People have been mad about 'cisgender' since at least 2007

If someone wants a world where no one is marked as cis, they must simultaneously fight for a world where no one is marked as trans.

Tucker Lieberman
Tucker Lieberman
black-and-white portrait photo of person looking to the side
Person by Sakkanan Norkaew from Pixabay

The word transsexual first appeared in the 1920s in German, then the 1940s in English. It was coined by male sexologists who weren't themselves trans.

The words cisvestite, cissexual, and cisgender, meaning "not transvestite," "not transsexual," "not transgender," were coined in German and English in the 1990s. This use of cis has always been intended for trans-inclusive contexts. If you spend a lot of time with trans people, know many trans people, or think about issues that are important to trans people, it helps to have a simple word to mean "not trans": cis. Linguistically, it was inevitable that a word like this would have arisen.

Not only does "cis" save a syllable over "not trans" and avoid the cognitive load of the "not," it also puts everyone on equal footing. Without the word cis, any distinction between trans and not-trans people would probably start from the assumption that most people are "normal," while "trans people" are set apart and marked as other, and then "not trans" refers back to the normal group—a group assumed to be so much the default that it doesn't even have its own name. Giving a name to trans identity and experience "others" those people, but giving a name to non-trans tips the balance back. It implies that a person may stay with their original sex/gender or cross over to another sex/gender, and it acknowledges both pathways without casting prejudice in either direction.

Dana Defosse, who is usually credited with the English coinage in 1994, recently explained that when she originally proposed cisgender on a message board she had indeed sought to avoid "couching them [people who are 'not transgender'] in normalcy and making transgender identity automatically the 'other.'"

10 unworkable claims against 'cis'

Years later, some anti-trans people claimed to be offended by the word "cis." Today I found a January 2007 blog post, archived as it appeared a few months after it was posted. The author used the handle "uppitybiscuit."

The argument is brief (only 625 words) and repetitive. Sadly, it's not much different from what we hear today.

The phrase "Do not call me cisgender" and the word "permission" appear in the title. "Do not call me cisgender" additionally appears seven times as a refrain, and the word "permission" appears another six times and "consent" once.

Paraphrased, here are the author's claims:

  1. Some men are calling women cisgender. More specifically, it's trans women — whom the author insists are men — who are using this term for women who aren't trans. Supposedly, in doing so, they "embody and keep company with male’s and man’s traditions" of telling women what they are.
  2. Cisgender is inherently derogatory, "abusive, contemptuous and express[ing] hostility," most obviously so when it's shortened to "cissie" and used casually as slang. "You consider me less than."
  3. "Females, women as a class," did not choose this term nor agree to it.
  4. Moreover, the people who use the word cisgender haven't asked permission from the author specifically. Here's what the author allows interpersonally: "female, woman, her, she, wimmin, womon, womyn. You have permission to use those words when addressing or referring to me."
  5. Saying cis is a power play, "as though I am powerless to name myself."
  6. Saying cis implies that you believe "you have the power to define me" and that "I am...owned by you as property," while also amounting to "demand[ing] that I own" the word "as mine."
  7. Saying cis implies that "I have no right to resist" the word.
  8. "Historically...oppressed people named THEMSELVES. They didn’t re-name their oppressors," mostly because it would be "dangerous" to do so. Therefore, if someone "re-name[s] women" as cisgender, the speaker only shows that women aren't in an oppressive role and instead reveals their "privileged position over me."
  9. Neither should anyone refer to women as "a ‘non-’, or a ‘not-’." Presumably this means the author rejects the terms non-transgender and not transgender too.
  10. The word's "origins are from a trans perspective," and unfortunately, "you are not allowed to re-classify me according to what language suits your needs."

