The problem with the word cis

Content note: this piece discusses transphobia and suicide. 

This piece is co-written with Cel West, who is an activist and feminist both online and off, and who tries to write about trans issues as little as humanly possible.

The New Statesman editorial team have decided to publish yet another word-turd whining about privilege-checking. We wouldn’t recommend reading it, but if you search “Online Wimmin Mob”, you’ll see exactly the level of contempt its author has for anyone who has had the misfortune of engaging with her online–if indeed anyone has: all of the examples she provides take place in the realm of pure rhetoric rather than linking to specific examples of what has actually been said.

The discussion of anger and frustration is one that has been had a thousand times before, so we’ll just link to Stavvers on being angry one more time. Let it be said, once again, though, that it’s a thing that happens time and time again, to feel furious at privileged people refusing to check their fucking privilege once again, and that it’s really, really fucking tiresome to see them calling the tone cops across a national, high-profile news website over and over and over and over.

A lot of cis women have a problem with the term in a way they can’t quite fathom. Well, I’ve fathomed it and I’ll tell you: because it’s a name that has, once again, been conferred upon a certain group of women without their consent. It would still matter, although infinitely not as much, if a Twitter search of “cis” demonstrated that the term is mostly used in a sisterly and affectionate manner. Nah, more like “cissexist”, “cisfascist” and, in one case to a certain Laurie Penny of this parish, “f*ck off cis girl.”

And that’s the stuff I didn’t search for, I just happened to see it on my feed one Tuesday evening.

So forgive me if I hear “cis” as an insult to the very essence of who I am and then, when I complain, feel aggrieved that I’m not entitled to experience my discomfort because my “privilege” means that my point of view doesn’t matter and my opinions don’t count.

C: It’s hardly surprising that trans-inclusive feminists get angry when people wheel out the same old transphobic tropes. Here’s one: the term cis is an insult to “the very essence” of cis women; this directly implies that trans women aren’t real women. Another is the trope that spurred my tweet of “fuck off cis girl”: a direct response to the trope that trans women are inherently far more violent and dangerous than cis women.

That particular tweet was sent to Laurie Penny from a demo as I trembled with fear, self-loathing and suicidality as she publically turned away from her trans inclusive position to uncritically accept Suzanne Moore’s assertion that, because a dozen trans people and allies might turn up outside her publically announced event with placards, that Moore was so being threatened by violence and thus in danger for her life.

Ironically, that tweet not only lost me friends, including Laurie, but the outing it required led to me not only being spotted and condemned by radical feminists as part of their customary gathering of dossiers on trans activists (a similar process to that used by the fascist site RedWatch), charmingly dubbing me “an ugly man”; at the same time I was attacked by non-feminist trans activists using oddly similar misogynist tropes as “must be mentally ill”, having “no idea what you are doing”, and as “a danger to the cause”.

Yep, it’s almost as if these unconscious tropes lead to us doing the patriarchy’s work for it.

I’m going to step back from that particular drama for a bit and let a cis woman speak for a bit about “cis”.

Z: Yeah. That cis girl doesn’t like being called cis. That cis girl doen’t like being called cis, because she never chose to have that term thrown at her, because it reminds her that she’s privileged and (incredibly mistakenly) thinks that that’s why people are pissed at her and don’t think her view is valid (actually it’s because she’s wrong).

The author has completely failed to understand the function of the word “cis”. It is not used as a stick to beat the egocentric trolletariat or other general bastards. It is word which restores linguistic balance. Before “cis” came into use, there was “trans”, and a plethora of slurs, and… nothing else. No label signified normality. There were the freaks, and there were everyone else. The word “cis” exists to amend this, however imperfectly. It was incredibly useful to me when I learned that word existed. It made it easier for me to challenge my own prejudices.

When someone is more offended by the words cissexism or cisfascism than the fact that these problems exist and make life really shitty for trans people, there is little that can be done to rehabilitate them. Yet the author, and other cis people, some of them feminists, still strongly reject having the label cis applied to them. How many of them were outraged at that Julie Burchill piece, which included a line about how much she hated being called cis?

