Why I use “cis”

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.]

17 Responses to “Why I use “cis””

  1. 19 November 2009 at 3:33 am

    Do you mind if I link this in my Trans 101 links?

  2. 3 jay
    19 November 2009 at 4:10 am

    “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.”

    Honestly I think in Helen’s case stressing the difference between cisgender and cissexual is trying to both get the spot light off the fucked up attitude she’s shown AND a bit of trans appropriation.
    Also, while I agree with the bulk of your post I don’t agree with your two definitions of cissexual and cisgender because I think they are very cis-centric and would leave many trans people out in the cold. There are feminine transsexual men who are gender nonconforming and therefore transgender–but their “gender identity” would theoretically align with the sex assigned at birth which per your definitions would make them cisgender, somehow. And I am a masculine post-transition man, but I don’t consider myself transgender and infact given that I am gender conforming as a man, am cisgender. Post transition transsexual people really should be considered the sex we say we are, which necessarily complicates the differences between these terms. and if you think about it, if there are cissexual people who aren’t cisgender, and some who are, there are similarly going to be transsexual people who are or aren’t cisgender.

    • 4 Aviva
      19 November 2009 at 10:57 am

      “I don’t agree with your two definitions of cissexual and cisgender because I think they are very cis-centric and would leave many trans people out in the cold.”

      You’re right. I’m going to think about how to rework those, when I haven’t woken just up. I definitely agree that it’s possible to be both transsexual and cisgender, and even that that’s necessitated by the way I set it up, and you’re right that it’s a big gaping hole in my definitions. Thank you for pointing it out.

    • 19 November 2009 at 2:45 pm


      I think you’re making two related points about the definitions of cisgender/cissexual/transgender/transsexual, one of which I agree with, and the other of which I have misgivings about.

      The one I agree with I elucidate better in my comments than in the post that was supposed to do it: gender variance/”breaking gender norms” is relative to the gender we present as, NOT the one we’re assigned at birth, and including transition within that matrix is busted. (The post itself is more about sqrrel’s point, that being trans isn’t actually about trans people or anything we do but about the system within which we live and think and the way it treats us… but I rarely hear anyone backing me up on that.)

      Where I think we might disagree is whether “cisgender” can function as an umbrella term, or whether its only non-oppressive definition is little different from ‘gender typical’/’gender conforming’ etc. I think “gender” is a pretty wide an amorphous term, that encompasses–sometimes problematically– both ‘man v woman’ and ‘feminine v masculine.’ If one uses it in the broad sense, the umbrella term definition of “transgender”(that includes gender typical ts folks and strongly-gender-atypical folks regardless of ts/cs)/”cisgender”(which includes only those that are both cs and gender typical) isn’t busted, but may or may not be expedient. If, on the other hand, one understands “gender” to specifically be about gender norms and masculinity/femininity, then the umbrella term definition is really ungendering for trans folks (but, in that case, so would “ungendering”). I understand that a lot of explanations of transgender-as-umbrella-term are fucked up, but one can offer alternate grounds for understanding the term in that sense that aren’t so busted. (Ironically(?), I think my definition preserves this ambiguity; I don’t know whether that’s good or bad.

      I would argue that unless you want to take the more narrow definition of gender (which has a host of other problems, as just mentioned re “ungendering”), then the question becomes about the relative expedience/usefulness of these two potential understandings of the difference in terms lies, and not in whether one or the other is “correct” (which you do less of here than some other folks have, but it’s gotten into my head). I still believe in the umbrella term usage of “transgender” v “cisgender”–I LIKE having a term that unites all of us, even if it means those of us who are trans in two different ways need to find a better term than ‘gender variant’ or ‘gender non-conforming’–but I’m not strongly wedded to it. David’s comment on my post would argue that my definition gives some sense to a distinction between “transgender-as-in-gender-variant” and “gender non-conforming,” which I think is significant but it can be swung to the aid of either side. I feel like both meanings can be useful or detrimental to forming coalition between the folks currently named under the umbrella, but often I worry that the definition of “transgender” which excludes “transsexual” is articulated in ways that break any sense of coalition.

      Also, in support of both of you–Helen Boyd actually said that you can’t call partners of trans people not trans?! Like, so, what about partners of trans people who *are* trans? Or is subjecthood just inherently cis? Like, the only way I can make sense of that statement is through intersectionality-is-for-cis-people,trans-people-are-just-trans. GAAH. She’s so clearly interested in maintaining the distinction, so it’s hard not to see that as plain disingenuousness. (So not following the link, so not following it…)

      (“Don’t call me cis” reminds me of anti-feminist-MRA’s–who, rather than trying to get together and sort out men’s issues themselves and take on the Patriarchy for men’s sake (there are some folks who do this, who form men’s issues groups to talk about said issues without taking space away from anyone else), they complain that TPHMT and criticize feminism coz what about the menz, but not really because they care that much about the Patriarchy but because they want to stop feminism. If a cis person actually wanted to make up a different word that wasn’t seriously busted (like all the current alternatives are), and go around popularizing it, and THEN said hey we should use this word instead because that’s what [cis] people identify with, then they’d have a point about identifying as cis or wanting to be called it–but really they just don’t want any term at all.)

