The “Shit Cis People Say” Alphabet: C is for “Cis is a slur”

Welcome to another episode of the Shit Cis People Say Alphabet! Today:

C is for “Cis is a slur”

Ok, this one is admittedly a little complex. First and foremost, cis (which is short for cisgender) is a descriptor – saying that someone is cis just means that they identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, simple as that! For the most part, it is just a word that means “not transgender”. It’s creation and original intent and usage were definitely not slur-like.

I admit that is not sufficient evidence that a word isn’t a slur, though. So, I want to take the claim that it is a slur seriously enough to probe at what makes people object to the term.

When people object to being called cis or cisgender, it usually comes with one of a number of reasons (and if you drill down, it’s usually not actually that they think cis is a slur). I’m going to try to address the ones I’m aware of here, though if I miss some, please let me know!

There doesn’t need to be a word for that! That’s just normal

It is true that an overwhelming majority of people are cisgender. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful or important to have a word that encapsulates that particular aspect of gendered experience. Most people are also heterosexual, and in fact we didn’t get around to making a word for that until we had already come up with the category of homosexual – it is a function of categories that if as long as you are assuming everyone is the same, you don’t need a word for that sameness.

It is only when one begin recognizing and naming different experiences that it becomes apparent that there needs to be a word for the ‘sameness’ against which those differences are being identified. The only way to truly make linguistic room for the idea that all of these experiences are equally valid is to have words for all of them, not just the rare or ‘weird’ ones. We all have a relationship to the gender we were assigned at birth (if we were assigned a gender at birth), even if it’s a relatively uncomplicated one that we haven’t ever really thought about, as is often the case with cisgender people.

But I *don’t* really fit the gender I was assigned at birth!

I never quite know what to do with people who don’t like being called cisgender because (of course!) they don’t perfectly fit into the box associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. The thing folks making this claim seem to miss is that cisgender absolutely does not mean ‘conforms to the gender they were assigned birth’, it just means you identify that way. It is totally fine and great to be a gender non-conformist cis person. It just doesn’t make you not cisgender.

But If you really don’t identify as the gender you were assigned at birth, then that’s another thing entirely, because then you would be trans. And then you’d be right to object to being called cisgender, because it would be inaccurate. But continuing to claim you’re not cis while simultaneously living a dysphoria-free life in the gender you were assigned at birth – and benefiting from the privileges that come with that – isn’t going to fly.

You don’t get to decide what labels to use for me!

So, most of the time when I see this one get pulled out, it’s straight-up trolling – the person making the argument doesn’t believe in their own premises in the first place and it’s pointless. But I’m going to go ahead and assume someone somewhere has made this argument and meant it and address it anyway.

I guess the major thrust of this argument is that it is hypocritical for a group of people who have fought – and are continuing to fight – very hard for the right to define the words that are used to describe them, to then turn around and choose words to describe other people.

The thing is, though, that there is a false equivalency going on here. In terms of questions like the general rejection of the word ‘transsexual’ in favour of ‘transgender’ is a question of the words’ accuracy to what it is describing. While transsexual is a word that some trans people find to be an accurate description of their experience, many of us experience our trans-ness as specifically related to our gender and may have little or no dysphoria around or desire to change our sex/sexual organs. I, for example, am transgender, but I am distinctly *not* transsexual. ‘Transgender’ is simply a better descriptor for most trans people’s experiences.

Cisgender meanwhile, as I said above, is simply a word that arises naturally as the linguistic ‘opposite’ to transgender, and it really does just mean ‘not transgender’. As I said in the previous, if a person is NOT not transgender (i.e. is they’re not cisgender according to that definition), then of course they can object to being called cisgender, because they’re not.

However, barring an actual objection to the word’s accuracy in describing he people it is applied to, this argument is pretty facetious.

But the word is used as a slur!

So, here’s the thing. A slur is a word that it used to oppress or dehumanize marginalized people. A word used to describe those in a position of privilege can’t be a slur in that sense – it simply doesn’t work that way.