It ultimately all comes from the same line of thinking as that which drove Burchill to write her spiteful tirade. It is cis supremacist thinking, that nagging desire to be normal in opposition to trans people.

No wonder so many people get angry, get rude. No wonder the author wants to silence this dissent by declaring that feminism is exclusive and mean if people get cross with her for spouting such utter lumpy shite. It almost seems as if she wants to be a martyr, to prove herself a victim. We should greet her with indifference, and be furious instead that this sort of cissexism is repeatedly deemed acceptable by so many.

There is nothing offensive about the word cis. It is the repeated exercise of cis privilege that should offend.

C: I’m just sad that these fights happen, rather than working together to unpick systems of domination, and using one another to see past our own limited experiences and unconscious prejudice. But we can’t do that without intersectionality, and specifically here without the word “cis”.

Without that, we end up with the arguments of trans-exclusive radical feminists against trans activists that dominate most articles that mention the word “trans”, that is, PTSD survivors on both sides yelling at one another until one cis woman states that “trans women trigger me by existing”, or that memorable quote by another “they don’t get that we wish they were all dead”.

For the sake of my remaining fragments of sanity, please let’s not go down that road.

(While writing this article, it become abruptly clear that words in the media do indeed have effects in the “big, wide world out there”: a trans woman told to “disappear quietly” by columnist Richard Littlejohn chose to do exactly that, by committing suicide)

Z: I have nothing to say to this except yes, yes and yes. I agree with you so much.

Fuck cissexism. Destroy it with big metaphorical hammers.

Postscript: Cel and Laurie later resolved the whole “cis girl” issue and are friends again 🙂

28 thoughts on “The problem with the word cis”

  1. The word cis simply means “this side of” as opposed to “that side of” (as in Cisalpine and Transalpine).

    As a genderqueer person who looks like a woman and uses the pronoun she because I can’t be arsed to argue for being called ze, I have cis privilege, but I don’t want it. But I hate it when people *assume* that I am cisgender, without checking my actual gender identity.

    As a bisexual person in a relationship with a man, I also have straight (“passing”) privilege, but I definitely don’t want that, because I don’t want my bisexual identity to be erased.

    Most people who are massively offended by the term cisgender seem to be offended because they think it sounds like something “abnormal”. They don’t like what they consider the default setting being flagged up as an option.

    1. I was musing on twitter earlier that maybe some of the people who are so upset at being called cis are actually trans and still in the process of coming out to themselves. They don’t like being called cis because they feel like it doesn’t apply to them, but they haven’t quite sorted through the reasons why.

      Although, as someone else pointed out, some of these people can be the most vicious transphobes of all, because they’re so desperate to deny having anything to do with us. Cissexism sucks in so many ways.

  2. “Before “cis” came into use, there was “trans”, and a plethora of slurs, and… nothing else. No label signified normality. There were the freaks, and there were everyone else. The word “cis” exists to amend this, however imperfectly. It was incredibly useful to me when I learned that word existed. It made it easier for me to challenge my own prejudices.”

    That’s exactly how I feel about it too. I’m cis and I’m really glad the word exists, it makes it possible to have the conversations we need to have about gender and sex, to combat phobia, and to not leave trans people to deal with bullshit without support.

  3. Nobody wants to be labelled and grouped and pigeon-holed, but it’s what people do. It’s how our brains work. We look for sets and patterns in order to try make the world seem understandable and predictable. We can’t fit 7 billion unpredictable individuals in our brains. It’s understandable, but it’s a kludge and we have to be aware of that. As terrifying as the idea of 7 billion individuals is, that’s what we’re really dealing with.

    I’m not sure we will ever get to a point where we can stop grouping people, but we can get to the point where people realise that they are using an inelegant solution to a complex problem and stop valuing the system they have devised over the people that they are trying to understand.

  4. Perhaps there’s one more issue, which is specifically with the word “cisgender” (not “cissexual”) and applies moreso when it’s used to refer to women. There’s clearly a difference between the life experiences of transgender women and women who aren’t transgender, and clearly a need for a word which references the situation of women who aren’t transgender, for all the reasons discussed here.

