I created this blog as a place to discuss sex toys and sexuality. However, I knew there would be other tangential topics covered here, because, for anyone who cares strongly about sex, it is inevitably bound up with politics. Fighting for what you want in bed is connected to fighting for how you want the world to view sex: it’s all about bringing down walls and destroying shame in any way you can.
For the past nine months, I’ve been volunteering at an LGBTQ organization, and for the two years before that, I volunteered in a trans-and-genderqueer-specific space (I’m not trans, myself, but have dated a trans person, been friends with trans people, and consider myself an ally). In all that time, my knowledge and understanding of trans issues has steadily grown, and I wanted to talk a bit about that today.
I’ve recently gotten into two different debates with two different people online about the term “cis.” Incase you don’t know, cis (shortened from cissexual or cisgender) simply means “not trans” – i.e. born with a body that matches one’s gender identity. I’m a cis female, for example, because my body indicated that I was female when I was born, and I have grown up to feel that I am, indeed, female.
The people I got into debates with had two different points to make, but they were essentially the same thing, because they came from a similar place of ignorant cis privilege:
1. “Though my body has always matched my gender identity, I hate being called cis because it has a negative connotation. If someone called me cis, I would correct them.”
2. “The term cis is unnecessary. Why not just differentiate people as ‘trans’ or ‘not trans’?”
These arguments made me so angry because the people who made them were totally unwilling to listen to reason. Having never experienced trans-ness or apparently been around trans people, they couldn’t understand the hurtfulness, political incorrectness, and ignorance of what they were saying. So I’d like to respond to these two points here, maybe so I can clear up these issues for cis people who may be wondering about the same things, but want to be more conscientious about their stance.
In response to the first argument: First off, if your body has always matched your gender identity, you are cis. It is a factual descriptor of your identity, every bit as much as “Canadian” describes my identity because I was born in Canada and remain a Canadian citizen. While you, yourself, don’t necessarily have to use the term “cis” in reference to yourself if you don’t want to, people are going to refer to you by it when it becomes relevant, just as someone with solely opposite-sex attractions might be referred to as straight if they were hanging out in queer spaces. It’s just a way to differentiate.
Next, the idea that “cis” has a negative connotation… Well, yes, in some spaces, it might. For trans or genderqueer people who feel that they’ve been wronged by cissexism and use extremist phrases like “die, cis scum,” the word cis may exist in a negative light. But for the vast majority of us, it doesn’t – as I said before, it’s simply an objective descriptor.
Frankly, you can’t choose to reject a descriptor just because you don’t like the connotation it occasionally comes with. I can’t tell people I’m not white, just because I feel like my whiteness makes me come off as “privileged.” My whiteness does privilege me – this is a fact I cannot ignore or pretend away – but it’s what I do with myself that decides whether or not I’m a privileged asshat. No sane and intelligent person is ever going to call me rude things just for being white, but they might if I do shit that only an ignorant privileged person would do.
Bottom line: If you don’t like the term cis, don’t use it to describe yourself, fine, but other people are going to use it when it becomes important to make that distinction. And if you don’t like the so-called “negative connotation” that comes with being cis, you better get out there and do shit that proves that cis people can be helpful trans allies, rather than just perpetuating that negative image of cis people by being ignorant and needlessly irate.
In response to the second argument: People who argue that the term “cis” is unnecessary are overwhelmingly almost always ignorant cis people, so of course they don’t understand why the term is necessary – they’ve gone through life assuming everyone is cis unless told otherwise, and so they don’t see a reason why it would ever be important to have a word to describe “normal,” non-trans folks.
When trying to explain why the term is needed, I always refer back to a story I was told by a wonderful trans woman who came to teach my volunteer group about trans issues. She was at a psychiatric consultation in a queer-friendly health centre. The psychiatrist was asking her various questions about her mental health situation and her life. The woman said she was attracted primarily to other women, and the psychiatrist said, “So are you mostly attracted to trans women, or real women?”
Obviously, as a trans woman, the term “real women” used to describe cis women can be not only deeply offensive, but also horrifically triggering in some cases. Trans people have spent their entire lives being told they “aren’t really” their gender, even though they’ve usually known their true gender since they were old enough to understand such things. There is no reason whatsoever for anyone to dredge up those horrible memories and feelings by using offensive terms like “real man” or “real woman,” which is why the word “cis” is proposed as a respectful alternative to those kinds of phrases.
Bottom line: “Real” is a point of debate – the world may never agree on whether it’s a penis or a mental perception that makes a man a “real man” – but “cis” and “trans” are not. They are inoffensive, objective terms, designed to differentiate between two groups of people without hurting anyone in either group, and for the most part, they do this very well, so we should use them.
Readers: Do you hear the word “cis” being used in your circles? What are your thoughts on its validity, connotations, and usage? Do you identify as cis? Why or why not?