Not That Kind of Sub

There are a couple of parallel discussions going on right now that have Venn-diagrammed their way into my feeds, and last night’s #RWChat cemented something I’ve been feeling vaguely “off” about for a while.

I’m not a sub-genre.

Let me explain.

Sub-Genres of Romance

There are a couple of places you can go to get different lists of sub-genres for Romance. Obviously, the RWA has a list: Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Paranormal, Religious/Spiritual, Suspense, and YA. Wikipedia adds a couple: breaking down part of what the RWA calls Paranormal into Science Fiction and Time-Travel, and adding Multicultural (more on that in a bit).

That was the stage set, so to speak, for the discussion on #RWChat about sub-genres in romance, and one of the questions was “should there be new sub-genres?” and, of course, queer came up as a suggestion.

And that’s where I started to flinch.

Queer as a Sub-Genre?

Now, before I start, I do want to point out where the notion comes from in the minds of most, and that it’s from a good place. Let’s be honest, queer characters don’t get the recognition in romance that their allocishet counterpart characters do. That’s just the current reality.

To ground this in my own experience, I’ve been waffling over joining the local chapter of the RWA. I got invited to a lunch, I already know a few of the authors though awesome events like Romancing the Capital, and my romance output is rising, so it seemed like something worth exploring. Shortly into the dinner, one of the authors announced that they didn’t believe men could be bisexual.

So. I had a choice. I could make a bit of a scene and speak out, or I could wait and see what happened. I chose the latter (I regret that) and nothing happened. I think I managed a weak “I’m not sure you get to decide that,” a few moments later than would be effective.

I haven’t joined the RWA. Maybe another year.

So, when I see organizations like the RWA and their awards go (almost exclusively) to allocishet characters, I’m totally not surprised. And I get why it seems like making a sub-genre just for queer characters is a great idea. I can even see how there’s some merit to it.

Yes, Queer is a Sub-Genre!

For one? There’d be a queer winner of a RITA every year, right? There’d have to be, if there was a sub-genre just for queer characters in romance, rather than the occasional one here and there, and some years not at all.

For another? Visibility. Those titles short-listed would be a quick, easy, one-stop shop to show people some queer characters in romance.

Even more? Legitimacy. If someone like the RWA (okay, maybe not my local chapter) was loud about saying “Queer Characters are Welcome in Romance!” that’s a big deal. Their history with that isn’t so great, and it would go a long way.

So why don’t I like it?

No, Queer isn’t a Sub-Genre!

Honestly? It’s the flip side of the positives I listed above.

For one? There’d be only one winner of a RITA every year with a queer character, because any book with a queer character would be shunted into the queer character box. Never mind if there was a contemporary romance with queer characters that was far and away better than the allocishet character contemporaries on the short list, and also a YA romance with amazing trans characters that blew the allocishet character YA romance shortlist out of the water: only one of them could win. Because they’re queer, and they get one award, competing against each other, even though they’re vastly different sub-genres with only their queerness in common.

For another? The rest of the awards become a queer-free zone by default, and the notion of allocishet characters as “normal” or “default” is increased. Because if there’s one queer romance sub-genre, but thirteen other genres that aren’t, how is that not the message? Books with allocishet characters would get to be considered in groupings of their plots, tropes, and against similar titles. But queer would judged for being queer.

Last? From a publishing point of view, it can actively delegitimize. “We have a sub-genre for queer stories” sounds solid until that becomes a limitation. Think about what women of colour face in the romance world (and, thereby, their characters). “No, we have the four titles we’re publishing for our black-women line this month.” “Oh, but my book is a romantic suspense with a black lead, you publish eight romantic suspenses a month, so…” “No. It’s a black-woman, so it only goes here. Four titles a month. Period.” This is why I get twitchy about “Multicultural” as a sub-genre, too.

Not to mention queer people of colour exist. Where do they go? The multicultural romance, or the queer romance? Which one trumps the other? This is why “people as a sub-genre” gets messy. People are messy. We don’t fit one box.

Oh, yeah, and what happens when that line gets canceled?

Okay, Smart-Guy, Solutions?