    But “cisgender” can also be used carelessly, in a way that insists that there exists a female gender, that it corresponds in some way to the feminine sex role, and that the woman being referred to is “naturally aligned” to or “comfortable” with that gender. When in fact, many women, including many feminists, feel deeply uncomfortable with the feminine sex role, and argue that it’s anything but natural, instead understanding gender as a hierarchical system which organises male power.

    This isn’t an unsolvable problem. Many cissexual women are disingenuous in how they choose to hear the word “cis”, even “cisgender”, and strip it of nuance and distort it until all that it says is “comfortable with the feminine sex role”, on which grounds they can then disagree with it. So they need to stop doing that. However, I think trans* folk also need to keep centred a clear sense that there are large numbers of people (some of us trans*!) who don’t consider anything about gender to be “natural”.

    I think this is best done by Emi Koyama’s view of the word: someone who does not suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis, except perhaps in rare, exceptional circumstances. [emphasis mine] This doesn’t only have the benefit of strategic ambiguity (refusing to state what we don’t know for sure) but also goes more directly to the reason for using the word at all: to talk about the situation of the person with regard to structures of power.

    This doesn’t mean we then have to follow a rule of symmetry and redefine trans* as meaning, “does regularly suffer from/must manage possibility of suffering from transphobia”. Why? One, it’s not a good idea to administer a “suffering test” to someone before deciding whether to include them. Two, society causes us suffering anyway to the extent that we identify ourselves or are identified with trans*-ness. There’s no need to make it part of the criterion – it comes along. This also creates a useful “grey area” between the two. To non-dualistic forms of thought (e.g. not white minority-world “Western” thought), that’s a good thing! 🙂

    (More about this here and here.)

    1. I think there is a need for the word cis to distinguish from trans, but the problem is that both are intersections. A ciswoman faces discrimination on the basis of gender and sex; a transwoman on the basis of gender and cisnormativity.

      So what you have is two groups of people who share an oppression (gender) who both are faced with different and mutually exclusive discriminations as well.

      So when you get cisfascist etc said to women what you are saying is that your discrimination through your sex is a privilage. I am aware of trans* people who attempt to realign their sex with their gender, but ultimately it is (currently) impossible that they would have an accidental pregnancy, become pregant through rape, be refused an abortion etc.

      Some ciswomen, particularly childless women face more discrimination on the basis of gender while others – partiularly those who are pregnant or mothers,(difficulty accessing/affording contraception, abortion, childcare etc). So within ciswopmen there are differing perceptions about which is the most virulent form of discrimination that they face.

      When transactiists use cis as an insult, rather than a description, it erases the sex discrimination that ciswomen face portraying it as a privilage.

      1. I get that there are very serious ways that misogyny is designed to work on women that fit exactly to most cissexual women’s bodies, from pregnancy risk, to the institutions of mothering, to being brought up “as a girl”. I also get that those are routinely underplayed.


        1. I wouldn’t use the language of intersectionality here, because I think of hatred directed against a person using their position in the gender system, and hatred directed at a person using their sex, as two ways that misogyny is done, rather than two oppressions. People just hate women, y’know? And exercise that hate in all sorts of ways.

        2. Until, as I describe above, many cissexual women stop being disingenuous in how they choose to hear the word “cis”, I don’t think we can have a sensible conversation about when it’s “used as an insult”. I notice that every word which describes power is taken, by the group with power, to be used as an insult, in many many cases where it’s not, and even when it is being used with anger, “insulting” isn’t really correctly describing what’s going on.

        3. You’re wrong to assume that the ways misogyny is done against women’s sex aren’t used against trans* women. Or rather, it’s not a neat split (apply to cis women: yes! apply to trans* women: no!). Because patriarchy didn’t particularly plan for trans* women, we make up a “messy” group on the edges of various systems, and plenty of those systems bleeds into how we’re treated. If trans* women are mothers, for example, damn right we deal with all the social awfulness around mothering. And trans* women attacked by male rapists may not have to deal with potential unwanted pregnancy, but do have to deal with “trans* panic” defences in which it’s generally considered legally justified to murder us for our sex. So I don’t think the category of “ways misogyny is done using body sex” is as clear-cut and as irrelevant to trans* experience as you’ve described it.

