Jeez Louise This Whole Cisgender Thing

Posted by – September 17, 2009

Since Alex Blaze took it on, & since we’ve been discussing this whole “is it okay to call someone who isn’t trans cisgender?” question on the boards, I may as well put it down here.

First, I’m going to claim a difference between cisgender & cissexual. Cisgender, the problem seems to me, is not the easy opposite of transgender. Cisgender implies, or means, or could mean (depending on who you talk to), that someone’s sex and gender are concordant. So your average butch woman, who is not trans, or is, depending on how she feels about it (see Bear Bergman), is now somehow cisgender. So is someone like me. So is a femme-y gay man who maybe performs a more gender normative masculinity for his job. That is, those of us who have variable genders, who maybe are gender fluid or gender neutral but who don’t identify as trans, are now somehow cisgender.

& Honestly, that’s bullshit. There’s a reason I use GVETGI to describe myself = Gender Variant Enough To Get It, is what it stands for.

So there’s the first issue, that “cis” may stand for “cisgender” and it may stand for “cissexual” but no one knows for sure which it is when it’s abbreviated. Crossdressers, for instance, are cissexual but they’re not cisgender. For instance.

Then there’s that little usage/connotation/denotation problem.

Telling me, & other partners whose lives are profoundly impacted by the legal rights / cultural perceptions of trans people, that we are “not trans” implies that we are also not part of the trans community. I’ve been saying for years now that we are. When trans people are killed, harassed, not hired, fired due to discrimination, denied health care, etc. etc. etc., their loved ones suffer along with them. Their families, their lovers, their kids especially. We are not just “allies.” We are vested, dammit, & a part of the trans community, so when “cisgender” comes to mean, or is used to mean, “not part of the trans community,” we are once again left out in the dark.

(Somehow, I can’t help thinking of the muggles & mudbloods of Harry Potter, here. Partners are the equivalent of the kids born to magical families who are not themselves magical. In the books & movies, they are part of the magical community, & without question. Ahem.)

That said, people like Betty & I express heterosexual privilege simply by being married, because we did so when we had an M & an F on our documents. Expressing heterosexual privilege, however, does not make us homophobic. Yet when the term “transphobic” comes up, it’s often used as somehow entirely the same as “expressing cissexual/cisgender privilege.” I’d argue the two are NOT the same, but they are used interchangeably.

Likewise, cisgender seems to get used a lot in place of “ignorant or unsympathetic to trans issues” which is also bullshit. Being cisgender or experiencing cissexual privilege – say by having a doctor assume correctly that I have a uterus – is not the same thing as being ignorant or unsympathetic to trans issues.

Finally, there’s the whole bottom rung of the ladder issue: cis allies, partners, & gender variant LGBs are not just the natural allies to trans people, but they are also the closest to them. So when trans people use the term “cis” like a curse – Calibanesque – the utility of the term for pointing out the privilege those who are non-trans experience becomes instead fighting words.

So, yeah. I love it as theory, in classrooms. I teach cisgender & cissexual privilege. But as a cissexual person, I don’t want to be called cis, or cisgender. It’s not my identity. I have lots of genders, but I’m not trans. Other women, feminists, LGBs, may not object. But here I’ll reiterate what I wrote to the trans people on our boards:

i guess the point is that there are women, & gay men, who actually have legitimate & well thought out reasons for objecting to the term.

but the times i have seen someone object to cis, they’re basically condescendingly told they are (1) unhip, (2) are ignorant/in denial about their own privilege – & often a privilege they are, until that point, entirely unaware of, and (3) told that those two things together make them transphobic.

& i don’t think that’s always the case.
so if all these explanations of why some people criticize the term or how it’s used, only convinces some trans people that anyone who is uncomfortable being called cis is (1) ignorant, (2) unhip, and (3) unwittingly transphobic, then i guess there’s been no point whatsoever in explaining that maybe people have their reasons, & that none of them have anything to do with being any of those things.

which i suppose means i should go ahead & go back to using “tranny” since i think it’s playful & sweet, & to hell with any trans people who don’t like being called that, because obviously they’re just (1) unhip, (2) ignorant, and (3) self hating.

