Question Ten: Why do you have to call me ‘cis’?

April 3, 2013 § 12 Comments

So this seems to be a popular question at the moment – as ever, panel bios here.



Question Ten (which is more of a statement)

Not all “cis” people are ignorant of trans issues (I put “cis”
in quotation marks because I think “cis” as applied to all non-trans people is an overly simplistic division, in the way that you would probably perceive the tags of “man” and “woman” to be – I think the same of homo- and heterosexuality, if you’ll accept that as an analogy. Also, basically all labels of identity). Especially those who will be on your blog, and interested in asking questions – there is a danger of patronising us as “poor little uneducated cis people” into which q&a’s like this can fall. Although not trans myself, I do think that I have a good understanding and I am still attempting to deepen my understanding – particularly of the philosophical views of gender that are associated with trans issues and their relations to individual people trying to live “the good life” and be happy.



Roz: So what was the question?



Maeve: I think it sounds a bit here like the person posing the question takes some offense at being labeled ‘cis’. I’m not sure how using it as a label for non-trans people could be considered an over simplification, given that is precisely what it means. Taking the homo/hetero -sexual analogy; many people didn’t like being labeled as heterosexual when it started being used in common language, but I see that as simply a response to no longer being categorised as ‘normal’. The labels of ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘homosexual’, ‘heterosexual’, etc., are insufficient to describe the full variety of human experience, but that is why we have terms like ‘bisexual’, ‘pansexual’, ‘genderqueer’, etc. If you don’t like the word ‘cis’, then that raises alarm bells for me, as it is purely a descriptive term for someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth, it’s not a value judgement and so really shouldn’t cause offense.



Natacha: This blog seems to have been set up in response to large numbers of trans people who have experienced ignorance about what it is to be trans from a large number of cisgender people. This is probably partly due to the media but also due to assumptions made based on no evidence.



CN: Well, ‘cis’ is the literal counterpart to ‘trans’ – ‘not trans’ is its exact meaning so I’m not sure of the problem there (and it has a long history, as the Chemists and Classicists already know). In terms of dividing people into trans and cis, I do agree that it errs on the simplistic side – but, in doing this, I think it reflects a world which DOES divide people based on their experiences of sex and gender, in crudely simplistic ways. Personally, I think that these words, ‘cis’ and ‘trans’, are useful for describing our current state of play – but I think they’re often better suited to describing behaviour or experience than ‘identity’ and selfhood – simply because trying to contain the self in words is a slippery business. My personal goal is to have the cissexism of society challenged and transformed to an extent that future generations won’t need to use ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ in the way that we do, if at all, because we won’t seek to divide and discriminate in the way we do now. But division and discrimination against people who challenge their assigned place in an unbending gender/sex binary is the prevailing norm, and having words to catalogue and challenge that are vital if we’re ever to effect real change.

      As to ‘patronising the “poor little uneducated cis people”’ – if you have a good understanding of trans issues then you surely understand just how much ignorance and oppression there is – it’s staggering and, frequently, utterly dispiriting, if not outright harmful and/or dangerous. On a personal level, being asked about trans issues by cis people is a daily occurrence – through my public email, on social media, from colleagues, from friends, friends of friends, acquaintances – and I know many trans people have the same experience. Failing to provide information to all those who ask because some people already feel that they know enough doesn’t seem particularly helpful – if we’re covering topics you already know well then you’re under no obligation to read.


EDIT: (because I was thinking out loud elsewhere) I don’t think that there can be a particularly nuanced set of terms used to describe externally assigned life experience and oppression when the world at large treats you differently based on whether you (in any way) ‘trans’ your assigned birth sex andgender (transform it, transgress it, transcend it, transport it…you get the picture) or if you don’t. Using the words ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ is not presenting a binary option of how people are – it’s saying that a world obsessed with binaries treats people differently depending on whether they’re classed as ‘normal’ or ‘deviant’ in regards to assigned sex and gender. Using the words ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ describes that situation, but doesn’t prop it up as an a priori foundation of how we are as people. Naming the ways in which systems divide and oppress us is not to legitimise those systems, but to begin to dismantle them.