I do understand that sometimes trans folks use the word ‘cis’ as a sort-of insult, though more particularly it is usually in an exclusionary way (as in ‘you’re not one of us’ – which, for the record, is true.) I am honestly not really sure what to say about that though. I think that most people understand that when, for instance, a straight woman who is dealing with heartbreak gets her lady friends together to talk about how all men are trash, that is just perfectly reasonable and understandable venting, and that no matter how many times it happens “man” isn’t going to become a slur. To be honest, I think the reason this same venting use of any of the other markers of privilege (white, rich, cis, etc.) doesn’t get as easily read that way is that people in general are less understanding of the very real pain and frustration that various marginalized people are dealing with.

And listen, I’m not going to pretend that no one has ever actually wanted dehumanize and eradicate cis people. It’s just, that’s such an irrelevantly small number of people with – let’s face it – no power whatsoever, that it just doesn’t rate.

Cis isn’t a slur. It is sometimes used in a way that is meant to discredit people, but it’s level of insulting-ness is more along the lines of something like calling someone ‘weird’. Weirdness is often considered to be something that discredits people, but it can also just be a true description of a person, as long as their comfortable with their weirdness. If you just understand that you are cis, and that’s ok, then being called cis shouldn’t be an insult to you, really, even when it is meant as such.

And honestly, if it makes you uncomfortable to be reminded that your relationship to your birth-assigned gender isn’t the same as everyone else’s, that’s actually a manifestation of your cis privilege. So deal with it.


Check out the rest of “Shit Cis People Say” alphabet!

29 comments

  1. I also sometimes wonder if it’s a reminder that more and more marginalized groups are speaking up and beginning to dissect systems of privilege and power. Whenever I hear someone whining about something like “cis is a slur” or “reverse racism” or “men’s rights,” what I hear is a person whose privilege is under threat. I hear a person who fears that they can no longer get away with treating other groups of people as second class citizens, as sub-human, as objects, or as if they’re invisible, and they don’t like it one bit. They *want* to have groups that they can dump on and feel superior to.

    1. I´m curious – why do you think that the expression “men´s rights” automatically imply their privilege is under threat? From my perspective, it is perfectly possible for men to pursue rights alongside women who pursue rights. They are not mutually exclusive, in my opinion.

      1. I’m not the person you directed your question at, but in practice a lot of what men’s rights activists are fighting for is the maintenance of their position of power and privilege. It’s not automatic, but it is very often what’s happening, especially given that men’s rights activists almost exclusively position themselves as actively anti-feminist.

        1. That´s true. I was still planning on writing on this subject because I think mutual exclusion, even though it can be used for activism and to expose flaws in mainstream thinking – can actually enforce divisions instead of making them disappear.

          In the case of those men´s right activists, I know that a lot of them are angry exactly because they are being put away as “simply afraid of losing their privilege”, even in cases when it´s more complicated than that.

          I support men´s rights and am interested in an egalitarian movement so I am probably coming from a different perspective here :-). It just makes me wonder whether what´s happening in the trans vs. cis case could be something similar.

          1. Oh, I for sure think that people sometimes forget to be cautious in the way they employ “us” and “them” mentality, and your cautiousness is an A+ instinct btw

          2. Yeah, I think a lot of the actual men’s rights issues they want to fight for are things the non radical feminists would get behind supporting — and vice versa, just because someone wants some things for men to improve doesn’t mean they can’t be for things for women, not to mention that you know, things don’t have to always be so binary…

            The division can cause people to feel like they are on opposing sides of a war even if they’re not.

            I really feel like we need real, calm, reasoned conversations about men dying more from workplace accidents and from suicides, about the genders of parents who are found guilty of child abuse and even murdering their own children, about a lot of the topics MRAs might want people to consider. It’s nuanced and complicated from where I’m standing. But… Idk. A lot of people are really passionately on one side or the other with this and MRAs do often form really scary, anti women, anti everything feminism stands for, contingents.