Yeah, I didn’t say I had a solution.

Well, no, I do: judge romances with queer characters alongside those with allocishet romances and do so on a level playing field with judges capable of reading them without bias but ha ha ha, yeah. I could barely finish that with a straight face. After all, men can’t be bisexual, right?

Heavy sigh.

The good news is I’ve heard from other readers that romances with queer characters are making strides. Radclyffe, who writes lesbian romances across many romance sub-genres, has been a finalist in many RWA chapter contests in the correct sub-genre category for her books (thanks for that info, Ruth!). That’s progress.

I also totally respect the opposing opinion here. I’m just as tired as anyone else of queer characters barely making it to the foreground of awards and recognition and bestseller lists, and I can empathize with “I don’t care if it means there’s just one winner every year and one short list. At least it would exist and shows we exist.” Like I said above, that’s a fair freaking point.

And maybe it has to go through that step first in places like the RWA, with the ultimate goal of later disentangling it into the sub-genre awards? I don’t know. But I think things like the Rainbow Awards, the Publishing Triangle Awards, and the Lambda Literary Awards (and other queer awards) fill a niche of queer-character writing awards, and they have genre breakdowns built-in. It’s still about the genres there.

I want places like the RWA and Goodreads to step up, not pen us in.

So, I guess, that’s my solution. Not that the RWA and Goodreads will do it, but that we need to make them do it. Groups like Women of Color in Romance (if you don’t follow them, go follow them, right now) do fantastic work to make noise and highlight the incredibly talented women of color writing romance out there who already exist but don’t get the same massive attention the white authors do because publishing is so very, very white.

Publishing is also so very, very allocishet.

I want more noise. Noise about all the #ownvoice writers and characters that exist in romance—queers included—and maybe that’s what it will take to get those books on the shortlists in the sub-genre categories where they belong.

Wait, Goodreads?


Handmade Holidays is a contemporary romance. It has gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people in it. It’s still a contemporary romance.

Yeah, that was the other circle on the Venn Diagram, and I don’t want to say it all again, but once again the Goodreads Choice Awards are up, and soon it’ll be time to vote and there’s a petition going around to create an LGBTQ+ category to vote in.

And all those same reasons for it to be good—and bad—apply. Because I think back to 2014, and Two Boys Kissing deserved to be the winner in YA, not LGBTQ+. Ditto They Both Die at the End this year.

But there were next to no books with queer characters on the initial list of titles. And that’s not a surprise. Because while queer people are expected to read allocishet books and be satisfied, the opposite isn’t true. And no one can force someone to read a book they don’t want to read. We’re outnumbered, and will always be so.

So, no. I’ve got no happy solution. But I did write-in a book with queer-characters into every slot where I thought that book was the best book I’d read this year. That’s what I can do with the system the way it is, and so I do. And sometimes I didn’t add a book with queer-characters (I voted for The Hate U Give in YA, even though there’s zero queer content, because that book was amazeballs and freaking important and I want it to win all the prizes and I hope They Both Die at the End wins all the Lammies and PTAs and Rainbows and that’s why I love that there are queer-character awards, too).

I’m not a Sub-Genre.

My final thoughts on this snarl are exactly that: just mine. I’m not speaking for all of queer kind here. I can’t. I’m only queer in my own way.

As a reader, I want to see queer reality in all the genres. In science fiction, in mystery, in literature, in romance, in YA, in all the categories. All of them. Even horror, which I barely read. Readers deserve to see themselves. The magic of digital tagging means readers can drill down to find those titles, too.

But I—again, just me, speaking for me—don’t want it to be “Queer,” with a sub-category of “Romance” if that means when I click “Romance” there will be no queer. Queer belongs in romance. Period. I want to click “Romance,” and then “Contemporary” and then be able to find the queer titles. And I want to see shortlists for awards where “Contemporary Short-form Romance” includes a novella with trans characters.

If that means places like the RWA have to learn men can be bisexuals first? Well. It’s time to roll up my sleeves and get back to teaching instead of waiting to hear what they currently say.



Where I’ll be at @CanConSF this weekend!


