Until 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.