          3. The Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) and Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) are a very specific thing. These people are by definition anti-feminist. If you are feminist and specifically concerned about issues having to do with men and masculinity, you’re not a MRA – you’re a men’s issues activist, if anything. Or just a plain old feminist with a focus on men and masculinity. There are websites (unfortunately few) supportive of feminism which focus on men and masculinity, such as The Good Men Project and Reimagining Manhood. I mean, there are trans men too, after all, and I find the idea that trans men cannot be feminists even stranger than the idea that cis men cannot be feminists.

  2. I’m not sure “that is just p­erfectly reasonable a­nd understandable ven­ting” any time generalizations about “all men” comes up, honestly I think that is completely frustrating and i wish that practice would be replaced with something more productive lol, but your point that “men” is not ever gonna become a slur is valid and completely important to keep in mind.

    I haven’t heard people considering “binary” or “straight” to be slurs, “neurotypical”… But I think people do consider “cis” and even sometimes “allosexual” to be words they don’t want to be called, because they misunderstand the meaning and they think they’re being insulted, usually in cases where they really aren’t.

    “Slur”s are very specific things and cis definitely is not even close to a slur.

  3. Oh I definitely didn’t mean to imply that all generalizations about men are reasonable and understandable venting! Just, I know most folks don’t think all cases of said venting are ‘misandrist’ or whatever; societally we get that people can say ‘men are trash’ (sometimes) without assuming they actually hate all men all the time. I don’t think the same understanding is extended to less visible groups of harmed people though, which was my intent with the analogy.

    As I understand it, both “white” and “heterosexual” as categories got some pushback when they were coined, (the people in power don’t like being reminded that they have racial, sexual, gender, and other identities just everyone else or whatever), and I think that the pushback against cis (and allosexual for sure!) is just more of the same. Which, hopefully that means that we’ll break through on it eventually, so!

    1. I’m not sure about the history of pushback with “heterosexual,” but “whiteness” as a racial concept was introduced by rich white people in order to get poor white people to side with them over the people of color with whom they shared common interests. (The book Learning To Be White has good info on that!) That’s not to say that whiteness isn’t positioned today as an unmarked category–the “norm,” if you will–but it has a distinctly different history than terms like cis.

  4. Personally I´m not very comfortable with the division, just as I´m not comfortable with describing all men or all women as one category (although admittedly I do that when I´m pissed). The idea that “they” are “cis” immediately implies that “we” are different and I don´t personally subscribe to that idea that much.

    Yes we are different but that´s pretty much only in terms of not identifying with the gender we were born with. I guess transgender is also a different category because based on that connotation it is much easier to be discriminated against. At the same time I have much more in common with “them” than I am different (from my perspective).

    interesting post :-)

    1. I mean, you’re not wrong! Ultimately there isn’t much difference between the ingroup and outgroup across any axis of privilege. But the fact still remains that “they”, cis people, do have privilege, and their continued insistence that they are just “normal” contributes to the continued harm toward and lack of accommodations for trans folks of all kinds. Pretending those differences in privilege and access don’t exist helps nothing.

  5. The thing about the word cisgender is that “identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth” isn’t completely equivalent to “not trans”. In my experience lots of people who are not trans simply have not considered their gender. They don’t actively not identify with their assigned gender in which case they would be trans, but they also don’t actively identify with their assigned gender, and may or may not do so should they decide to look into it. So do we assume that everyone is cis until they identify otherwise, or is cis something you have to actively identify as?

    1. Cis-by-default (or passively identifying with ones birth-assigned gender) is definitely a real thing. I think someone needs to actively (even if only internally) reject that gender in order to be trans/not-cis, particularly in the sense that as long as you are comfortable-ish (even passively) with that gender, you ba e cis privilege.

    2. …ok apparently I actually have a lot of thoughts about your questions so expect a longer response in a bit! Right now I kind of just want to add that I think “never having really thought about gender” is one of the major markers of cis privilege to some extent? Though you’re right that it’s somewhat more complicated than I’ve allowed here, I think that the grey area of maybe-not-cis people you’re talking about here are mutually exclusive with the group of people who would think cis is a slur in the first place, so it wasn’t a relevant component of this particular conversation?

