I’ve bumped into something a few times recently, so I thought it worth taking some time. And also, hey, it’s Pride Month, so what better time to remind folk about the difference between normal and common?
So, what is it I keep bumping into? Folk fighting the term “cisgender.” Or, as it’s often shortened, “cis.”
Now, before I start, I want to be clear that I’m speaking from a cisgender point of view, and I’m a cisgender male. I’m hopeful I’m not screwing up any of the basics here, and if I am, please let me know and I’ll amend.
But the sudden rapid increase in the whole reaction to “cis” among cisgender folk makes me think the discussion might be overdue.
Cis? Cisgender? What’s that?
For me, the prefix cis- was one I bumped into years ago back in the lovely world of organic chemistry. It meant that things had bonded on the same side (specifically isomers, I think, but chemistry was literally decades ago, so yeah… I remember “same side” and that’s about it). The prefix trans-, on the other hand, meant those things had bonded on an opposite side.
You probably see how this translated into discussions of gender.
Applying the latin prefixes to gender, we get cisgender and transgender. Now, if you’re on my blog, you likely get what transgender means (if not, as a quickie: transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex). But what does cisgender mean, then?
Well, cisgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that is the same as their assigned sex. Y’know, like me. At birth, the doctor said, “it’s a boy,” and nothing in my heart, soul, or thoughts thus far has come into conflict with that assignment. I’m queer, yes, but I’m a cisgender male, and that’s it.
Yeah, okay. So that comes up, too. When I say the doctor assigned me male at birth? That’s on purpose. Because there’s a lot of crap transgender folk face on a regular basis, and one flavour of that crap is all about confusing bodies (and their various parts) with gender. “Assigned sex” takes that out of play. There’s an assumption there, on behalf of the folks who get to fill in birth information on official paperwork, but saying “assigned sex” reinforces that is indeed what’s happening: the official people have assigned a sex to the newly born individual.
Whether or not it’s correct? That remains to be seen.
(This may also be a good time to remind everyone that being trans and straight is a thing. Cisgender males can be gay; transgender males can be straight; both are still queer, for example.)
I don’t get why we need cisgender. I mean, isn’t not using transgender the same thing?
It’s not, though I can see where it might seem to be, at first glance. If discussions talk about, say, the male experience, and then make note of transgender male experience, there’s a kind of false dichotomy going on, and there’s also a problem of the weight of the word “male” vs. the weight of the word “transgender.”
Let me start with the false dichotomy thing.
Transgender males are male. Cisgender males are male. Both are male. But when someone speaks of “male” or “transgender male” the idea that transgender males are “qualified” males, or “kind-of” males, or “sort-of” males is reinforced, since the other group, “male” has no qualifying adjective.
In reality, those discussions have three facets: in discussing “male experiences,” one could be discussing something about the male experience (“As a man, buying clothes is generally cheaper for me”), something about the cisgender male experience (“I see myself represented as the hero all the time in movies”), or something about the transgender male experience (“Finding a trans-positive doctor was important to me.”) All those experiences are male. None of them is more male than any other. But some are cisgender male (but not transgender male) experiences, some are transgender male (but not cisgender male) experiences, and some are both.
If you divide discussion between “male” and “transgender male,” that false dichotomy of “there’s male, and then there’s transgender male” is unintentionally made.
Common, Not Normal.
The prefixes, cis and trans, also serve to do the same thing prefixes like hetero, bi, pan, a, demi, and homo do with sexual. I imagine if you’re on my blog, you’re probably not going to be too surprised when I say that heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s common. The vast majority of people would probably describe themselves as heterosexual. That’s cool beans. No harm, no foul. Sexuality has a lot of variance, and most of the time, most of the people I speak to get that. Homosexuals are less common, but they’re just as valid as heterosexuals. Bisexuals have experiences that differ from them. They also have experiences that are in common. The same can be said of asexuals, demisexuals, pansexuals, and so on and so forth. Having the terms lets us discuss and explain ourselves, and find each other, especially for those of us who are outside the most common identities. Because the most common identity is almost ubiquitously explained, represented, discussed, demonstrated, and assumed.
The same is true of discussions around gender. Saying cisgender male and transgender male helps solidify that while, yes, cisgender is more common, it is not more male. It is not more normal, or natural, or correct.
It also works as much with trans as it does with male and female. Discussions can be all the more specific around nonbinary or agender individuals as well, as trans is inclusive of these identities as a larger term in the same way: trans includes nonbinary individuals, and agender individuals, and transgender men, and transgender women; all of whom can share trans experiences. Trans is not just an prefix of gender applied to men and women.
So, if someone refers to cisgender people (or cisgender men, or cisgender women) and you’re not sure what that means? Well, now you do. It’s meant to specifically denote those who were assigned a gender at birth whose identity and expression match said assignment. That’s it. That’s all.
It’s not a slur.
Now, I’ve also heard a few people say “people have been attacking me with the word cis,” or “it sounds a lot like sissy, I don’t like it.”
Okay, to the second part? For the “it sounds like sissy” thing, I’m not really sure what to say. Honestly, I think this’ll just have to be withstood. There are queer people who dislike (and don’t use) queer, but the reality is that’s the most inclusive term we’ve currently got, and it’s the one that’s used. Cisgender is a technical term, with latin roots that has nothing to do with the word sissy.
As for the first, I understand that sometimes people suck. As a queer guy, I get that, believe me. I’ve had all manner of words aimed at me in a hateful way, including one I use all the time: queer. Now, I’m honestly not sure how cis could be tossed around in quite the same way—I’m unclear how the power dynamic would work here—but it might be worth stopping and considering the source and the current temperature of the discussion at hand.
I know there have been times where I, as a queer guy, have said some uncharitable things about non-queer folk. Often that’s because I’m just coming off of something pretty wretched, or I’m having the same queer 101 talk and my blood sugar is low and someone has asked the same damn question I’ve answered a billion times, or says something well-meaning (but totally dismissive) like, “love is love, we don’t need labels.”
If that’s what’s going on, honestly? I’d ask you to consider being patient. Generally speaking, cisgender people have more power. The world is so incredibly designed for cisgender people (in relation to how the world is not designed for transgender people). That’s exhausting. Sometimes, even the nicest among the queer folk will lose their patience, and snap out a generalized “cis people are so freaking clueless!” when what they might mean is “I’m exhausted by bumping into yet another reminder that the world thinks I’m abnormal and less-than!”
Above all else? Resist the urge to drop some variation of “not all cisgender!” in response.