        4. Yes, the ways that misogyny is done against body sex are routinely underplayed. By everyone. This is a case where trans* theory and language is being attacked as the source of a problem when it’s actually a symptom. Yes, if you talk to a trans* woman who isn’t a radical feminist, she may underplay misogyny-against-sex. And her language will reflect that. So may the language of a cissexual feminist who isn’t a radical feminist. Not to mention non-feminists! Trans* women who are radical feminists won’t use the language of “cis” to underplay forms of woman-hating understood by radical feminists, because we are radical feminists and understand them. Anyone (trans* or cis) who isn’t a radical feminist, possibly will, because they’re not a radical feminist and don’t understand it.

        “Cis” is not the problem here. Feminist consciousness is. And I defend the right of trans* women to not have a radical feminist consciousness exactly to the extent[1] that cis women have a right not to have a radical feminist consciousness.

        The last thing, I guess, is talk of power-over. I don’t really want to go into that here, so I’ll just say that I disagree in a way which isn’t up for discussion in the narrow medium of blog comments, and that I’m firmly convinced through my experience and through exchanging my experiences with other trans* women, that cissexual women hold a power position over trans* women, although the nature of that position is often confused by the ways that cissexual liberal feminists weaponise trans*-ness and trans* thought against radical feminists.

        [1] in fact, somewhat more, as we have very good reasons to be wary of radical feminism, and concrete mechanisms make it difficult for us to access honest radical feminist thought…

      2. Yes, its true, some women do react badly to cis when it is being used descriptively rather than insultingly.

        Transwomen do have to deal with the shit being women, complicated by transphobia, but there are very specific ways that ciswomen are discriminated against that transwomen are not, because of their biosex.

        Gender is a social construction around biosex, misogyny targets both the sexual difference of women and the social assumptions that are made around the assumed sexual difference of women.

        To ignore the specific role that biosex plays in discrimination is disingenious. Transmen for example may face unwanted pregancy, difficulty accessing abortion, etc, not because they are women (which they are not) but because they are female biosexed.

        1. mhairi, I’d like to gently invite you to comb through my comment again and check that you’re not coming out with talking points rather than engaging in dialogue.

          I completely get that you’ve probably been in a lot of conversations in which the person you’re talking to either doesn’t get basic radical feminist ideas, or isn’t interested in dialogue. I understand that, as I’ve been in many myself. And in those situations it’s easy (and sometimes even makes sense) to go into loudhailer/debunker mode, rather than the mode where we listen closely to each other, check our understandings, look for common ground, and try to open up conversations.

          In this case, I do really understand the points you’re making. I’m completely familiar with the theoretical background you’re working from, and while I disagree in places I accept most of it. We’ve probably read a lot of similar authors and had a lot of similar conversations with non-radical-feminists in the past.

          In case the main point of my argument isn’t standing out, what I’m trying to say is that everyone ignores the full scale and shape of woman-hating. Not trans* women – everyone.

          Trans* women who understand the full scale and shape of woman-hating will use the language of cis/trans* in ways which reflects and acknowledges that. Trans* women who don’t, won’t. Cis women who understand it will, cis women who don’t won’t. Trans* and cis women who understand it will use language other than trans*/cis in ways which acknowledge it; trans*/cis women who don’t won’t.

          It’s not about the word “cis”. It’s about where someone’s feminist consciousness is at. And I defend the right of trans* women to not have a radical feminist consciousness to the same (actually a slightly greater) extent than the right of cis women not to.

          1. Sorry, I wasnt trying to loudhailer.

            I think the issue is with the framing of ciswomen as having privilage over transwomen – yes they do; but transwomen also have privilage over ciswomen, they just manifest in different ways.

