The word “cisgender” is anti-trans

The word “cisgender” was coined to refer to people who aren’t transgender, as an alternative to problematic terms like “normal,” “regular” and “real.” Some have gone beyond this and asked their allies to “identify as cis,” and even treat trans people as the default realization of their genders.

As a trans person and a linguist, I disagree with these last two for a number of reasons. As I wrote last month, it’s bad etymology, and there is no evidence it will work. You might ask, well, what’s the harm in trying? The problem is that there is a cost to using “cisgender”: it divides the trans community. This may seem surprising at first, but it hinges on the fact that there are at least four different but overlapping meanings of the word “transgender.”

tg-definitions1The original use of “transgender” was as an “umbrella” term including transvestites, transsexuals, drag queens, butch lesbians, genderqueer people and more. Another popular definition is based on “gender identity,” including everyone who believes that their essential gender is different from the one assigned to them at birth. A third sense is based on feelings like gender dysphoria, and a fourth is restricted to those trans people who transition. Trans people regularly argue about these definitions, but in my observations it is common for a single person to use more than one of these senses in the same conversation, and even the same sentence.

These overlapping meanings produce what I call the Transgender Bait and Switch. Intentionally or not, many trans people use the broader “umbrella” or “dysphoria” definitions to show the largest numbers, neediest cases or historical antecedents when they are looking to get funding, legitimacy, or political or social support, but then switch to narrower “identity” or “transition” senses when they are deciding how to allocate funding or space resources, or who is entitled to speak for the group, or who is an acceptable representation of trans people in the media.

This is a problem because the meaning of “cis” depends on the meaning of “trans.” Who are the “cis” people? Are they the opposite of “umbrella” trans – those who don’t belong to any of the categories under the umbrella? Are they the opposite of “identity” trans – those who do not believe they have a gender different from the one assigned them at birth? The opposite of “feeling” trans – those who do not feel gender dysphoria on a regular basis? Or are they the opposite of “transition” trans – those who don’t transition? I’ve heard all four uses.

For all their lofty claims about the goals of “cis,” when trans people use it they do so to exclude, and typically they focus on excluding the marginal cases as part of the Transgender Bait-and-Switch: people who fit in one definition of “trans” but not another. It has become commonplace to refer to drag queens as “cis gay men,” and gynophilic transvestites as “cis straight men.” Drag queens, transvestites, non-binary people and others are regularly challenged when we try to speak from our experiences as trans people, and the refrain is always: “You are cis, you have not transitioned, you do not have the same experience.” Meanwhile, the same people seem to have no problem presenting themselves as the representatives of the transgender umbrella when they want to, even when they do not have experiences of drag performance, fetishism or non-binary presentation.

The best known challenges to “cisgender” have come from people who are not trans under any definition: didn’t transition, don’t have a gender identity mismatch, don’t feel chronic gender dysphoria, and don’t fit in any of the identities under the umbrella. They claim that the word is used as a weapon against them. They have a point: many trans people blame “cis people” for oppressing them, conveniently ignoring the fact that we’re just as capable of oppressing each other as they are of oppressing us. And it is counterproductive: since almost all estimates – using any of the definitions – put us at less than one percent of the population, we can’t live without non-trans people.

But the reason I hate “cisgender,” the reason I’m asking you not to use it, is because it’s used as a weapon to exclude other trans people. When they want money, we’re trans. When they want to claim our legacy, we’re trans. But when we want some of the money, we’re “cis.” When we want representation, we’re “cis.” When we want to speak for the trans community, or even for our segment of the trans community, we’re “cis.”

“Cisgender” divides the trans community and reinforces a hierarchy with transitioned trans people on top and nonbinary people, drag queens and transvestites at the bottom. So next time your transgender buddy Kyle tells you to “identify as cis” to prove you’re a real ally and stay on the invite list to his parties, I’m asking you to tell him no. Tell him that your transgender buddy Angus said not to. And if he tells you that I don’t count because I’m not transitioning, tell him he just proved my point. And his parties suck anyway.

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11 Responses to The word “cisgender” is anti-trans

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I may use it in a sociology class.