§ 12 Responses to Question Ten: Why do you have to call me ‘cis’?

  • pasupatidasi says:

    it seems a fine label for myself to wear as a person raising someone who is transgender, it reminds me of the difference in our realities…i am proud to wear it and my daughter is proud to wear hers.
    it doesn’t seem over simplistic to me…it defines without confining…whereas sometimes i do think trans can be an over simplification if applied to all non-cis folk…seems like there are many different ways to be not cis. some include surgerical options, some don’t for example.

  • Youssii says:

    I can never take someone seriously as an ally if they refuse to accept the term cis – sounds harsh, but for trans* to exist, you NEED to have the cis counterpart – there’s no need for “trans” to be part of the label for a chemical for which there is no cis counterpart, in the same way that there can be no “trans-alpine Gaul” without a “cis-alpine Gaul”.

    It sounds a lot like a cis person trying to get in on the “don’t gender-police me” aspect of being trans*, as though they have a right to speak from an experience that we(as trans* people) have. Obviously cis people are limited by perceptions of gender, but that’s more to do with sexism, than transphobia or binarism- I wouldn’t say no cis people experience transphobia, but primarily it’s geared at trans* people, not their allies (or indeed their “enemies”).

  • Fol says:

    This was my question, although Roz was right: this wasn’t actually a question, just part of my post which did contain a question. It didn’t actually want a response, but since I got one…

    CN, I was referring to this context, where the people asking the questions already have sympathy/some knowledge/interest in finding out about trans stuff. I was expressing the hope that it might move beyond the trans-101, presuming complete ignorance, Q&A that I have come across before. Sorry if that comes across sounding a bit arrogant. I do wonder at your decision to label this question “why do you have to call me cis?”, as I did not ask that question, it is one that you have imposed on my words

    Thanks to all for taking the time to answer these questions anyway, but less thanks for presuming me to be a jumped-up cis person – especially Youssii in the comments. In fact, for presuming me to be a cis-person at all. I’m not trans, but nor am I cis – I don’t “look” cis (I mean I don’t “pass”… for anything, really), or “feel” cis (however that may feel). I’m not going to go into my whole biography, please just trust me on this. I think this is where my reservations about the term comes from, that while it works well as a direct contrastor, e.g. to say, “I’m cis but my partner is trans”, as a general term it is presumptuous – if you have not revealed yourself to be trans, you must be cis and thus “on the other side”, with all that that entails: the priveleges (not universally experienced by those who are not trans), not “having the right to speak from an experience that we have” – as if you could know what experiences someone has had. Telling someone to shut up because they must be ignorant because you presume they are not “one of us” is appallingly arrogant – Youssii, if you cannot take seriously the idea of someone like me being your ally, that’s fine because I have very little interest in being the ally of anyone who self-righteously jumps to false, irritatingly supercilious conclusions about me, and besides would not grant me the “right” to speak.

    It seems there are many ways to be trans, but if you don’t take any of those labels, your identity – “cis” – will be imposed on you from outside, however inaccurately, because apparently there is only one way to not be trans. Where is the border between cis and trans? What happens – to use Youssii’s analogy – in the Alps?

    • cnlester says:

      Hi Fol,

      Thanks for the response. In regards to the title – the titles of these posts is often a little different to the questions/statements received, for a variety of reasons (usually to shorten) – in this case because the meat of the statement summed up many things that people who have, and continue to ask, ‘why do you have to call me ‘cis’?’ say. I’m more than happy to change it to something that you feel better suits your words?

      As you can see, I agree that the terms ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are reductive – personally, I still think that they have their uses at the moment – used mostly to describe experience, not selfhood. I’m curious as to why you’re comfortable with the term ‘non-trans’ but not with ‘cis’ when they mean the same? Especially when ‘cis’ removes the negativity of ‘non-trans’?

