The “C” Word

Probably not the one you’re thinking of.

I got into a conversation of Facebook about the use of the term “cis.”  Some page that I follow had posted a comic strip illustrating how things said by well-meaning non-transgender allies often sound to transgender people.  Normally, I avoid the comments.  (Actually, normally, I avoid Facebook, but my niece was in labor and Facebook was the means she and her fiance would be using to tell as many of us as possible when the wee one arrived*, so there I was.)  So anyway, yes, I read the comments, and sure enough, someone was very upset over the word (or rather, prefix) “cis.”

Here’s the thing.   Coming from a scientific background as a nurse, I found that it took about two seconds from the first time I heard the term used to figure it out.  Just like with molecules, where some are described as “trans” if certain parts are not in alignment and some are described as “cis” if all of those parts are in alignment, people whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth are not aligned (note: not necessarily in opposition to one another, but not aligned in some manner that is significant to that person) are described as “trans,” so therefore it is logical to refer to people who do have these things in alignment as “cis.”  Of course, it’s true in chemistry that often “cis” is dropped because alignment is the expected outcome.  Nobody talks about cis fatty acids, for example, though they would be the logical opposite of trans fatty acids.  So, too, this prefix is rarely used in regards to people except in the context of discussing transgender issues.  But I’ve always been relatively mystified why it seemed to actually be controversial.  Unfamiliar, sure, but why controversial?

In my relatively limited experience, most people I’ve encountered who object (often loudly) to the term “cis” have argued that it is irrelevant as they are just “normal,” whatever that means.  So, when somebody jumped in with how we need to stop using the “cis slur,” I may possibly have gone into lecture mode.  See the preceding paragraph for a rough example of what that looked like.  This went over about as well as might be expected.  But another commenter brought in a point that made me sit down, shut up, and put myself in a time out.

Used by itself rather than as a prefix (e.g. “cisgender”), “cis” is a homophone for “siss” which at least this particular gay man reported he experiences as triggering, due to the common experience of being called a “sissy.”  He stated that other gay men share this experience.


Now, that, I can see.  And because I am neither transgender nor a gay man, I’m not really clear on where my lane is here.  So I’m trying to shut up and listen, at least in the context of that conversation.  Being me, I also need to try to work it through a bit though, so I figured I’d do that here while I’m in my Facebook time out.

Perhaps we do need a different word.  At the very least, my intention going forward is to use the full word “cisgender” when that is what I mean.  I’m not sure it makes linguistic sense to invent another whole word to describe people who are not transgender.  We do need one, because there are distinctly different lived experiences for those who are transgender and those who are not.  There are also shared experiences, of course.  But as someone who is focused on health disparities, I can see the need to be able to name the groups of people between whom we see those disparities.  To me, it makes sense to do so in scientific terms.  Maybe that doesn’t work for day-to-day conversation.  Maybe it’s enough to use prefixes as prefixes instead of as stand-alone words.  Maybe it’s not.  I really don’t know.  I do know that we can’t go back to only transgender people having a descriptor and everybody else being considered the default.

I was unimpressed with the argument someone put forth that “we’re all trans because we all transgress gender and sexual norms.”  That is approximately as useful as “everybody’s basically bi anyway.”  It’s not affirming.  It’s erasure.  Living as a bisexual person in a predominantly monosexual world has its challenges.  Some of them parallel those of living as a homosexual person in a predominantly heterosexual world, but others do not.  That’s my frame of reference. Listening to those who self-identify as transgender, I understand that living as a transgender person in a predominantly cisgender world also has challenges that sometimes parallel those of living as a person whose gender expression (but not identity) is outside normative expectations but many times do not. And those challenges may be similar to those challenges of living as a homosexual person in a predominantly heterosexual world in some ways, but in others very much not.

I think it’s useful to have words to describe these different experiences.  I think that’s the only way to value those differences, and also the only way to identify and address situations of oppression, inequity, and health disparities that arise from those differences.  I don’t know if the “c” word will follow the same track as the “q” word, in which it becomes more normalized over time.  I kind of hope so.  As I say, it makes the most linguistic sense.  If not, however, I hope we find a different set of words to describe the spectrum of gender identity, gender expression, and their relationship to sex assigned at birth that does not privilege any one combination over another.

*And arrive the wee one did!  He is adorable, and I can’t wait to actually meet my new great-nephew!  Facebook time-out definitely only relates to that one conversation, as I can’t get enough of the pictures my niece and her fiance are uploading of the little one.



2 thoughts on “The “C” Word

  1. Reblogged this on Strip Me Back To The Bone and commented:
    I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve struggled with the cis prefix since I became aware of it, not from a desire to decide that, as a cisgendered person, that I was normal and should then not need a prefix. I see the problem with how we as a society understand things like gender and identity and autonomy, so I’ve been all for better terms to foster understanding and communication. I’m a write above all; I want clarity and precision with written communication.

    No, what I struggled with was the newness of the term (to me) and my apparent bias against inventing words to fill a need.

    I had no idea it came to us via science terms. This is totally cool. Maybe it shouldn’t make a difference, but it helps me not be distracted by “but why ‘cis’?? What does it even mean? Why those letters, and how?” because that’s really not what’s important. So, thank you for this post. And I’m sharing. So there.

  2. Thank you for this. I get distracted with the wondering at the etymology of the prefix, which is not useful and distracts from the important part of the topics involving cis- and trans- and gender, and maybe this makes me a bad person, but having a better understanding of where the term comes from and why, helps. Pedantic? Etymological-obsessed writer lady? Maybe. Maybe.

    It shouldn’t make a difference. As I said to Beth upon reading this, “Having it be from science, rather than being made up gobbledeegook makes a it something better,” and as a maker-up-of-words, that’s a bit silly. But there it is.

    Congrats on the great nephew!! 🙂 🙂

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