Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I have an abnormal relationship with--normal.

For most of my life, I looked normal, but never felt normal. Sure, I moved around the world as a (sorta) guy, even acted like one--ok, hell, sometimes even felt like one; but I was always aware of this thing about me that made me not feel normal: this awkwardness, this discomfort, this constant wondering if I was the wrong gender, and if so, should I do something about it.

Nowadays, I feel much more normal, but to large chunks of my world I don't look normal: the friends, family and coworkers who knew me before transition now have to look at me a different way, and who knows what they think? And even beyond them, I'm tall for a woman, broad-shouldered...well, you get the picture.

But inside? Inside I feel right as rain.

I bring this up because of the recent controversy surrounding a very short word: cis. This word has apparently caused the Internet to catch fire and burn down. Well, at least my part of the internet--sure, it may only be a studio apartment with a kitchenette, but when there's a fire it's still quite alarming.

It all started with this post on Pam's House Blend, and specifically this comment:

There has always been a certain amount of animosity between the L's the G's the B's and the T's. We all know this. When I start to tune out of a debate is when someone describes a whole group of our community as "cisgendered, transbigoted, privileged assholes". Cisgendered is not even a word that gay men identify with but one created by people to single them out in a way that I personally find offensive and derogatory especially when used in this context. Not all white gay men are privileged, nor are they transphobic, lumping them in this category serves no purpose to a greater dialogue.
That's how it started, but it didn't end there. There was a huge pile-on in that thread about the use of cisgendered, followed by this thread at PHB (including this now-infamous comment) and then another follow-up at Questioning Transphobia and then the next thing you know cis isn't allowed to be spoken at PHB but then it is (along with a--sorry, Autumn--"we need to struggle against the real oppressors" derail.) But by then it was all over the internet and even our old friend Carolyn-Ann had to check in.

All over a rather obscure Latin prefix. Color me impressed, I guessed: I mean, even the real c-word has four letters.

By now perhaps you are shaking your head: most likely in confusion. What is this cis you might wonder, and how may I get some? Or, maybe I should get rid of it? What, C.L., is the dish with cis?

It's actually very simple. Cis- means not-trans.

That's it.

Would, of course, that it would be so simple.

It comes from Latin, likely via biochemistry, where cis- and trans- are used to distinguish isomers from each other based on where the molecular bonds fall: on the same side, then cis (meaning within or on the same side), on opposite sides then trans (meaning across or on the other side.) The term has been kicking around for about two decades, but gained prominence thanks to Julia Serrano's extensive use of cissexual in Whipping Girl, her groundbreaking work about transfeminism.

Julia does a much better job than me at talking about why cisgender/cissexual isn't a pejorative word, so I'll just quote her quoting Emi Koyama
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. I don't expect the word to come into common usage anytime soon, but I felt it was an interesting concept - a feminist one, in fact - which is why I am using it.
Yet as the brouhaha above shows, a lot of people--cis people, natch--seem to somehow feel that somehow it is pejorative. That somehow trans people are forcing an identity onto non-trans folk. That somehow it lumps them in with all the other bigots out there--racists, homophobes, chauvinists.

To which I say: you bet your ass it does. That's the point.

By which I mean not that all cis people are bigots, but rather that they belong to a bigoted power structure. So do I. So do we all--we are all caught in the trap of kyriarchy, and pretending not to see the chains that bind us doesn't make them not exist.

The thing is, there are privileges to being not trans--I doubt much that anyone is going to fight about that. I'm just going to refuse to agree that one of them is the right to be normal.

Because that's what it comes down to. I'd have no problem ditching the term cis in favor of another term for people who aren't trans; I'm just not going to concede that we don't need one. Because every time I write not-trans instead of cis, I'm calling attention to myself; I'm pointing out that I'm the weird one, the one with a problem, the one that needs to be differentiated. And fuck it, I'm just not going to put up with that forever.

It does not invalidate other axes of oppression to demonstrate that another one exists. Kyriarchy is complicated; it is devilishly difficult to sort out. But that does not refute it's existence--quite the contrary.

Now, it may well be true that cis is a unique term in one respect: it is being used by a disprivileged minority as a term for a privileged majority--some would say, forced upon a majority. This seems pretty different from some of the other terms that have evolved out of usage, like homosexual or heterosexual--in both of those cases, they were conceived by the privileged majority as decentering terms. But again, I say: good. Because we should celebrate the fact that so many people of privilege (cissexist privilege, that is) are willing to decenter themselves based on the suggestion of a disprivileged group. That's not tyranny: it's progress.

Telling other people what normal should be is where the tyranny begins.


  1. <3

    I am a cis-gendered privileged individual, but I try not to be an asshole (sometimes I fail at this part.. but I try to own my mistakes).

    People fail to realise that if you can describe an attribute of your identy as "normal" that is privilege, and that is where you need to stand up and fight for the rights of all people who are othered.

  2. Great analysis of the situation. The whole ordeal, so close on the heels of the NOWHC mess, has been a real learning experience for me.

  3. Aside from the implications of normalizing/decentralizing,

    using non-trans all the time would be round-about and derivative. It's obscuring. Just get a word for the concept and be done with it. We didn't always have the words Heterosexual or Straight (as we use them now in the vernacular). Can you imagine running around calling people Not-Gays every time you wanted to express that concept? It seems laughably absurd.

    I have some thoughts about trans or cis "as an identity" but I haven't quite whittled it down to comment-size yet. :)

  4. It was hard for me to believe a lot of this stuff was coming from self-identified feminists. :/ Oh, and since when aren't gay white cis men privileged??? Guh.