I was being snarky, surely, but I really really detest when someone pulls a Freud on me & assumes my motivations even after I’ve explained, multiple times, that they’re wrong. I have experienced heterosexual, white, & cissexual privilege (amongst others) but that does not mean I am straight, don’t value my cultural Catholicism/white ethnicity, or that I’m cisgender.

If we could only realize that privilege, like gender, & like sexual orientation, is not simple, may change over time, & is not the same as prejudice or bigotry, we might just get somewhere.

18 Comments on Jeez Louise This Whole Cisgender Thing

  1. Mercedes says:

    (Yay, a login worked! :) I think I’ve confused or lost most of the logins to your sites.)

    Personally, I do use cisgender and cissexual, but to me, they’re strictly clinical terms with no other assumptions and connotations.

    You wrote: “that we are “not trans” implies that we are also not part of the trans community.”

    It’s not supposed to connote this. And this is an excellent point. Looking at the parallel of sexual orientation terminology, a partner of someone who is gay is, well, usually gay too. Ours is not as evenly-balanced a situation. We’re unfortunately not used to thinking in terms of the investment our partners, families and close friends have in our lives or the way they’re also affected by trans-related issues.

    You wrote: “There’s a reason I use GVETGI to describe myself = Gender Variant Enough To Get It, is what it stands for.”

    It’s probably a bit too complicated to catch on, and I tend to be a terminology minimalist, but if we’re too quick to forget that our loved ones and even empathetic allies have a stake in our struggles, maybe something has to be considered here. Although personally, I’d rather we changed our thinking on this as a community than made up another word.

    You wrote: “So your average butch woman, who is not trans, or is, depending on how she feels about it (see Bear Bergman), is now somehow cisgender.”

    I don’t know that cisgender would be appropriate in these cases, or that we’d have any right to attribute either term (cis or trans). That’s a grey area where a person’s right to self-identify should override. Cissexual should still be appropriate.

  2. katebornstein says:

    Oh THANK YOU for putting this together so eloquently, Helen. I feel like I’ve been put under a microscope for simply having said I’m going to opt out of using the word. Cis is a razor’s edge (Occam’s Razor?) and while I usually like bright shiny sharp things like razors, I want to familiarize myself with the ramifications of using cis before I start dropping the word around. This post helped me better understand the phenomenon. I’m still opting out of using cis for now.

    (And it totally TICKLES me that you remind me of H.L. Mencken. Love you. K)

  3. Phoebe says:

    So I’m curious. These days I find that I don’t tend to use cis much as a naked adjective, but as a modifier to something else. So for instance, I wouldn’t say “X is cis” but I would say “x is a cis woman”. (Whereas with the word “trans” I might use either construction.) Does that have the same connotations for you?

    Part of the problem here is that the reason why “trans” has become useful is because it *does* blur the boundaries, so it lets you short circuit a lot of identity arguments. “Cis” as an opposite to “trans” can’t really have a precise meaning unless we nail down what “trans” means — and I think we all know better than to try that.

    What I’m noticing is that in the queer circles I’ve been hanging in lately, there isn’t much awareness that “cis” has been used pejoratively. I’m thinking of one group in particular, where it was the trans women who were tiptoeing around using it, and had to explain to the (rather bewewildered) cis folk that some people didn’t like the word. I think what will happen is if “cis” spreads quickly enough to people who are trans aware, but not actually plugged into the trans community, the vitriol associated with it can be diluted, but if it spreads at the same rate as true trans *knowledge* that it will end up being too tainted to use. (And then we’ll come up with something else, because the language *needs* something to fill the definition of “not trans”.

  4. kiri says:

    I didn’t know that “cis” is used pejoratively. To me “cis” and “trans” are complementary (not opposite), and each simply refers to the people who aren’t described by the other word, with no sense of status or hierarchy.

    If I had a partner who is African-American or has a disability, that wouldn’t make me black or disabled. It might help me gain insight into other people’s lives and, one hopes, more empathy. But I wouldn’t be offended by not being considered part of the “black community.”

    I see whether someone is masculine of feminine as being a separate issue from whether they’re trans- or cis-. Thus, a masculine woman might or might not consider herself to be trans; a trans man might or might not be feminine, etc. The idea that being masculine by itself somehow means that a woman is trans seems to me to reduce the possibilities for describing one’s self-identity.