      1. > maybe-not-cis people would not consider cis to be a slur

        that is true! I was more commenting on the idea of “cisgender” in general rather than this specific issue. I think that conflating the two definitions of cis isn’t very good to do in any discussion.

        More general thoughts on the concept: Maybe we should have different words for the two things? If we think of “cis” people as people who are not-trans, with a subset of people who are “actively cis”, when we talk about cis-privilege we mostly mean privilege from being not-trans, rather than actively-cis, I think. I was never cis, but before I started identifying as trans, I benefitted from “”not-trans-privilege””.

        Why I have feelings about this is that my personal experience of being maybe-not-cis was that it was confusing and not very helpful that on all sides everyone seemed to start with the assumption that I was cis. “if you are not trans you are cis and you have cis-privilege”: well I hadn’t explored it yet so I couldn’t identify as trans yet so that makes me… cis?? To be honest discussions of “cis-privilege” are a bit of a trigger for me for this reason. Maybe-not-cis people exist and erasure should be avoided…

        Anyhoo, looking forward to reading your thoughts! :)

        1. I’m really glad you brought this all up; you’re definitely hitting on the reason why it’s important to always leave room for ‘questioning’ as a valid identity place, whether it’s about orientation or gender!

  6. Enby with dysphoria here. Who says u *need* dysphoria to be trans? Some kids are raised in really open ways (albeit few) where maybe they were assigned a gender at birth but it wasn’t really enforced, and they don’t feel attached to any gender identity?

    When I first came out as Enby I was policed and silenced. Called myself Cis because I felt I had to, to pay respect to “real” trans people. Didn’t process the public transphobic violence I was subjected to because I was using it as an affirmation of my gender. Just over a month ago I finally realized “dysphoria” was a word that described feelings I’ve had for at least 20 years (I am 26).

    Maybe you do need dysphoria to be trans, but I don’t necessarily think so, and I just ask that trans people be conscious of gender policing. Some of us haven’t figured out our identities yet, and safekeeping really hurts when u get shut out from both sides. Just as the man / woman binary is more a spectrum, I believe Cis / trans could be too

    Thanks for all you do

    1. Dysphoria definitely isn’t necessary to be trans, you’re right! And for sure the comments here have done a good job of pointing out that I’ve been a little too hardline in this post around the cis/trans binary, which I agree for sure isn’t a strict binary. It’s a tough topic to untangle, and thanks for adding to it :)

  7. “But continuing to claim you’re not cis while simultaneously living a dysphoria-free life in the gender you were assigned at birth – and benefiting from the privileges that come with that – isn’t going to fly.”

    Is it possible to be both cis and nonbinary? Because I’ve been questioning which category I belong to.

    I’m AFAB and girlflux. Essentially, for me, I mostly vacillate between definitely female and female-by-default, and on rare occasions, I feel definitely not female (agender, autigender or occasionally a bit male). I feel like just calling myself cis is dismissing the important experiences I have with being non-female.

    But on the other hand, I don’t have dysphoria and I plan to continue living basically the same life I’d live if I was 100% female all the time, so I benefit from cis privilege. The only ways I want to express my somewhat complicated gender are things I see gender-nonconforming cis people doing, too.

    1. I mean, to me, it sounds like you’re not exactly cis (especially since you’ve identified yourself with a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth (girlflux). It’s true that your gender is near to the one you were assigned, and it’s sort of a weird thing where, if trans/cis were a spectrum, you’d be close to cis, but it doens’t really work that way. So where does that leave you?

      I don’t know, but it sounds like you’re technically not cis, but are generally comfortable being perceived that way, and living as cis? That’s ok, and despite my snippiness in the post, experieincing dysphoria isn’t actually required for not being cis. You may just be non-binar,y buit in a way that isn’t particularly important to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s