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“Cis” is real—even if it is carelessly articulated.

Date: September 9, 2013

The term “cis” (usually denoting people and things that are not transgender or transsexual) has gained popularity among queer subcultures since the publication of “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano in 2007. In the book, Serano cites my old post to WMST-L (Women’s Studies mailing list) as the place she encountered the word, so I feel I played some part in popularizing the term.

In casual conversations, it is suffice to say that “cis” means the opposite of “trans,” replacing “normal,” “natural,” “biological,” “genetic,” “real,” and many other words that are often used in the mainstream society to describe someone who is not trans. As I explained back in 2002, the reason “cis” is preferable to all the others is that it treats “cis” and “trans” as linguistic equivalents, rather than treating one as more normal or natural or otherwise standard and the other abnormal, artificial or exceptional. I wrote:

I learned the words “cissexual,” “cissexist,” and “cisgender,” from trans activists who wanted to turn the table and define the words that describe non-transsexuals and non-transgenders rather than always being defined and described by them. By using the term “cissexual” and “cisgender,” they de-centralize the dominant group, exposing it as merely one possible alternative rather than the “norm” against which trans people are defined.

As the term became popular, I started seeing it being included and defined in many “terminology” sheets and other documents. Personally, I feel perfectly comfortable defining “trans” as “not cis,” and “cis” as “not trans,” but other people often try to offer a more helpful sets of definitions–and this is where the problem begins. For example, Wikipedia states:

Cisgender and cissexual (often abbreviated to simply cis) describe related types of gender identity where an individual’s self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity,” complementing transgender.

Some anti-trans radical feminists have rejected the term “cis,” along with pretty much everything else trans movement has produced so far, but in this particular case they have a good point. That is, gender in a patriarchal society is an oppressive institution created and imposed (at least in part) to subjugate women, and as such no woman (or probably other people) can be described as having a natural “match” between her gender and the assigned sex. Many “cis” women are indeed not comfortable with the gendered expectations and treatment that are imposed on them because of their assigned sex: indeed, that is one of the reasons many women become feminists, especially radical feminists. Women do not need to suffer from “Gender Dysphoria” (formerly Gender Identity Disorder) to feel dysphoric about gender.

I am sympathetic to this argument, to a point, but I feel that the problem is not the concept of “cis” itself, but how badly it is defined. I agree that many “cis” women (and others) don’t feel that the socially imposed gender “matches” their assigned sex–or understand what “match” even means in this context–and yet, cis people (and cis women) exist. Cis privileges exist.

The problem is how the word “cis” is often defined as if it is a natural category, definable outside the context of cissexist power relations, rather than a socially constructed one. Like whiteness or able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be understood as a historical and political category of power and privilege, with boundaries that are blurry and constantly shifting.

That might not make sense, because many people tend to think of whiteness or able-bodiedness as natural categories as well, but those of us who study the history of racism or ableism understand these categories as socially constructed. In the last several centuries, for example, many groups of people from Europe–Italians, Irish, and most recently, Ashkenazi Jews–have come to be accepted as “whites” in the U.S., even though historically they were regarded as something else. There are some people who predict that Asians and Latinos will eventually join “whites” in the U.S. in the not so distant future (remember, Jews weren’t white until mid-20th century)–which is kind of a scary thought to me, considering that I might live all of my life as an Asian person, only to die as a white person.

Able-bodiedness operates similarly: disability theorists have adopted a “social model of disability, which distinguishes between “impairments” that are physical or mental differences and “disabilities” that are social meaning of these differences created by lack of universal accessibility. Historical changes such as policies promoting accessibility and uses of adaptive technologies have reduced or in some cases eliminated difficulties someone might experience due to their physical or mental differences.

Like whiteness and able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be treated as a socially constructed category of power and privilege. In my view, a “cis” person is not (necessarily) someone whose gender matches her or his assigned sex, or someone who does not suffer from “Gender Dysphoria”; it should denote someone who does not suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis.

Obviously, there are grey areas along the boundaries of this category. Some butch women and effeminate men might be frequently targeted by transphobia without being trans, or some trans person might pass well enough to not experience transphobia in their daily lives. Similar grey areas also exist along the boundaries of whiteness and able-bodiedness (mistaken identities and “passing” can and do happen), but that does not diminish the usefulness of these categories to discuss socially imposed structures of power and privilege. It might also be true that butch women do experience some aspects of transphobia, but in a much different way than a trans person would: for example, butch women can usually produce an identification card with an “F” printed on it and expect everybody to accept it.

Just to be clear: When I say “transphobia,” I am not merely talking about someone using a wrong pronoun. I am talking about violence, discrimination, and social abandonment that take many trans lives. If we lived in a society where these tragedies did not exist, I could care less that people are using wrong pronouns. Cis is real, and cis privileges really do exist–even if they are often not articulated properly or thoughtfully. Do not let cis people get away with denying their privilege by nitpicking specific (arguably bad) definitions of the concept as if the concept itself has no substance.

4 Comments »

  1. Great write up! I’m still trying to learn…. so I apologize if this is somehow a stupid question….

    But… the main philosophical issue that I see here is that cis-women who feel “dysphoirc about gender” are being asked to accept a definition of “woman” grounded in an aesthetic that seems to be defined by predominantly western stereotypes of femininity and beauty. Are they not the same notions they’re “dysphoric” in difference to? I guess what I’m asking: is there as much and as varied a conception of what it means to be a beautiful transwoman as there are for ciswomen? If not, then isn’t it understandable these two philosophies would naturally be at odds?

    Comment by Matt T — September 23, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

  2. I guess what I’m asking: is there as much and as varied a conception of what it means to be a beautiful transwoman as there are for ciswomen?

    I believe that there are, but trans women generally pay much greater cost for failing to conform to the Western conception of femininity than do cis women. In addition, medical and legal authorities can exert much greater impediments for trans women who do not conform to it than for cis women. That is, trans women are not enforcers of the definition of femininity; they are in fact more vulnerable to the imposition of feminine stereotypes. That many trans as well as cis women internalize the hegemonic conception of femininity to some degree for their survival is no surprise, and does not make them enemies of feminism.

    Comment by emigrl — September 23, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

  3. Thanks for the post. It was interesting to hear both about the history and different ways of defining the concepts. Would you say trans people, then, should be understood of as those who suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis?

    Comment by Jaimie Veale — September 26, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  4. @Jaimie

    Would you say trans people, then, should be understood of as those who suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis?

    I’m not so interested in deciding which individuals belong in which categories. As I’ve pointed out, there are many grey areas. My interest is in defining what cis means as a category of power–like whiteness or able-bodiedness–and not necessarily what makes someone a cis person or a trans person.

    Comment by emigrl — September 29, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

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