    But I know that I have to be sensitive to what words mean to other people, not just to me.

  5. valentina says:

    Kudos for shining your light on this! I’m not sure sometimes which I struggle with more – gender identity or getting the trans-lingo right with whoever I’m talking to. I’ve never used any of the “cis” words (not that I’ve had a lot of opportunity), but I think this illustrates how fractured we are about terminology in the greater trans world, and how some use words more for defense mechanisms than for understanding or definition.

  6. Grace.Annam says:

    Argh. I removed all formatting entirely, and it’s still getting rejected. There’s got to be a keyword which it doesn’t like in there somewhere.

    Ah, well.

    Grace

  7. Back to basics: just ask how a particular person wishes to be called.

    The term “cis” always has made me a little squirmy; I’ll try to figure out why and put it into words:

    If I really think about cis terms, they seem pretty transient. It’s set up, the way I hear it described by most, in such a way that to be “trans” is to deviate from “cis”. But to me that’s just reinforcing the idea of “normal” and “not normal”. There are so many ways of being without even going so far as to identify as trans specifically, that the term “cis” doesn’t seem to me to describe what someone is so much as what they are not. And so, I can see why anyone so involved with the trans community would be upset by the assumptions inherent in that.

    Additionally, what “cis” is, if taken to mean anything that doesn’t deviate from the status quo of gender, will change with time and culture. What it means to conform to a set of ideas given an assigned gender will depend on what those ideas are at the time a child is developing their sense of self. I’m not sure how to address this. I suppose it’s fine as a shorthand term when one wants to draw a distinction as an ally or a friend; but I just feel as if the label “cis” is an invitation to project a very commercial-driven image of masculinity or femininity onto someone that is most probably much more complex than all of that.

    However, the term seems to be created for people within the trans community; people who are not aware of gender transgression won’t use a gender-specific term like “cisgendered” in order to identify themselves. So it almost makes me feel as if someone’s saying, “I’m with you, but I’m not like you,” before they even know who I am.

    If “cis” can be applied liberally to anyone who doesn’t self-identify as trans, then the general attitude about “cis” as conforming to societal standards can overshadow the possibilities that cis people might have in a different environment or with a partner. “Trans” is one way of saying that we don’t conform to gender expectations, but I don’t know too many people who want to be known for conforming to all gender expectations. The title of “cis” seems to me to imply that the person is bound by their society’s ideas of who they are supposed to be.

    “Not trans” seems to be adequate enough for me, or no term necessary at all. It’s like this: ‘Not gay’ translates to ‘straight’ (generally assumed), but we didn’t have the term ‘straight’ meaning what it does until people started using the term ‘gay’ meaning what it does. Now they’re both boxes that people can’t seem to escape from. Being cisgendered doesn’t mean a person hasn’t done some crossdressing, just as being transgendered doesn’t mean a person doesn’t ever revisit things they do enjoy about their assigned gender or pass as such for their own personal reasons.

    But there are many different ways to be trans, many different stripes, terms, communities, presentations, titles, pronouns. It doesn’t seem that there are many different ways to be cis. There are many different ways to be a person, however.

    Okay, that last bit probably sums up everything, without my long-winded shpeal. I’m sorry, it’s late, and I’m probably not making much sense.

    Oh, nice to meet you. I love your books. This is the first time I’ve posted here, but felt compelled to say something.

  8. helenboyd says:

    this comment is from Grace, who otherwise was being caught in some weird spam filter loop:

    Helen,

    I’m posting here because your blog’s spam wards won’t let it in.

    Thank you for writing this (your blog post). Up until now, I had little sympathy for people who objected to “cis” (in its many forms). In general, when I hear people objecting, I hear a lot of rationalization over a foundation of privilege. (This conversation, here on the mHB boards, is an exception to that generalization.)

    I agree with you in drawing a distinction between “cisgender” and “cissexual”. It had never occurred to me that there was /not/ a difference, in the same way that there is a difference between “transgender” and “transsexual”. But you gave a concrete example, yourself, of someone who is cissexual but transgender, or at least not cisgender.

