trans and cis
Do you identify as cis?
If so, you not only identify as your birth gender but also accept a word that’s part of the fight for transgender rights and awareness. “Cis” and “cisgender” have Latin roots and emerged in the 1990s, but they continue to be a source of fierce debate.
The word “cisgender” has been around since at least 1994. The first known use, as cited by Meriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary, is from Usenet, which is the source of many early examples: “Issues of interest are transphobia, hostility, general knowledge and understanding, attitudes of the queer community and cisgendered people, etc.”
Not long after, shorter versions are recorded, including “cisgender” and “cis,” which works as an abbreviation, much as “trans” does.
Most of these terms have at least two meanings: They can name a group of people or an individual. For example, it’s possible to talk about a “cisgendered” person or “the cisgendered” as a whole, much as we discuss — not necessarily in the kindest way — “the disabled” or “the disadvantaged.” (Indeed, trans advocates strongly discourage the use of “transgendered.”) A person can also be a “cisman,” “ciswoman,” “cisperson,” or “cissexual,” which is explained succinctly in a 2000 Usenet post: “What the hell is a Cissexual? Well, everybody that is not Trans.”
A major impetus for spreading these terms is to level the playing field between the trans and cis worlds. Carla Pfeffer — author of “Queering Families: The Postmodern Partnerships of Cisgender Women and Transgender Men (Sexuality, Identity, and Society)” — said in an e-mail interview, “Terms like ‘cis’ and ‘cisgender’ are important because they remind us that all of us are actively constructing and performing our gender and gender identities, they’re not some innate or pre-determined thing. Gender isn’t just something that transgender people do.”
The word that haunts the topic of gender is “normal.” The privileges of normalcy are often unexamined, but Pfeffer suggests, “. . . we might come to understand ‘cis’ and ‘cisgender’ as identities that are also imbued with the unearned privilege of determining what gets to count as normal, safe, and unremarkable in our society.” Cis terms have the power to highlight that privilege and change perceptions of gender for the better.
In other words, advocates say, a world where everyone gets labeled is better than a world where only minority groups get a label.
Despite the advantages of cis terms, they have plenty of detractors. Some dislike the terms for not centering transpeople. “Part of this argument is that ‘cis’ and ‘cisgender’ are unwieldy, academic, and unfamiliar terms,” Pfeffer said. In other words, they’re a confusing substitute for “nontrans” and “nontransgender,” with the wrong emphasis, for some.
There are other objections. Some “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” dislike cis terms because they believe womanhood is essentially experiential. In this view, if you didn’t grow up a woman in a patriarchal society, you’re not a woman, no matter how you identify. Others dislike the idea of another binary division being set up: Cis vs. trans can be seen as yet another us vs. them.
Many conservative voices don’t care for the terms either. Tina Trent recently declared “I am a woman, not a cisgender” in the Canada Free Press. “Unlike all the shiny, happy, ‘non-binary’ sexual identities popping up in human resources training manuals and court dockets these days, calling someone ‘cisgender’ is, by design, a pejorative,” she wrote. “Think of it this way: in the world of gender politics, “cisgender” is the new white — white privilege, that is.”
Though “cisgender” may feel new (or scary) to some, “cis” has a deep lexical history, meaning “on this side of” in Latin. Many English terms employing “cis” as a prefix have been recorded since the 1600s. “Cis-lunar” and “cis-marine” refer to this side of the moon and sea, respectively. Several examples share terminology with the lexicon of gender. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wondered whether someone was “a Cis- or Trans-Atlantic partisan.” These uses are forerunners to today’s gender vocabulary.
Like preferred pronouns and terms such as “gender-fluid,” the acceptance of “cis” will likely mirror overall acceptance of gender fluidity. But one factor makes “cis” terms stand out from the rest: They’re an example of less powerful groups labeling the powerful, which is not usually the way these things go. For Pfeffer, this turnabout is not only fair play but opportunity: “It’s that very discontent and discomfort — lost entitlement to one’s gender being left unexamined and unremarkable — that is most illuminating and worth exploring in greater depth.” In other words, labels constitute further oppression for the oppressed, but for the unoppressed they can be an eye-opening, if not always comfortable, experience.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.