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.

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