    Certainly, it’s ironic that trans people sometimes need to be reminded that dividing the human species into two distinct groups is problematic, at best.

    I also agree that “cis” is not as clear as “cisgender and cissexual”, but I consider that to be a feature, not a bug. Sometimes, as when we say “trans” instead of “transgender” or “transsexual”, we are making deliberate use of ambiguity. The other side of that coin, as you point out, is the danger of lack of clarity.

    So, I hear you saying that you feel excluded by “cis”, and also by “not trans”.

    Part of this problem, perhaps, is inherent in labelling. It seems to me that it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to divide a large group of human beings perfectly on the basis of any binary label at all.
    There will always be people left out, and even people who want to be left out.

    [QUOTE]Telling me, & other partners whose lives are profoundly impacted by the legal rights / cultural perceptions of trans people, that we are “not trans” implies that we are also not part of the trans community.[/QUOTE]

    I don’t think that this necessarily follows. I can be part of a broader community without being one of its defining members. I can /certainly/ be married to a community member without being directly of that community myself. For instance, a good friend of mine who is personally areligious married another good friend of mine who is Jewish. They are raising their child as Jewish, and he is now part of that community, without being a Jew himself.

    [QUOTE]I’ve been saying for years now that we are. When trans people are killed, harassed, not hired, fired due to discrimination, denied health care, etc. etc. etc., their loved ones suffer along with them. Their families, their lovers, their kids especially. We are not just “allies.”
    We are vested, dammit, & a part of the trans community, so when “cisgender” comes to mean, or is used to mean, “not part of the trans community,” we are once again left out in the dark.[/QUOTE]

    When it’s used to exclude you from community, I agreed that it’s a pernicious use. Frankly, people like you, who are vested (lovely turn of phrase), who suffer alongside and because of, who got into this whole mess without any kind of informed consent, BUT who stick with the trans people you love … you’re rare and precious, and your opinions and viewpoints are as good as anyone’s.

    So, that use is pernicious. And it’s rotten that some people have used it that way, and that therefore what could have been a simple, useful term now carries negative emotional baggage. Perhaps that was inevitable, if the first use many people heard was the weaponized use.
    Certainly it’s understandable.

    But, as has been mentioned in the discussion on the mHB boards, pretty much any label can be used as a weapon, and it’s not often inherent in the word.

    Thanks for helping me understand why some people object to the terms.

    Tell me, is there some way in which the term(s) could be used which would /not/ prompt you to feel excluded from the community (of which you certainly are a member)?

    Grace

  9. MHR says:

    “That is, those of us who have variable genders, who maybe are gender fluid or gender neutral but who don’t identify as trans, are now somehow cisgender.”

    Okay, this sort of thing seems to be the biggest non-privilege-based issue people have with cis- terminology. But the problem is not actually present in the word.

    Cisgender does NOT mean not-transgender. (And cissexual does not mean not-transsexual. I’ll be saying just the -gender terms to save space, WLOG)

    This is often how the word is described when it’s being explained to people, and it’s nothing more than a simplification. It can cause misunderstandings, sure. But what cisgender comes from cis, “on the same side of” and gender. It is another category like transgender. Having these two categories does NOT mean that everyone fits into one or the other!

    Some people are cisgender, some people are transgender, some gender-variant people are neither. If the term does not accurately describe you, then by all means, don’t use it for yourself. Correct other people when they use it to describe you. But don’t jump on the bandwagon of people who want to throw away the word entirely. It is a very useful word.

    Also, wrt this:

    “So, yeah. I love it as theory, in classrooms. I teach cisgender & cissexual privilege. But as a cissexual person, I don’t want to be called cis, or cisgender. It’s not my identity.”

    It’s worth pointing out that cisgender is not an “identity,” but a description. For example, I may not have a white “identity,” thanks to privilege, but that sure as hell doesn’t change the fact that I’m white. I couldn’t deny that and say “oh, but I don’t identify with ‘white!'” It doesn’t matter whether I “identify” with the term white; it is an accurate descriptor of a member of a privileged class.
    (I don’t mean to imply that you’re cisgender, I’m just attacking the use of the word “identity.” If the descriptor is INaccurate, then of course you shouldn’t be labeled as cisgender! Still, it is important to make this distinction. We don’t want people going around saying “But I don’t identify with the term ‘privileged…'”)

    And just as you said you experience straight privilege, without being straight (I’m in the same boat there), you also can be said to experience “cis privilege” even if you’re not cisgender. It might be more accurate to say “passing-as-straight” and “passing-as-cis” privilege, or to use some other modifier.

