May 23, 2013

Are You Hip With Cis?

cis_wordUntil a few months ago, I’d never even heard the prefix cis- outside of a chemistry textbook. Now I have been called out more than once for using it in the last few weeks.

I admit that I don’t find it to be a particularly elegant or natural prefix. Regardless, I have slipped cis into my vocabulary quite easily since I first encountered it a few months ago. In situations where transwomen and non-transwomen are being discussed together, cis is a convenient way to make sure that things are clearly distinguished.

However, the so-called RadFem movement doesn’t like cis at all. They think that it’s unnecessary, a label foisted on women by men who want to marginalize them.  If they had their way, we’d all stop using it. So, should we stop using cis as a gender prefix?

I think an individual’s answer to that question speaks to how one views transpeople. For example, are transwomen women or are they not-women? If one’s worldview says that women is an umbrella that covers all those who socially present as female, then having trans and cis categorizing subgroups makes sense. If one’s worldview excludes transwomen from the umbrella of women, then the cis prefix is unnecessary, as the trans- prefix is enough to distinguish transwomen as not-women, and therefore no further distinction need be made.

This means that answering the question of cis is a reflection of an individual’s larger view of trans. If one holds a definition of woman that excludes transwomen, they’re revealing their stance on the question of what trans means; to whit, they should be seen as not-, as other. The connotative meaning of a word can color how the object being labeled with that word is viewed by society at large. Thus, the acceptance or rejection of cis could have a real impact on how transpeople are accepted or rejected in society.

It’s also important to point out that words do not have fixed meanings, but are instead imbued with meaning by the cultures that use them. Remember when marriage didn’t need a qualifier because everyone knew and accepted that it could only ever be between a man and a woman?  Even if woman once meant “someone born with an XX chromosome,” it’s entirely fair to argue that things are not as clear-cut anymore and that therefore a language shift is necessary. But, again, that all depends on how one views transpeople.

In shorts, cis is all wrapped up in gender politics. It’s dicey and contentious; and honestly, I’m not yet confident enough in the whole mess to commit to a side. Provisionally, I side with those who think that cis is necessary, since my definition of women is the broader umbrella. This can’t be a surprise to anyone, since I identify as and with the trans community. But I am curious to hear arguments to the contrary.

Your comments — from all sides of this issue — are welcome. Just keep it civil.

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  • Given that many of the privileged are used to being the default majority, and simply fail to see why it’s bad to see minorities as “others,” it’s not too surprising that something like the Cis- prefix would be met with so much contention. It’s a label being assigned to the privileged against their will by a minority; something they see as unnecessary.

    The Cis- prefix has much less baggage (if any) compared to the countless amount of slurs and derogatory terms which cisgender people have thrown at the trans community. There really is no reasonable basis for cisgender people to feel persecuted by the term.

    The existence of the slur “cisscum” as it is often misused by the Social Justice Warriors of Tumblr certainly causes some problems though. By shouting “cisscum” at anyone knowledgeable of trans issues or gender theory, this has perpetuated the idea that cis- prefix is itself derogatory, and naturally people put too much association with the whiny SJW’s; worsening the misconceptions that people have towards trans rights advocates and creating a whole slew of strawman arguments.

    That’s essentially why feminism is still an uncommon school of thought despite most U.S. citizens claiming to believe in equal rights for women; too many people associate it with the extremist misandry without fully understanding what feminism actually is.

    • Thanks so much for your perspective. I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered “cis scum” before (and thanks to Know Your Meme, I’m pretty sure it’s not something I’ll be using anytime soon). It’s not surprising, though; there’s not a thing in society that someone won’t turn into an insult …

  • Don’t worry, “cis” is only necessary when there is a need to distinguish, and that is not normally the case. I am a woman. I just am. It does not generally need to be discussed.

    • I agree. It’s like with any large, homogeneous group of people or things. It’s like you can talk about “Christians,” but you can also talk about “Lutherans” and “Catholics” if you need a finer distinction. In this case though, there’s also an ideological difference being exposed, i.e. who belongs to the group “women” / “men”? Which I guess makes it just like “Christians,” given the number of sects out there …

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