10 quick rebuttals

In case it's not obvious, here's what's wrong with that manifesto:

  1. Even apart from the problem of telling trans women that they are men, it is simply false that it is only men who refer only to women as cisgender. The word cisgender can describe a woman or a man because it refers to the status of not being trans. Moreover, the speaker can of course be a person of any gender (man, woman, something else) and any gender modality (cis, trans, something else). My first memory of hearing the word cis was by a cis woman who used it to describe herself, c. 2010; we were in a friend group that was mostly trans. She found the word useful.
  2. Cis isn't inherently derogatory. Any word can be uttered with an eyeroll, but that doesn't make it a slur; by analogy, gay people sometimes roll our eyes when we say "straight," but the word "straight" isn't inherently derogatory. The question here is why a word meaning "not trans" would be derogatory. The writer gives no reason to believe so.
  3. No sex/gender — neither "females, women as a class" nor males, aka men as a class, for that matter — ever takes a vote on whether any particular word is allowable.
  4. The author is free to state the words she likes for herself, including her pronouns (her, she in this case) and her alternate spellings (wimmin, womon, womyn). She has done so. It might be rude for someone, having heard her refusal of cis, to insist that she personally must embrace that word for herself; however, she has not claimed that anyone has ever treated her this way, so we readers are unable to evaluate her complaint.
  5. Using words to sort people into separate categories does not mean they are "powerless to name" themselves. It means (for example) some people are full-time workers, some are part-time workers, and some are unemployed, and we might use these broad-brush categories to make very basic observations about employment status. Of course these labels may fall short, and of course everyone has the power to call themselves anything.
  6. Sorting people into broad categories does not mean we're trying to define them in a way that is rigid or overly presumptuous. Still less does it mean we're treating them as "property." Nor does it mean we're demanding that they "own" the word as if it were theirs. Incidentally, I feel tension between the ideas that I own someone when I classify their gender while at the same time I force them to own the term I'm using allegedly to own them.
  7. Anyone has the right to refuse any word. Whether their argument will be a good one is a separate question, but of course anyone has "the right to resist."
  8. Oppressed people do invent names for their oppressors. As just one example, many Jews have used the term goyim—literally peoples, as in ethnic groups or nations—to mean "non-Jews." I wouldn't be surprised if some lesbian separatists have invented special words for men. Furthermore, it’s false that all white people consent to be called white. When someone is called white contrary to their personal preferences, it doesn’t suggest that whiteness is an oppressed category nor does it disprove the existence of white privilege. That's logically invalid. Lastly, in any case, cis isn't necessarily about oppression. It has a lot more to do with assumptions of normativity. The word has valid uses regardless of whether cis people oppress trans people or whether trans people see them that way.
  9. If someone objects to cis along with non-transgender and not transgender, how are they going to clarify that they are—well, not trans? Referring to trans people by whatever sex/gender they believe us to "truly" be—e.g., men for trans women, women for trans men—won't cut it even for their own purposes. The language will spin into uselessness quickly. There are, after all, trans women and trans men, which is to say that some women and men are trans, while other women and men are—well, cis. If someone feels it's important to know whether someone presents as their originally assigned gender, they are going to want to preserve a way to say trans and not trans.
  10. When the author complains that the word cis expresses "a trans perspective," that using "language [that] suits your needs" is not adequate justification for classifying non-trans people as cis, and that trans people are "not allowed" to speak this way, she's giving her game away. She simply doesn't want trans people to express our perspectives, meet our needs, or say anything she hasn't allowed us to say.

There's one more thing I want to mention. The author's position would be more coherent if trans people named ourselves trans. We didn't. As I mentioned at the beginning, transsexual was used in the early 20th century by people who weren't trans.

Many trans people today have a love-hate relationship with the word trans. We don't necessarily get to pick it; to the extent we use it, it's because it's accurate enough to help us communicate important matters.

So, too, is cis an accurate word for cis people. Some of them use it because it helps them communicate.

From a cis perspective, trans people are trans. From a trans perspective, cis people are cis.

This is fair.

How binaries work

Seventeen years after that nonsense blog manifesto, cis is still a useful word. It still means "not trans."

Today, we repeatedly hear the false allegation that "cis is a slur." It isn't.

If someone wants a world where no one is marked as cis, they must simultaneously fight for a world where no one is marked as trans.

Of course, I'd hope that banning transition is not the route they'd choose. I mean that each of us should be allowed to control our bodies, our clothes, our mannerisms, our names, our identity documents, and present in public as we wish, and it may be unnecessary for others to tell us whether we're trans, because that's kind of like...defining someone who isn't you, right?

Others could just let us do our thing and not call us trans. That would be a nonbinary way of handling it. Then we won't be calling them anything either.

But if some people are trans, some people are cis.

That's how binaries work.

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