This is what I look like. Say hi.

Hey Ottawa people! So, starting this evening and through the weekend is the awesome Can*Con 2017 event at the Sheraton Ottawa, and though I’m sure you’re sick of me saying so by now, a reminder: I’ll be there.

So will some exciting people, so don’t let my presence put you off (ba-dum-tish!).

Registration opens at 5:00p today, and there are awesome panels, discussions, events, and readings to see.

Importantly? The Dealers Room is open to the public throughout the event, so if you see a name on a signing, or you want to check out some awesome books and products in support of the publishers and artists of Can*Con, you totally have access. Also, if you want, there are day-passes available as well as pricing at the door for the whole she-bang.

If you are looking to see yours truly, however? Allow me to make it easier for you.

Friday, October 13th, 2017.

I’m not on any panels or readings this evening, however, I totally think you should check out my husband taking part in “No, You Can’t Actually Do That With a Computer” at 9:00p, Salon D, because he’s cute and he knows his stuff when it comes to computer security; or for the horror fans, “Homophobia and Monster Stories” (which includes fellow BSBer Christian Baines), 9:00p, Salon F.

Also, I’ll be carrying two d20s so we can duel with our official Can*Con RPG characters.

Saturday, October 14th, 2017.

Okay, deep breath…


Romance! Second Chances! Time-Travel! Tropes aplenty…

At 10:00a, I’ll be talking “Romance Tropes We Love,” alongside Jessica Ripley, Angela S. Stone, and Jennifer Carole Lewis, in Salon C.

At 11:00a, I’ll be taking off my romance hat and putting on my queer hat for “Finding a Home for your Queer Stories,” alongside Caro Frechette, fellow BSBer Stephen Graham King, Kelsi Morris, and Derek Newman-Stille, in Salon F.

Then, at 12:00p, I’ll be taking off the queer hat and putting on my bookstore manager hat for “How to Interact with a Bookstore,” alongside Charlotte Ashley, Leah Bobet, Benoit Chartier, and Linda Poitevin, in Salon D.

At 1:00p, I will likely be running out the door to find something to eat. I’m totally available for nearby food inhalation.

At 3:00p, Leah Bobet and I will have the open-to-the-public Dealer Room signing real estate for half an hour, so drop on by, say hi, and maybe I can scribble my name on something for you.

Finally, w-a-a-a-y in the evening at 9:00p, I’ll be propping myself up beside fellow spoonies Caro Frechette, Cait Gordon, Talia Johnson, Jamieson Wolf, and Derek Newman-Stille, and attempting to be coherent about “Spooning with Spoonies,” in Salon E.

Sunday, October 15th, 2017.

I am foot-loose and fancy free all Sunday, so if you see me, corner me and say hello. Also, much like Friday, I shall ensure I always have two d20s with me so we can duel with our official Can*Con 2017 RPG characters. (I think I’m going to be a wizard).

Hope to see you all there!

Voice, Lists, Existing, and Being Heard

I didn’t want to have a discussion today, and I couldn’t help myself from expressing a bit of exhausted frustration about the discussion… and then ended up having the discussion. Again. My own fault.

But, it occurred to me I’ve had this conversation enough that it might be worth putting my thoughts down in once place. I talk about ownvoice a lot, but from this particular angle, I’m not sure I’ve discussed it here, so here we go.


Today’s attempt at a not-discussion happened when a fellow author noted there was one one gay author on a blog shared which was listed as a kind of a beginner’s guide to reading Gay Fantasy. Now, reaction to this was actually pretty soft (I’ve seen much, much worse) and generally open, and the discussion more-or-less went okay thereafter.

But the response that brings the exhaustion every time did show up: “Does that mean as a straight woman I should only write straight women?” and then, as a chaser, “People write about serial killers without being real serial killers. Authors do research.”

And, exhale.

That’s not what’s being said. What’s being brought to the attention is that, once again, a marginalized voice is left outside, rather than being in the position of existing and being heard.

Okay, so let’s break things down a bit.


I don’t think it’s over-the-top to at least note when a list of titles about a marginalized group doesn’t hit even a half-way point with content created by those implicitly in the group.