  2. grvsmth says:

    Thanks, Paula! I am also affiliated with NYU; email me at angus@grieve-smith.com if you want to talk. I also wrote a post this summer that covers similar issues for a more academic audience.

  3. Michelle Jones says:

    But don’t we need a term in its place, for non-trans persons?

  4. grvsmth says:

    Do we need a term, Michelle? Why isn’t “non-trans” good enough?

  5. This article refers to an important point re. discriminatory trends within the trans community that definitely need to be fought. There’s no one set way of being trans – and every individuals path to gender self-determination is different, and all those different ways and approaches are equally valid (one does not necessarily need to agree with others, but HAS to respect choices others have made in their own lives).
    This article, however, is a bit too bothered with the gender binary – hence the writer’s condemnation of the term ‘cis’. From where I stand, it is also a very white western discussion, that excludes lots of gender-plural people in the west and beyond. Rather than taking issue with one term and the ways in which it is used out there, it is much more advisable to promote the universal truth that gender is essentially diverse, and is open for innumerable categorisations and accept the fact that the vocabulary in English or any other language will never suffice to encompass them all. I’m with the writer on this: if any gender-plural person is described as cis against that person’s gender identity, then that’s blatant discrimination.

  6. Amy Co says:

    For me anyone that uses cis to identify non transitioners is absurd. Everybody who is trans was a non transitioners at some point.

    I had thought the accepted definition is anyone that doesn’t feel congruent with their gender assigned at birth. By definition, that includes non-binary people and some drag queens, transveatites etc. Others do identify with their birth gender, but enjoy the performance or the clothing or the sexual rush or have some other motivation. To me these are non-trans people. They ARE cis gender people.

    I think there should be a term for people that are not trans.

    If not cis… how about muggles? 😉

  7. grvsmth says:

    Thank you, Chami, but I focused on this because it affects me personally, and I am a white Western person. I have addressed other gender possibilities in other posts, and I do promote the observation that gender is diverse everywhere.

  8. grvsmth says:

    There are three other comments that essentially say the same thing as Amy Co’s: “I had thought the accepted definition is anyone that doesn’t feel congruent with their gender assigned at birth.” I’m not going to approve them because they duplicate this observation.

    As I say in the post, that is one of at least three definitions of “transgender.” It is not the first definition, it is not the only definition, and most people who use it also use at least one of the other definitions! The point of this post is that it is a shitty definition, and we need to stop using it.

  9. tomo says:

    Thanks, that was an interesting read, even tough i still have the feeling that the very term “cis” ended up as a bit of a scapegoat here. I will gladly agree that it’s misused – but misused in the sense, that while it was supposed to shed some light on the cisnormativity, it’s used to harm others by individuals who think themselves better than others.
    I’m not a huge fan of dropping the term (or any equally misuse-prone equivalent), i still think it’s vital that being “non-trans” does not go as a no-prefix default, but count me in for challenging the way we use it. Apart form prerequisites like respecting one another and not using reclaimed language as a weapon for internal shaming, i’d switch vocabulary like “identify as cis” into something like “go acknowledge the cisprivilege and be mindful about it” AND refer this to all of us, not only white cismales. Given the average coming-out/transition ages i heard about, quite a lot of the western transgender folk have the experience of being treated in the society as binary non-trans people – and for all the agony this brings/brought us, we can’t turn our back on the fact that it also meant privilege; un-freakin’-wanted but privilege none-the-less.

  10. B says:

    I feel like the problem here is not so much the word “cisgender” as the way it’s used, the people who use it that way, and that won’t change without the term. They’ll just say “oh, you’re not really trans, so you don’t count” instead. It’s the aggressive Othering and exclusion and dismissal within the trans community that needs to be addressed, not what tools they use to do so.

  11. grvsmth says:

    Thanks, Tomo and B! I agree that the way “cisgender” is used to marginalize us is a symptom of an attitude that existed before the word, but it isn’t just a neutral symptom, it works to further exclude us. It also doesn’t accomplish any of the good things people claim for it, so why keep it?

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