My usual strategy with the words cisgender/cissexual/cis is simply to use them, maybe with a link to the Wikipedia entry, and not explain further. I think this is a useful approach, as it allows people to educate themselves if they’ve never seen it before, but takes for granted that it’s a sensible word to choose and doesn’t seek to validate its place in the language — sometimes, I think, acting as if something is perfectly normal has more power than arguing for its place.
But I was having dinner with Kate Bornstein (!!!) a few weeks ago and discussing why the word is useful enough and enough of an improvement to justify trying to convince people to use a new, made-up word, and I wanted to get some of those thoughts down here. Particularly with all of the discussion that’s been happening lately in blogs and on Twitter about the topic. (links so not in chronological order, even when responding to each other. Sorry. Some older posts I think are terribly important, and which have definitely shaped my thinking on the subject: Julia Serano — whose book “Whipping Girl introduced me to the term and has influenced me hugely in general, Questioning Transphobia, eminism. I could swear there was something on Taking up Too Much Space, too, but I can’t seem to find it right now. [EDIT: this one. Thanks, Cedar.)
I have the usual reasons, which I’ve read and talked about ad nauseum. Mostly that I think the alternatives are so bad. “Non-trans” is best, and even has some appeal for the way it centers trans experience and makes it cis folks who are “not” something. I sometimes use it as well. But all of the “bio” and “genetic” is really problematic. I like to say “We’re all made of biology, thanks.” We all have genes. To use “bio” and “genetic” to draw a distinction between cis and trans people implies that trans people are biologically, genetically (really) something other than their authentic genders; describing someone as a man who is genetically female undermines his maleness. (And besides, how did you know? Have you looked at his genes?) And, as Cedar points out at Taking Up Too Much Space, describing bodies as male or female based on biology also requires picking and choosing among the facts to support one’s conclusion. Ditto “female-” and “male-” bodied, which give the sense that this person is really, underneath everything, the gender they were assigned at birth — and is equally choosy about its facts. And I hope the problems in describing cis people as “natural” men or women are obvious — describing trans people as “unnatural” is one of transphobia’s favorite moves. The subtext of all of these pairs of words: “bio” and “trans,” “genetic” and “trans,” “physical” and “trans,” is “real” and “less real.” Using “cis” and “trans” describes different experiences and leaves them free to be of equal value.
What I found myself articulating about “cis” to Kate is not only that I feel it isn’t othering like the above examples, but that I think it really puts trans and cis people on meaningfully equal ground by describing gender not in terms of naturalness but as a journey, a way of getting from one place to another. After all, no one is born a man or a woman. We all start out babies, we all grow from that starting point to whatever shape adulthood takes for us (if we get that far). Trans means “across” and “cis” means “on the same side.” I got to be a cis woman by pretty much staying where I started. It worked for me, so I stayed put. I had to grow up into it, to figure out what “woman” meant to me and how I wanted to embody it, but I didn’t have to cross the same major boundaries to get here. Trans women got to be women by journeying here, crossing more borders than I had to. It seems to me that framing it that way, as the story of how we got where we are, does more to put trans and cis people on equal ground than any other way of describing it. I think that’s worth asking people to learn a new word and integrate it into their vocabularies.
As for the question of whether it’s okay to call non-trans people “cisgender” — I’m going to go with an unqualified “yes” here, regardless of what Helen Boyd may say. It is important for oppressed groups to be able to name their oppression and their oppressors. Which does not mean that all cis people are oppressive — if it’s not about you, don’t make it about you. But we all live, and participate to some extent or another, in an oppressive system. There have to be ways to talk about that, and the ways oppressed people choose to name it in order to talk about it are likely to be way less fucked up and play into the system way less than the way the dominant group would feel comfortable having things named. (If I see one more suggestion that cis doesn’t need to be named because there’s nothing to talk about, one is either trans or unremarkable…and that’s often at the root of these objections, the implication that we and trans people might be equals. No term is going to make many of these people happy.) And “cis” is a descriptive term, not an insult — or an identity. Because of course the counter-argument is often “You can’t call me cis if I don’t identify as cis!” But of course you don’t identify as cis. You’ve never had to think about it. You identify as normal. Being white, able-bodied and cis are not nearly as much part of my conscious identity as being queer, Jewish, and a woman; they’re not axes of oppression for me. But that doesn’t mean they should go unnamed, that no one should get to call me able-bodied because I don’t have to think about my ability level on a day-to-day basis, don’t feel able-bodied on the inside. (I do, actually. Now. But I had to learn to.) I also disagree with Helen’s assertion that “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;” or at least that that isn’t as it should be. You know what? Being an ally, caring passionately about this stuff and pouring tons of my time and energy into it, having trans people among my closest and most intimate friends, even having partnered with trans people, doesn’t make me trans. Part of the community maybe, but I’ll leave that up to the community. “Allies” doesn’t mean “not invested in what happens to trans people,” and really, we shouldn’t be picking our terminology to make allies who are part of the dominant group feel better. If they can’t understand that not everything said about cis people is about them, can’t let the people in the oppressed group talk about their experiences in a way that’s meaningful to them and helps them see what they need to do about it, what kind of allies are they?
I do agree with Helen that it’s important to recognize the difference between cissexual and cisgender, which I would put as the difference between feeling that your body feels right to you and feeling that your gender identity aligns with the sex you were assigned at birth. Cissexual folks don’t feel the need to transition, because their bodies are appropriately sexed for them, but may not have gender identities society considers congruent with that — for example, I would say that butch dykes, in general, are cissexual but not necessarily cisgender. My understanding is that this is a recognized difference between the words rather than simply my own interpretation, but I could be wrong about that. And using “cis” as shorthand for both can get a little bit tricky and confusing; perhaps we should be using the long form more of the time to be clear on exactly what we mean. But I still think that “cisgender, “”cissexual,” and “cis” are not only the best we have but a really positive addition to the language, and I intend to do as much as I can to get them into common usage. [EDIT: OK, I came back to try and rephrase this one and decided, after much tangling myself up, that it's not something I have a firm enough handle on to be explaining. Really important work is being done on defining these terms relative to each other and to "transgender" and "transsexual" -- you can see some of it in the comments -- but I'm not the right person to be doing it. So until I have something more clear to say, I'm just going to skip it.]