This issue manifests in a lot of ways that silence voices, and can be as internal as it is external. This also isn’t restricted to the identities of the authors, either. I’ve lost count of the number of “LGBTQ Pride Readings Lists!” that have zero T or B or Q content, maybe one or two L titles, and then the rest is solid G all the way, baby. There’s a fairly easy fix there: Don’t call it what it isn’t.

Ditto how much an author chooses to boost the signal of other authors. If the books read and recommended by an author never (or only rarely) seem to include a gay man, but an author writes gay male characters and suggests lots of other non-gay-male authors far, far more often? Those are choices.

There’s a great phrase I see repeated in many activist circles: “nothing about us without us.” It doesn’t mean exclusion of those not in the group, it means inclusion of those within the group, to make sure the voice of the group isn’t lost among the (likely good) intent of those outside it.

I’ve seen this discussion play out so many times, including recently in autism groups, where so many top-ten or recommended reading lists so often don’t actually include any (or many) authors or experts in question from within the group itself.

So I Can Only Write Straight Women, Then?

Okay, this is such a loaded topic, so to start: I’m not saying only queer men should write queer men. I need that to be clear. There are brilliant non-queer-men writing queer-men stories out there. I love seeing them get the recognition of a tale well told.

That said, do I think it’s important to make sure that the voice of a marginalized people is heard? Of course I do. There’s always danger the authenticity of the voice will suffer if the majority of stories about a living, breathing people aren’t written by them or with them.

To bring this to a specifically M/M place, recently on an online chat the question was posed: What does M/M mean to you? In other words, when someone says M/M, what do you think of?

These were my answers:

  • I generally assume if it’s called m/m that it’s not going to be queer in a “life as I live it as a queer” way.
  • I assume it’s far less likely to be an #ownvoice writing gay/bi/queer men. The world will be more rosy and sunshine.
  • Higher likelihood of the two men in question being the only queer representation in the book. They’ll exist in a queer vacuum. No other queer friends. Or, if there are other queer friends, it will all be half of future pairs in a series.
  • Rarely (if ever) will there be more than gay/bi men. No queer women, no trans characters.
  • Their relationship will likely be quite heteronormative in the sense of a closed pair, monogamy, wanting kids, etc.
  • I’ll also expect to find a high focus placed on penetrative anal sex (and especially someone’s anal virginity). And value placed on it, too, as a kind of declaration of true love.

None of these are necessarily bad things per sé, just what I’ve come to expect as a reader when reading books labeled “m/m.” And they don’t ring authentic to my queer life. But if books that follow these trends are the only books appearing on a list labeled “gay,” and there’s not a single book on the list where, for example, the queer men have other gay and lesbian and bi and trans friends?

That list is missing how many gay people exist. Something I know to expect to find in gay men’s #ownvoice books. All my queer characters have queer friends. As a queer person? That’s my reality.

But you’d never know it—or learn it—from some lists out there.

I’m Not a Vampire Either, But I Write Those


See? Vampire.

Fair enough. So do I. But vampires aren’t a real, living and breathing marginalized group of people. Queer people are. So if you write a queer character (and, yes, even a queer vampire), and you are not using your voice, and you get something wrong, you need to learn. Be open to criticism. And own it.

Also? Non-real things like Vampires can definitely do harm, too. If your good army of elves are all light skinned, sparkly, and have blond hair and the evil army of orcs are all black skinned and ugly? Take a second to think about that. This carries across to shifters, to aliens, to dragons, to whatever you create. If you create an alien race in a far-flung future where same-sex couples are the norm for that culture, and you have your space-faring humans rattled by that, you’ve written a future where queerness hasn’t progressed pretty much at all. Or, conversely, if you write a future where “queer doesn’t matter” but the only couples you ever actually see on page are straight or gay men, then what, exactly, happened to the lesbians?

Writing stuff that doesn’t exist doesn’t get an author off the hook for how they write (or don’t write) living, breathing cultures. I’m not a serial killer either, but if all the serial killers I write are bisexual, and none of the other characters are bisexual? I still do harm.