            A ciswoman who is attacked by a stranger may have to deal with the consequences of pregnancy; a transwoman is more likely to be murdered (a transman has the possibility of the first and increased risk of the second). A transwoman loses approx 11% of future income on transitioning; a ciswoman on average earns 30% less than men, (transmen gain approximately 16% on transitioning). Ciswomen are objectified daily in the media; transwomen are invisible except for celebrities; ciswomen are the routine porn staple, transwomen are fetishised.

            That gives a complex relationship to “”privilage” which isnt one way, social dynamics, and the intersections of gender, sex and cisnormativity (and other differentials) all combine in ways that are different.

            1. Nod – I hear you that you don’t see trans* women’s (please use the space between trans and woman) situation as unambiguously “worse” than cis women’s. Probably you noticed in my comment above that I disagree.

              Originally, I was replying to the article, which is about whether “cis” is an insult, and whether trans* people should be even allowed the language of “cis” (obviously, I think we have a right to it, and everyone should use it). And I was flagging up ways to misuse “cisgender”, and better ways to use it.

              I don’t see the privilege analysis (which is two-fold; what are the advantages and disadvantages of our situations? and does one of our classes have power-over the other) as quite the same conversation. I also see it as one which needs to be very heavily informed by lived experience.

              Many trans* women have written about this, coming to many different conclusions. I think my view can best be summed up by my comment to Natalie Reed’s article, Complicity Vs. Cause In Trans-Misogyny And Violence. The article’s important and sets my comment in context. And if you want to discuss it further, there’s a Disqus comments area on my Tumblr link to that post.

            2. Reading it after many years and combing my head and thoughts again to see where my biases were not picked before. Thanks for this discussion and very thoughtful engagement between you two.!

  5. My problem with the term cis-gender isn’t the cis part but the gender part. Cis-Sex would make more sense because while I call myself a woman and have a vagina I’m non-binary in my gender identity because sex is not the same thing as gender.

    But I do get that cis-sex sounds silly. 😛

    Also I have been told to check my priv more than once when someone was just losing an argument and while I admit freely that I have privilege the assumption that because I’m white and cis-sex (for the purpose of argument I’m using my made-up word) I must not know what I’m talking about is incredibly annoying.

        1. No one definition. Google will give you many trans* people’s views. Very few people use “cissex”, though. You may not want to hear this but if you’re gonna be jumping right into these discussions it’s respectful to know where we’re coming from, as I’ve taken the time (in years) to understand where radical feminists are coming from. No quick request for definitions will give you a sense for lived usage of the language, even less that respect for lived experience which makes it possible to connect as sisters. As you’ve seen above I’m happy to chat with you and spend time on this conversation but evenso.

            1. I understand. This is what I’ve said elsewhere about this:

              In 2013 radical feminists must demonstrate the lie of “in bed with the right wing”. Neutrality on the anti-trans* backlash is not an option. From now on I’ll take failure or disinterest in understanding our language as an act of hostility against my people. Your words; our lives.

              Our language isn’t singular as we’re a fragmented people. It’s slang w/multiple, crisscrossed meanings. If you can’t be fluent show respect. I’ve spent years and expended deep wells of energy in understanding the language of even Daly. Even Jeffreys. Even Raymond. I ask the same! My politics is wiser, broader for it. Their work informs my own, I often speak their words. But sisterhood isn’t one-way. Choose to hear us.

              Like any people there are also layers of power/oppression between us. Also learn those languages which are further suppressed even among us. My people are not just fragmented, we also have shifting boundaries. When I speak of my people I speak of consensually shared identity-with. When I speak of my (trans*) people I don’t mean just the groups created by oppression, or by identity. The two are intertwined, inseparable.

  6. So very well said.

    The equivalent would – I suppose – be white, or straight. Or even male. Yet I don’t know any white, straight men who would object to being called white, or straight or male, despite them not coining those terms or consciously identifying as them. So why not cisgendered? The only reason I can find for having objections is fear of being on a level footing with transgendered individuals – and so, transphobia. I am glad the term exists, because otherwise I would have to refer to myself simply as “not trans”, and that only serves to “other” people who identify as trans*.

