The Trials and Travails of Transness: The Importance of Cis

by Shaker Alexmac, a transgender woman studying at the University of Florida.

[Part 3 in an ongoing series. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.]

I would like to make a quick break from my series and talk a bit about language. Recently at Pam's House Blend, there was a large flare-up over the us of cis, and Autumn Sandeen claimed that the word cis had been "weaponized." I do not want to focus on the details of the incident at Pam's House Blend, but I would like to emphasize the importance of the word "cis."

This word was popularized by Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl. Cis, as in cisgender or cissexual, refers to people who do not have cross gender feelings. Also, it has a nice symmetry as it is also a Latinate prefix, but it means on the same side as, as opposed to trans, which means on the opposite side of. Studying biology, I use this prefix a lot to refer to biological process, but it is not as commonly used as the trans prefix. Which leads to: It decenters gender identity and expression from "trans" and "normal" to "trans" and "cis." It functions in much the same way as heterosexual does for homosexual. It makes trans just another possibility in the spectrum of identity instead of this "other" thing. The word is value-neutral and was coined specifically to serve as a counterpoint to/for transgender people.

Since cis people are the majority group, they have privilege that transgender people don't have. Transgender people have to prove their gender by dropping their pants. They are excluded from bathrooms due to their status. They don't receive care because they aren't they right gender. Cisgender people have privilege even if they didn't ask for it. They are not pathologized as transgender people are. Cisgender privilege exists as surely as male privilege and white privilege exist.

The word cisgender is meant to equalize the relationship between cisgender and transgender people. If that is to happen, cis people need to realize that they have privilege by virtue of the fact that their subconscious sex matches their physical sex, and that there is nothing wrong or deviant about having those things not match. I want to be regarded as an equal person who is transgender and the word cis provides a valuable tool to talk about the experiences of the non transgender population.

This word brings up a lot of controversy and many people do not accept it. I would like to draw from Julia Serano's post on the word cis. Many people respond to the word cis by saying that they don't identify as cis. I say in response that the word cis is only trying to describe the people whose subconscious sex matches their physical sex. If anyone wants to use a different word that doesn't position transgender people as an Other, then I would be pleased to call them that. The word itself is not important; it is simple a way to express the idea of non-transgender people without othering transgender people.

Another common response is that cis sounds jargony or academic. My response is that the word cis fill an important void. It allows transgender people and allies to describe the ways we are marginalized by having an equal term for people who are not transgender. Having this word allows new ideas such as cisgender privilege to be developed and discuss how it affects trans lives.

I have seen a lot of pushback against this word, but I feel it is misguided. I am a white person, even though I usually don't self identify as such. Having a way to describe my race as something other than normal compared to people of color places me on a continuum of racial identities and allows people to point out the privilege of the majority group as white privilege. Pointing out privilege can be painful to the privileged, but it is important for minority groups to have a vocabulary to fully describe their experiences and their relationship to the majority class. The word cis does that for transgender people.

There are other good discussions of this issue at the following posts: A Point About Cis and Semantics, Gender, and 'Cis'.

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