The New 'C' Word

No, I'm not talking about that one. I'm talking about "cisgender," or "cis" for short, which is a term used to describe anyone who identifies with the sex (and gender) they were assigned at birth. It is essentially the opposite of "transgender" and stands in for "non-transgender."

There are some who really do not like the word, however, and especially when it is applied to them. For some it is just a dislike of having a label applied to them that they did not choose. J Nelson Aviance, in his recent HuffPost blog post "I Am NOT Cisgendered," objects to the term because he feels it is far too binary.

The piece was problematic on several levels. First and foremost was the adding of an "-ed" to "cisgender" right from the title. Just as "transgender" is an adjective and shouldn't have an "-ed" added to it, neither should "cisgender." This instantly suggests a lack of familiarity with the nuances of how the word is used.

The piece also seems to conflate gender expression and gender identity. Just because someone expresses themselves in non-gender-stereotypical ways does not necessarily make them transgender. For example, my spouse never wears dresses or makeup, and she loves hockey and swears a blue streak at the top of her lungs during the fights. While she may deliberately violate gender norms, she is not transgender, because she was assigned "female" at birth and, as a woman, identifies as such.

Still, J Nelson Aviance is right in one key respect: The use of "cis" and "cisgender" should be carefully examined. There are people who strenuously object to these words being applied to them, even if the words come from an academic background. Just as my feelings on certain subjects should be respected, so should the feelings of people who dislike these labels.

It also needs to be asked what using the words gains us. When most people outside the LGBT or gender-studies community hear the words "cis" or "cisgender," they usually offer one of three responses:

  1. "Huh?"
  2. "What kind of weirdo, academic gobbledygook is that?"
  3. "Don't you dare put a label on me!"

When these words are used in focus groups that look at messaging on transgender issues, the responses are nearly universally negative. The conclusion of many organizations is that you should not use either "cisgender" or "cis" in any sort of public narrative.

Even inside the LGBT community the words have a very negative connotation. When someone is referred to as a "cisgender lesbian" or "cis gay man" by a transgender person, it is often in a negative way. The addition of "cis" or "cisgender" is used to imply a certain level of contempt and a desire that they leave discussions on transgender issues. It also implies that they don't, can't, or won't ever understand transgender issues.

In some cases it is appropriate to call someone on their unexamined privilege. However, using the word "cis" or "cisgender" is not necessary to do so. Just as no one ever called me "tranny" and meant it in a nice or affectionate way, many LGB people have never been called "cis" or "cisgender" in a way that wasn't accusatory. Therefore we find common ground in disliking a word because its context has always been nasty and demeaning when applied to us personally.

It isn't logically or ethically consistent to tell one group of people that they need to get over a word they dislike being used to describe them while strenuously objecting to a word being applied to you, even if both words can be used in a contextually neutral way. The logic cuts both directions.

There is a proper time, place, and context for certain words. There are others where it is clearly not appropriate. When a group of people adopts or takes back a word and uses it among themselves, it can be an example of the former. Dropping the "F" bomb at a White House dinner is a good example of the latter.

"Cis" and "cisgender" certainly have a proper place in academia and are likely to be used there for a long time, given how their use has steadily increased. They are also increasingly used in non-LGBT progressive circles as part of policy and sociology discussions. Outside these contexts, however, neither word does us much good. They are usually off-putting at best, and at worst move people to a point of anger.

There are perfectly good substitutes as well. In public discussions I frequently use the term "non-transgender" instead of "cisgender." The meaning is apparent without being specifically diminutive of any group. It also doesn't carry the baggage of seeming like academese or being offensive to some.

Often the words don't need to be used at all. When describing someone's sexual orientation, do you really need to use "transgender" or "cisgender" as a prefix to it?

As a result, "cis" and "cisgender" should be used sparingly in public discourse. There are a limited number of circumstances in which they are necessary, appropriate, and ultimately beneficial to the community as a whole.