An author still needs to do research.


Of course authors research. That’s part of the job. Writing a police procedural? You’re likely going to check in with some cops, right? And when an author screws something up, they’ll often make a little note about it on a blog, or joke about it at a Con, and then moving forward they’ll try not to make the same mistake again. Which is great.

And, for some reason, seems not to happen anywhere as smoothly when we’re talking about the representation of queer people.

Now, there’s tonnes of information out there from queer #ownvoices. I try to do that myself, right here in blogs like this. Research is more or less accessible, even without being particularly intrusive (but, hey, I do love respectful questions that don’t assume I’m at the beck and call of an author, and love answering them). An author has a decent chance of writing something with queer characters that doesn’t foul out if they do the homework, sure.

But. (Huge but).

If a living, breathing group cries foul? That’s when it’s time to stop and listen. Because we’re fallible as writers. We’ll screw up. We’ll do some harm without intending to. And that sucks, because harm wasn’t intended, but harm is still done, and the lack of intent comes second to the harm.

It’s my go-to example, but: Gay-For-You. There’s a strong, loud voice from bi and pan readers decrying Gay-For-You plots that erase them. After doing even a modicum of research, you will know that. Thereafter? You can’t unknow that. If you continue to write Gay-For-You stories with that kind of erasure? Now you’re choosing to willfully do some harm.

Ditto dead-naming trans characters (especially in the damn blurb), burying your gays, referring to HIV status as clean/dirty, etc, etc, etc. We are real people, and whether or not an author likes it, if they choose to write in our voice, they are representing us.

Just on Gay-For-You I have seen people fly completely off the handle saying it doesn’t matter, that the m/m Gay-For-You books aren’t for bi people, and that bi and pan people shouldn’t be upset, they’re over-reacting, that they just shouldn’t read them, and on and on.

When I was a kid, my “first time seeing me” reading moment was a gay character in a story. He died. And it was presented very much as an “of course he died, he was gay.” The class all nodded their heads. I sat there trying not to react, learning that I was probably going to die because I was gay.

People outside a marginalized group don’t get to decide what harms those within it.

So, Now What?

That’s totally up to each individual. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do so much as I’m trying to explain why my eyebrow creeps up when lists of books about a group of people don’t include any authors from that group. It translates across the board, of course: I don’t think anyone would think it unfair to criticize a list of “the best women detectives” books that had not a single woman author on the list, or “the best black fiction” that didn’t include more than one black author. It seems like basic stuff to me, like inviting five white men to sit on a panel to discuss the wage gap.

It would never fly. It shouldn’t. So when it happens, in list form or otherwise, this is why there’s pushback. Why the discussion happens.

But maybe I should try to turn this into some sort of advice?


If an author is writing a character that isn’t their voice as the primary voice from a living breathing culture? They’re taking a risk. As long as they know that? By all means, go where the muse leads, but prepare for feedback and be prepared to be graceful in the eye of unexpected feedback especially. And, I honestly think the author should stop and really ask themselves why they want to write that character.

For me? My experience never seeing myself in fiction is why I choose to write what I write, and why I try to focus on reading and boosting #ownvoices. I absolutely work to write diversity into my worlds, yes, but I also don’t generally write a main voice that’s not at least somewhat mine.

Again: that’s my choice. No one else has to do the same. But I’d rather boost an ace #ownvoice than write an ace main character. Ace supporting characters? I’m absolutely writing them. But I’d never try to be the next ace voice. Because I’m not ace. The same way I try to boost and suggest awesome lesbian and bi and trans authors out there writing amazing books, but also include awesome lesbian and bi and trans characters in my stories. I can write a world that supports all my queer allies without taking the mic from their hands.

They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera

coverBefore I say anything else about the book—I was lucky enough to get an ARC, along with what seems like a few hundred others—I want to say, clearly and primarily: I loved this. It was clever, and had feeling, and had me, to my core, resonating with the queerness of it all.

I also want to say that I don’t normally add my voice when there’s a massive release. I try really hard to shout about the titles that don’t have massive campaigns attached to them from big-five publishers with hundreds of ARCs and promos, as they don’t really need my help.