    I’d rather define myself as what I am rather than what I’m not.

  7. I think the reason so many women have problems with thinking of themselves as cis is that they don’t want to have to think of themselves as “something.” It’s nice to not have to think about the complexities of life and the difficulties that other people face. If you think of yourself as cis, you have to acknowledge that other people are not cis and then you have to at least give a passing thought to the fact that not being cis might be quite difficult – and then you have to acknowledge that you have privilege.
    It’s easy for me to accept I don’t have male privilege and that I do have white privilege and able-bodies privilege. It’s not a huge leap for me to accept I have cis privilege.

  8. “It is cis supremacist thinking, that nagging desire to be normal in opposition to trans people.”

    That’s exactly it, why I used to feel a reaction against the term: I had been brought up to think of people like myself as “normal” and others as “abnormal” (and then taught to qualify that with “but that doesn’t mean abnormal people are bad” which does… nothing to fix anything really). So of course when I was told I was “cis” I would feel uncomfortable, because it meant normal (that is, superior) little ol’ me was being put on an equal footing with those bad– er, that is, those “they’re not really bad, just unfortunate, poor things” abnormal trans people. It was like a light bulb in my head when I just got it and realized how my perceptions had been shaped all my life, and that none of it was true. It was also a relief. It’s good to learn the truth.

  9. What she doesn’t acknowledge is that the most vociferous opponents of the term “cis” are those who regard trans women as simply men. These people will openly state that there is no such thing as cis privilege, only male privilege, and give bizarre explanations as to why a man would want to be female, or “pretend” to be female. In my experience, these types of feminists are the most mob-like of all, and the least accepting of any kind of oppression besides their own. (And they are blind to the oppression they cause.) You might notice an approving notice from a certain individual in Baltimore, in the comments below that article.

    Also, who on earth is Sadie Smith, anyway? I noticed Ally Fogg in the comments below the original piece saying he’d never heard of her before. Put the name into Google and it will try and correct it to Zadie Smith. I’ve found just one other piece of her writing (if it’s the same person), a letter, and a panel appearance. Is it some sort of female version of “David Rose”, a pseudonym used by a lot of different people?

  10. Great blog (been skimming through quite a few) – the only think I’d alter is with ‘No label signified normality.’ Although you mention how cis is considered to be ‘normal’ (God, I hate that word) in society later on, it may just have worked better if normality was in quotation marks. But that’s just me being a fussy, linguist nerd… I really need to get out more.

    But this blog was bang on, so thank you 🙂 xx

  11. Just a note in case you wish to update a broken link: the Daily Mail Richard Littlejohn link was removed and redirected, and the archive url does not preserve it. Instead, someone has preserved the article here:

    As far as the point of the article, I think most of the anger or perceived offense at “cis” is misplaced. Experiment to try: what’s word(s) do you find offensive in this phrase:

    . Die, white scum!

    And now, same thing with this phrase:

    . Die, cis scum!

    The offensive words in the first one, are “Die”, and “scum”, right? So, why is it any different in the second one?

    I think the reason is, people are very familiar with the word “white”, and when they feel the gut emotional reaction of revulsion and offense at the phrase as a whole, the are unconsiciously quite sure that the word “white” is not the problem, without really having to parse it out,or think about it at a conscious level.

    However, when they hear the second phrase and feel the same emotional reaction, their attention is drawn, at a conscious level, to the word “cis”, which they are not familiar with. Even “die” and “scum” are quite familiar, and while no fun to be the object of, what’s that suspicious-lookin’ “cis” doin’ in there? *That* (back to subconcious level again) must be the source of the emotionally charged response of disgust, revulsion, offense; and so the tag of ‘offensive’ gets attached to the unfamiliar, must as it does to human -isms.

    That’s my theory of it, anyway, of how a completely inoffensive, and high-falutin Latinate prefix could possibly attract such opprobrium. It’s “wordism”.

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