    “Finally, there’s the whole bottom rung of the ladder issue: cis allies, partners, & gender variant LGBs are not just the natural allies to trans people, but they are also the closest to them. So when trans people use the term “cis” like a curse – Calibanesque – the utility of the term for pointing out the privilege those who are non-trans experience becomes instead fighting words.”

    This looks like a classic tone argument, and has absolutely nothing to do with whether cis terminology should or shouldn’t be used.

  10. ryles says:

    I think this depends on what you define cisgender and cissexual as. I define them as the same thing- your gender identity and biological sex match. I don’t see how a crossdressing man suddenly stops being “cisgendered” just because he likes wearing a dress, maybe he can sympathize with the transgendered issues more thanks to societies distaste, but he’s still a man in a man’s body, and most crossdressers I know get annoyed at being confused with transpeople and gay people just because they fancy frocks.

    Finally- Squibs not only weren’t accepted “without question”, but they were NOT tolerated. If anything, they were the skeletons in the closet of the wizarding world. http://harrypotter.wikia.com/w.....ard_Squibs

  11. helenboyd says:

    so crossdressers can only have one gender identity, & it’s male? crossdressers often have more than one gender, just as i think of myself as having more than one. so it’s my opinion that a crossdresser, in some ways, can’t possibly be cisgendered, because they don’t have only one gender in the first place (& one of them must not match their birth sex, right?)

    i stand corrected on squibs. i couldn’t remember the term for them, & so was thinking more of mudbloods, or muggle-born wizards, who are accepted.

  12. ryles says:

    You’re putting words in my mouth. I never said a crossdressing person can’t be multigendered or genderfluid, I was talking about the crossdressers who have only one gender identity and it matches their body. There ARE male-bodied crossdressers who identify only as male and have only one gender, and they’re who I was talking about. Saying that a person is inherently not cisgendered just because their preference in clothing and society’s view of gender don’t match is nonsensical to me.

    Bigenders, multigenders, and gender fluid people are just as trans as they are cis, in my opinion, because they likely have at least one gender that matches their body and at least one gender that doesn’t. Most of the ones I know have experienced being perfectly happy with their sex as much as they’ve experienced having dysphoria about it, because some of their genders align with their body better than others.

    I also don’t understand why people who are Bigender/Multigender/Genderfluid would be considered crossdressers if they’re wearing the clothes that match their gender. Most bigenders I know wear women’s clothes when they identify as a woman and men’s clothes when they identify as a man, how is that crossdressing? Isn’t it insulting to say that a transwoman is a crossdresser when she’s wearing women’s clothes? How is this any different?

  13. [...] But sometimes, well, sometimes we have a Speshul Snowflake. Someone so sparkly, so darn important, someone who (thinks they) get it so absolutely and wonderfully well, that they just can’t understand why their Speshulness is not included! Enter the Speshul Snowflake land of Helen Boyd. [...]

  14. [...] and/or cissexual. Some helpful pages about the term. I am also aware that simply using the term can create negative connotations but I could not think of a simpler way to describe [...]

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  18. aspiemum2 says:

    I find all this terminology & concepts most confusing (and WordPress Logins too- had to register even though I have a WordPress Login- just haven’t used it on this particular blog before). I am female but my interests etc are a mix of male and female. I generally where ladies clothes but comfort not fashion is key and sometimes I simply don’t fit ladies and have to get mens (example: my head is too wide for most Ladies glasses so I had to look at mens as well). I have no issue with female toilets or unisex ones (as I have come across in France on campsites). I’m just not a feminine female. I’m an aspie (I have Aspergers Syndrome) so normal is what I’m not anyway. Lists of characteristics of a female aspie say we are often androgynous (still getting my head around that term too). Also why is it all made so complicated and hard for people to understand? I need to find a guide to the subject in plain english adpated for aspies (the literal no expressions version designed for someone who finds social stuff confusing).

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