The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "cisgender" as "denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender." Cisgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis, meaning "on this side of,” which is the opposite of trans, meaning "across from,” or "on the other side of.” The term can be traced to 1994, when biologist Dana Leland Defosse, used 'cisgender' in a newsgroup post.. Yet examples of a cis/trans dichotomy in reference to gender go back further—it is found as early as 1914in German sexological literature.
I learned the word “cisgender,” or “cis” years ago—whether it was before or after starting my 6-year stint working at Montreal’s Center for Gender Advocacy is now beyond me. But I do remember the oddity of learning a word I had never heard before used to describe myself. I observed it rather objectively, if such a thing is possible, and it was interesting. It made sense—nothing more, nothing less. The simplest way to think about it was that it was “the opposite of transgendered,” except for the fact that when you’re trying to assert the world’s non-binary nature, opposites don’t really hold water. So, put another way, it’s the dominant population’s silent identity marker.
So why the controversy around the use of “cis”? Because, in case you missed the memo, there is controversy. Along with a huge rise in media visibility for transgendered people, there has of course come predictable pushback from people uncomfortable with the term, who claim it is yet another unnecessary label that serves to divide us, with some even insisting it’s offensive. There are those who believe the term promotes binaries of what it means to be male or female. However, others argue that if a person does not identify with their assigned gender or the transgender label, they can call themselves gender nonconforming, or non-binary. There is no shortage of labels, they would say. As far as I’m concerned, language is limiting, especially in the flawed minds of humans who manipulate it to their will. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use language for the greater good instead using it to slap each other upside the face.
“Cis” has also been criticized and hotly debated by LGBT and intersex scholars who believe it does not take into account other complex factors to do with sexuality and gender. Writer and transgender Navy veteran Brynn Tannehill argues that when used by LGBT people, "the C word" often has a negative connotation. "When someone is referred to as a 'cisgender lesbian' or 'cis gay man' by a transgender person, it is often in a negative way,"says Tannehill. "The addition of 'cis' or 'cisgender' is used to imply a certain level of contempt and a desire that they leave discussions on transgender issues. It also implies that they don't, can't, or won't ever understand transgender issues.”
Genderqueer writer J Nelson Aviance rejects the label as well, in their article,I am NOT “cisgendered.” To Aviance, its meaning is “akin to what we might call ‘normatively gendered,’”meaning one’s gender identity is within a limited range of what society considers “normal.” Something not always true of cis people. “If gender isn’t binary,” posits Aviance,“if it is fluid and can transgress boundaries, than a binary between cisgender and transgender cannot exist. If it does, then we must delineate what “real” transgender or “true” transgender means, and who is allowed to inhabit it.” I do agree, on a level, but at the same time, there we wily humans go, possibly missing the point in spite of technical prowess when it comes to making points…I could be wrong, of course.
While it’s true that pissed off hashtags exist on the outskirts of social media (#DieCisScum), the identity crisis among cisgender people defiantly resisting the label seems misplaced and disproportional to me. That’s because the term’s usage seems far more about trans solidarity than anything else. It’s not actually about cisgender people. Those who embrace the word argue that it gives language to a privilege that many have never examined. K.J. Rawson, a transgender scholar and assistant professor, says he has never heard the word used in a derogatory way, and views the word's growing popularity as a step toward meaningful allyship with a population that experiences violence, discrimination, and poverty at mind-blowing rates.
At its crux, the issue comes down to how you feel comfortable identifying yourself, right? No one is forcing you into a box, but if you’re homosexual, bisexual, queer, heterosexual, or anything else, you can identify that way. And if you do fit the mould of a cisgender person but don’t want to be labelled that way, ask yourself why, especially given that the very point of the term is that it’s not all about you. The term represents your lived experience, and is used just as heterosexual would be for a straight person.
"It’s an incredible and invisible power to not need to name yourself because the norms have already done that for you,” says Rawson.“You don’t need to come out as heterosexual or cisgender because it is already expected. Since it isn’t a derogatory term, those who take exception to it may be uncomfortable with trans issues or perhaps they are unwilling to confront their own privilege.”
“But I do remember the oddity of learning a word I had never heard before used to describe myself.”
I can very much relate to the emotion of that sentence, I remember having it explained to me and I was like “WOW!”, I also remember having the though “I’ve been tagged, or better yet, the gender relationship I have with myself had been given a label”, and I can see how some people would be incensed by that. From there I was exposed to a whole new language, I agree it can be limiting but it can also be freeing if used with good intentions, but it is definitively a topic that’s in flux. Great Blog, very informative!
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I’m a Montreal-based freelance writer: journalist, poet, storyteller, erotica-writer, blogger, copywriter, and lover of clear communication. Words are my favourite thing in the universe. Nothing gets me hotter than the right choice of words. Nothing. I did my BA and MA in Creative Writing and English Lit at Concordia University. I was a full-time community organizer at Montreal's Centre for Gender Advocacy for 6 years, and did a lot of popular education and solidarity work around violence against Native communities, reproductive and sexual health, sexual assault awareness, intersections of race and gender, and even co-founded a Men and Feminism collective while there. What else? I’m a lover of men and give a lot of thought to what makes one (a man). Need writing or editing services? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find out more at www.khamalacopy.com