      • 6 sqrrel
        19 November 2009 at 3:32 pm

        I don’t think that cisgender is necessarily about gender conformance, but rather I find it most useful in designating not-genderqueer. If I were to use cisgender as a umbrella term (which even then it isn’t really: it’s a not-under-the-umbrella term), then I don’t have a way to designate not-genderqueer. Conversely, I can designate someone who is not under the transgender umbrella without using cisgender as a umbrella term: anyone who is cisgender and cissexual. It isn’t pithy, but I think that an unqualified ‘cis’ works well if pith is desired.

        • 19 November 2009 at 4:08 pm

          But what about folks who are neither genderqueer nor cisgender? Genderqueer is a very specific identity label (even though it started out as a non-identity, it sure is a reified identity now)… so unless you can describe what you mean in terms other than genderqueer/non-genderqueer or gender a/typical, we’re right back where we started, no?

          The umbrella-term-complement meaning of “cis” (was there something going on in that parenthetical? It came off weird.)

          Conversely, I can designate someone who is not under the transgender umbrella without using cisgender as a umbrella term: anyone who is cisgender and cissexual.

          But language has more functions than the ability to be precise–but also itself creates fissures of power and identity, lines of alliance and lines of separation. A unifying term serves more purposes than simply linguistic elegance or pith–it creates coalition, it creates an understanding of common ground. When there’s a lot of power exerted within the group, it needs to be named as well, and when there’s too much resistance to that naming or to the amelioration of that power, then the group falls apart–but it also does that if the common ground is forgotten or denied, which sometimes I worry both cissexual genderqueers and gender-typical transsexual folks do (though I guess both also engage in denials of their power in these situations). (Mattilda had a really great term that totally made sense that makes a gender non/conforming split understandable without being subversivist, but I forget what it was)

          I think there’s also a pretty big problem with defining gender ‘conforming’ transitioners as being transsexual-and-not-transgender when a lot of them live outside this discursive community and may associate more strongly with transgender than transsexual, or even as transgender-not-transsexual. Provided not ALL of them follow this fragment of the trans blogosphere, I suspect that a lot of people I know/knew fall in this category–and rehabilitating “transsexual” and kinda leaving “transgender” alone feels much less violent in that circumstance than trying to jerk someone’s term out from under them. (If someone doesn’t use TS and just uses TG under the umbrella meaning of TG, then changing the meaning of TS such that they could use it about themselves say that their self-identity is wrong to nearly the same extent that redefinining TG to not include them does.)

          That last paragraph is perhaps the biggest thing that’s been bothering me, and I haven’t articulated it that well before, so, uh, thanks.


  3. 8 sqrrel
    19 November 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I want to raise issues with your conception of trans/cis as a journey. This seems to me to play into the notions of transness as something constructed, something conferred by surgery, hormones, or some other externally visible quality which must be obtained, usually by moving through gatekeeping mechanisms managed by cis people. It’s centering the cis experience to say that cis people just “stay where they started”, while trans people must necessarily work for their genders.

    I would argue that the current practice of coercive birth gender assignment does not put a person in a certain place, but rather constructs a set of expectations that a person is/will grow to be within a certain gendered space. To be cis is to have this set of expectations line up reasonably well with how you actually inhabit gendered space. To be trans is to not have this be true. What trans people do not, for the most part, do is travel further than cis people to get to their genders, rather they must fight in the social/societal sphere to have where they actually are and where they have been all along recognized.

    Also, what Jay said.

  4. 19 November 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for the link, Aviva. I completely agree. I would also add that I think “cis” is aesthetically displeasing – it just doesn’t sound as familiar or intuitive to me as as “trans” – but my similar thoughts on the importance of the concept outweigh my desire for language to be pretty… 🙂

  5. 10 December 2009 at 9:24 pm

    You had dinner with Kate Bornstein??? OMG! You lucky person, much fangrl/fanboi squeeing!

    • 16 Aviva
      5 January 2010 at 4:52 pm

      I know, I squeed, too! And she’s delightful company. If you’re in/going to be in NYC, I don’t think it’s an impossible sort of thing to arrange.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: