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.

Will “cisgender” work?

Some people have come up with the word “cisgender” 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.

One quick objection that I have to get out of the way: “cisgender” is bad etymology. It’s true that “cis” is the opposite of “trans,” but only in the sense of location, existing on this side or the other side of a boundary. We are “trans” in the sense of direction, crossing from one gender expression to the other. In Latin as far as I know there is no prefix for something that never crosses a boundary. Of course, that’s a silly objection. We have plenty of words based on inaccurate analogies and they work just fine. I just had to get it off my chest.

Now, for real: the simplest objection is that there is no evidence “cis” will work as advertised. First of all, default status is not necessary for acceptance or admiration. Blond hair is marked in the United States, and that can make some people with blond hair unhappy. But there is no real discrimination or harassment against people with blond hair, not like that against trans people. People with English accents are marked, but they tend to be admired.

Transgender people (under almost any definition) make up less than one percent of the population. Do we even have the right to ask to be the default? Why should everyone have to think about us a hundred percent of the time when they only deal with us one percent of the time? Why should we be the default and not, say, intersex people?

Let’s say we manage to convince everyone to make us the default and themselves the marked ones. How is that going to make them more tolerant or accepting of us? There are plenty of groups who are or were the default, and even the majority, but were oppressed anyway: Catholics in British Ireland, Muslims in French Algeria, French Canadians in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. The people who tell everyone to say “cis” don’t mention any of this.

The proponents of “cisgender” do not point to any time that this strategy has succeeded in the past, because there is no evidence of it succeeding. There are in fact intentional language changes that have some record of success, like avoiding names with implied insults. Switching the marked subcategory of a contested category is not one of them.

The main reason to not say “cisgender” is that it probably won’t work. If it were easy to get everyone to say “cis,” and it had no negative consequences, I would say that we should all just go ahead and say it, knowing full well that it probably won’t work, to humor its proponents. But the fact of the matter is that it does have negative consequences, consequences that affect me directly. I’ll talk about them in the next post in this series.

In the meantime, if you want to do something to help us, I’ve got some suggestions for you on my Trans blog. You can ask your friends and family to take a pledge not to kill us, or not to beat trans teenagers. You can even write the missing hip-hop song where a guy treats a trans woman with something other than violent contempt.

Why some people like “cisgender”

The news these days is that “cisgender” has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is a descriptive tool, so if people are using the word, the editors should put it in. But as a transgender person, I don’t like the word and I’m not happy people are using it.

Ben Zimmer had a nice writeup about the word in March. When I commented on twitter that I hated the word and intended to write up everything wrong with it, he responded that he “would be very interested in your take.”

Since then, I’ve been trying to articulate what bothers me about the word. It doesn’t help that among trans people there’s a very real habit of policing not only language but ideology: I just got called out on Twitter for a related issue. So I’ve gone through several false starts on this.

I’ve decided to break it up into a series of blog posts, and in the first one I’ll talk about why the word “cisgender” is so appealing to some people. Consider the following sentences, found on various web pages:

  1. Man Chose A Transgender Woman Instead Of A Real Woman
  2. your bone structure will grow much like a normal woman’s would.
  3. She has no more muscle mass than a regular woman.

You can see why people have problems with these. If you’re not “normal” or “regular,” you’re stigmatized. I don’t think that’s right, but it would be a lot of work to change it. To many people it seems easier to simply change the words so that you’re no longer not “normal.”

Not being “real” is even more objectionable, especially to transgender people who transition. It plays into the narrative of the trans person as deceiver, a fake person constructed to defraud innocent men and women of their love and their drink money.

The idea of “real” also plays into binary constructions of gender, where everyone is “really” either a man or a woman, and many activities, spaces and forms of expression are restricted to one gender or another. Intermediate and mixed presentations are discouraged, and switching back and forth is prohibited. In the gender binary, it is impossible for a single person to be really both a man and a woman, or to be a real man one day and a real woman the next.

Before we were trans women we were transvestites, cross-dressers and transsexuals, and we had a word for women who weren’t trans: “GG.” It’s been claimed to stand for “genetic girl,” which didn’t make any literal sense because gene tests weren’t readily available then, and for “genuine girl,” which was at least as problematic as “real woman.” The second part, “girl,” was further condemned as infantilizing by feminists, which may have contributed to the word’s decline.

So yes, it is a good idea to have ways of talking about people who aren’t trans without evoking a context of “real” or “normal” to imply that we are not legitimate or to highlight our minority status. Do we need “cisgender” to do it? I’ll write about that in future posts.