But I loved this so much.

Okay, now to the meat of it. This is spec fic (albeit contemporary) YA, so I want to talk about that a bit. It’s no surprise Silvera includes queerness in a spec fic world, because duh, but every time we’re included in a world that isn’t ours, it’s a reminder—and a celebration—that we do exist in this real one. Spec fic has long been a playground for queer writers, but so often when the writer isn’t queer, we just sort of vanish. Like, if the future has no queers, or this world has no queers, it’s rare anyone really notices, but as a queer reader there’s an obviousness to it that rubs painfully.

Now, in this world, the spec fic element is one thing: the technology (unexplained) exists so that is known what day you will die, with one day’s notice. Not how. Not exactly when. Just, the phone will ring, and the clock is ticking. Some time before midnight? You end. This is almost like a reversal of This is How You Die, and I couldn’t help but keep thinking about those stories at the same time. The fallout of this technology is all along a contemporary, real-world version of what Silvera imagines would come from this technology, and as far as I could tell, it was tone-perfect. People follow the social media of those running out their last-day clock. There are shows. Deals. Public scrutiny. Judgement. Matching services. It’s brilliant. In weaving in occasional POVs from other characters from the outside-in was a great way to display this interconnectivity of the fallout of the knowledge of death-days.

The characters? Puerto Rican Mateo, and Cuban-American Rufus, were done with great strokes. I believed them, liked them (and got annoyed at them), enjoyed their sometimes frantic, and sometimes lackadaisical pace through their last day. I’ve noted a few reviews said the pacing seemed to shift for them, and some of the down spots seemed a bit slow, and while I agree the pacing did slow, it made sense to me and never removed me from the narrative. From an emotional point of view, human beings can’t run on all-out all-the-time. Even in the midst of a crisis, we eventually adjust. Our brains can’t do 100% panic and sustain it. So I really quite found the “breaks” to feel organic, and I liked how—even on the last day of their life—they might just want to stop for a bit, eat some good food, and breathe. Also, it drew broader strokes around the characters families and cultures and added weight to the reality that life was ending for these two, but not for all the lives they were touching.

But, as I said before, it was more than that. I rooted for them in a queer way that I might have trouble explaining, but goes back to what I said about it resonating on a queer level.

So let me try.

The whole framing of the “seize the day” narrative around these queer kids was so spot-on. They had a day. One day. And in that day, they had some choices to make about how and what they would allow themselves to be, and most of those choices were about whether or not they would be themselves. It’s frankly a perfect analogy of a queer life reduced to a twenty-four hour period. This is every day as a queer person: a loop of choices about where, when, and how you can position yourself to be yourself. The notion of so many people watching them live this last day just added all the more authenticity to the allegory for me. When I’m existing in a queer space, like my own home, or Pride, or a queer club, being me is effortless. I can relax. I can be. But the moment others are watching—and boy, how people watched Mateo and Rufus—the more decisions have to be made. Is this a safe spot to touch my husband, or kiss him, or to even say the word “husband” or “queer” or in any other way out myself? Or is this a moment where the smarter and safer thing—even though it’s the diminishing thing—is to not touch, not kiss, not say, not be out, not be me.

These kids? They live all of that in one day. They choose, moment by moment, whether or not to be themselves, and that’s the brilliance of They Both Die at the End to me: Even with just one day? They know how important that is, and show the whole damn world.

Freedom, Chosen Families, and Queer Strength

triad-soulI’m over at the Bold Strokes Books author blog today, chatting about Triad Soul and the main themes of the Triad books. Where Triad Blood was much about tradition (and how tradition can be turned into a weapon of exclusion), Triad Soul is explores another piece of queerness: the chosen family.

Head on over and check it out here.

Also, Bold Strokes Books does a thing every month where they list off all the individual titles releasing on Facebook, and if you share/like any of those release notes, you get entered for a free e-book of your choice. Go here to check that out, and maybe like/share a title (or eleven). Free is always a great price!


Not Normal, Just Common

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.

Assigned what-now?

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.