Don’t like the word ‘cis’? Good*
August 19, 2014 § 10 Comments
I can’t say it’s a particular favourite of mine, anymore than ‘trans’ is – after all, I’m not a fan of labels or dichotomies in general. But, with reservations, and in certain contexts, I do use those words, and find them helpful – and these are the reasons why.
There’s always a place of confusion, of divergence, whenever we begin talking about words that categorize and describe our genders/sexes. Are we talking about identities, or about structural categories? What does ‘identity’ mean in this context – the life lived, personal beliefs, actions, or a category freely chosen? What happens when the structural category one inhabits is at odds with what one feels about the self?
When I first found the word ‘transgender’, and knew that it could be applied to me, I didn’t ‘identify’ as it. That’s a question I get asked all the time: ‘when did you realise that you were trans?’. But it misses the reality of what happened. For years before I knew that there was that word, I knew that my body felt wrong – that I wanted to change it, that I was at odds with my external self, that I was at odds with the category I’d been placed in. It was only gradually, and with a lot of research, that I found that there was a word society gave to people like me – and that that word was ‘transgender’. It was liberating, in a way – but also a trap, and a label that came from outside myself, to try to reclaim.
In addition, it was coming to understand what the world around me meant by gender – how many things it meant by gender – and realising that I despised the enforced, hierarchical gender binary so much of the Western world seemed invested in propping up, and was determined to do my part in undermining it, challenging it.
That second point, that refusal to validate kyriarchal gender standards – is it transgender, or is it just a reasonable position for everyone to adopt? If it is inherently ‘trans’ then does ‘cis’ only apply to people who are happy to go along with sexist, limited ideas of gender? Does that turn ‘cis’ into a slur?
This is always where I feel that our ways of demarcating ‘trans’ fall down. We so often talk about ‘trans’ as though it refers to an essential part of a person – that it’s a noun that means a person (the way some newspapers use it: ‘a transgendered’). I much prefer the way that Leslie Feinberg uses it – that it can be a description of behaviours and ideas that transgress or queer oppressive notions of gender, or it can be a broad umbrella under which people can shelter, should they desire to – and there can be slippage between the two. You don’t have to prove that you’re ‘trans enough’. But neither would you have to use that word to describe yourself, even if what you do and believe challenges and transforms what we mean by sex/gender. Maybe it applies in some situations and not others. It’s a tool to be used.
So what is the point of the word ‘cis’ within this framework? I can see why some people would prefer not to use it, or have it used to describe them – they don’t go along with patriarchal sex/gender rules – but also don’t feel an affinity to the word ‘trans’. Certainly, all of the cis people dear to me could be counted here – emotionally and intellectually we are in the same position when it comes to gender, but they don’t feel comfortable calling themselves ‘trans’. But there is a reason why they do use the word cis to describe themselves, and it’s the reason I think we still need it.
To have the word ‘cis’ in usage is an acknowledgment of the fact that ‘trans’ is as much an oppressive category meted out by a binary society as it is a reclaimed term of pride. There are lines in the sand drawn all around gendered behaviours and bodies – and at different points in the crossing of those lines we are told that we are ‘trans’ for doing so. In an ideal world, my treatment of my body and my expression of myself would be unique and sacred to me – but that’s not even close to the world we live in. My experiences are demarcated from ‘the norm’ with that word – ‘trans’ – I am othered away – and in this structure it is vital that I have a word to describe the other side of this equation. Not to be petty, and not in a desire to label and limit where I am labelled and limited – but to truly illustrate the dichotomy at work.
Having the word ‘cis’ to use stops the situation from being presented as a broad band of ‘normal’ expression, and a small group of extremists who need a particular word to designate them as different. It highlights the absurdity of that system – how on earth can we accurately label everyone’s personal, detailed, changing experiences of sex/gender into two exclusionary boxes? And, yet, that is what society tries so often to do. To use the words ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ in public and political contexts is not to create that system – nor, hopefully, to sustain it – but to know the enemy and to fight it.
Transphobia is real – a daily occurrence for so many trans people. And we need a word to describe the fact that transphobia is not a natural and logical extension of that transness – something terrible, but the kind of thing that happens to minority groups. Bigotry is not natural or excusable. That term, ‘cis privilege’, which so many people seem to take umbrage at – it’s no more than an admission of transphobia, but turned around so as to highlight the injustice of its existence (as so many others writers have already said when talking about the term ‘privilege’ in similar contexts). It asks ‘why are some people spared this bigotry, and not others’? Why is it that you can be recognised by the state, participate in equal marriage, use a public bathroom safely, and I can’t? Why is it that my partner and I, having such a similar understanding of sex and gender, have such different public experiences of prejudice when it comes to gendered expression of ourselves?
These words, ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ – they’re blunt instruments. They can’t illuminate the majority, let alone the totality, of what a person is. But they can help us fight for a place where people are not assumed to be so easy to label – and to punish. If that word, ‘cis’, makes you angry – then please, direct that anger at the system which positioned you so in the first place. Don’t waste that rage at the people who pointed that system out – they’re the ones fighting too.
* Unless, of course, you don’t like the word ‘cis’ because you think that everyone who isn’t trans is just ‘normal’, and why should you have to have a word to describe you? For those people reading this – I don’t think you’re going to get much out of it. But you could try. That would be nice.