    • Fol,
      Firstly, remember that this blog is not a personal e-mail written to you, but rather an explanation to the world about a common question that is very similar to what you wrote—which inspired them to write this, because thousands of cis people ask it every day. So the assumptions about “you” aren’t really about you at all, especially because we don’t know you from a loaf of sliced bread. The responses, as far as I can tell, are more focused on the generally under-educated questioners who ask us this question.

      Second, I think you’re losing track of what “cis” and “trans” mean. These terms are oversimplifications, naturally, as categoricals. I, for one, feel that “cis” and “trans” is somewhat of a spectrum, in that every individual exhibits a degree of gender variance in their identity and expression, and I suspect that subconscious sex varies somewhat as well. Some people are, perhaps, “more intensely trans” than others.

      That being said, cisgender indicates that someone has comfortably aligned physical and subconscious sex. Transgender does not necessarily indicate opposites so much as “something doesn’t quite match up”, gender-wise. “Trans” is a wide umbrella (much like “queer”) encompassing transgender, transsexual, gender fluid, gender queer, bigender, nongender and dozens of other gender non-conforming forms of gender variance both within and beyond the stark harshness of the gender binary. “Beyond gender”? Sure—still going to be categorized “trans”, in my opinion.

      From my perspective, your peg sits squarely in the neat little hole (cis), or it doesn’t (trans). If it’s at all wiggling loose or set astride or maybe it fits 6 out of 7 days a week—then I call that “trans”.

      But we could debate till the cows come home what exactly fits in “trans” and what doesn’t (e.g., most transvestites).

      Finally, you failed to acklowledge CN’s direct response specifically to you in that this blog is, indeed, not written for the educated but by necessity for the lowest common denominator of unfamiliarity. If you think the blog still comes across as condescending to those who are entirely unfamiliar with transgender concerns, then you should definitely clarify that.

      • Jonathan says:

        But we could debate till the cows come home what exactly fits in “trans” and what doesn’t (e.g., most transvestites).

        Actually, most transvestites I know (and I know a lot, being one myself) do regard themselves as “trans” to some degree, and so would fit under the trans umbrella as well.

        • That’s my point.

          Let me rephrase:
          But we could debate till the cows come home what exactly fits in “trans” and what doesn’t (e.g., do most transvestites classify themselves as “trans” or not? do most genderqueer classify themselves as “trans” or not? do most transsexuals feel there is a good reason to draw the “trans” line in some different spot than where individuals classify themselves?).

          There’s a fair portion of the transvestite community that is clearly not “trans” in any meaningful sense of the word. But there’s also a fair portion of the transvestite community that struggles to some small extent with similar issues to the trans community as a whole, and we gain something by working together.

          Even the phrase, “trans woman”, becomes tricky when “trans” doesn’t necessarily mean “transgender”. So, I’d love a good umbrella term, and I think maybe trans* or some other term would be better than trans for that, but I’m biased as a trans woman who is pretty creeped out by the implications, connotations, and uses of the term “transsexual”. There are practically zero non-shitty terms by which we can refer to trans women and trans men as distinctive from the gender nonconforming community.

          But, yes, for now, “trans” is our only term commonly used to refer to the umbrella community as a whole—and it’s debatable how far that umbrella extends.

  • Also: CN, thank you for this blog! 🙂

  • Jonathan says:

    My personal goal is to have the cissexism of society challenged and transformed to an extent that future generations won’t need to use ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ in the way that we do, if at all, because we won’t seek to divide and discriminate in the way we do now.

    Nicely put. It reminds me of something Peter Tatchell wrote back in the mid 90s:

    “The more we succeed in asserting our human rights as homosexuals, the sooner the differences between heteros and queers lose their significance. With no relevance or importance, the differences no longer have to be policed. Sexual boundaries become fuzzier. The need, and desire, to label behaviour and people disappears. The end result of this erosion of sexual difference will be the demise of distinct homosexual and heterosexual orientations and identities.”

    In other words, the prefixes “homo” and “hetero” will cease to have any importance. Similiarly, I guess, “trans” and “cis”.

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