I’ve encountered a few people recently, none of who identify as trans, that have openly criticised or questioned the belief that they should consider themselves cisgender.
As a trans woman on the internet who often talks openly about being trans, I’ve received my fair amount of angry rants about why cisgender is an allegedly vile word and why that person will certainly never use it for themselves. Truthfully, I’m not expecting to change those people’s minds, one article is never going to shift a perspective held that aggressively.
But I know there are also those who are cautiously unsure or perplexed by the term, who genuinely don’t see its purpose, as they either believe it’s unnecessary, unfitting or even offensive. If you’re one of those people, then I request that you take a minute to listen to my perspective and understand why so many trans people consider the term very helpful.
Below I’ve added specific comments that I’ve come across, as well as my response.
“What does cisgender even mean?”
First let’s actually define both terms. Cisgender, sometimes shortened to “cis” in the way that transgender is shortened to “trans”, describes somebody who entirely identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender is an umbrella term that describes everybody else.
A common misconception is that transgender means somebody transitioning ie. someone who was assigned male or female at birth and is now transitioning (or has transitioned) to the “opposite” through medical intervention. But in actuality transgender is a huge term that includes non-binary gender identities and genderfluid people, as well as including trans women and men who may or may not transition medically. Furthermore, not every trans person wants to, or will, transition.
It’s also worth mentioning that like sexuality, people may change their understanding of themselves and swap what label they’re using over time.
“Why do we even need labels?”
We need labels for a lot of reasons, but most simply it’s because that’s how the English language works.
The example I always use, because its clunky ridiculousness illustrates the point, is that: I don’t tell people I’m a not-black not-straight not-cis not-man, I tell people I’m a white bisexual trans woman.
English works on defining us by what we are, rather than by what we are not. It’s used to give context to who we are within society and what group we are a member of.
“But I’m just normal”
Normalcy is a concept tied explicitly to hegemony, I would always caution anyone to be more thoughtful when thinking of themselves as “normal” compared to people from other groups. For instance, intolerant organisations historically often think of themselves as normal, as the default, while demonising everyone else as an “other”. It’s a dehumanising practice that centres ones own experiences and identity at the cost of everyone else’s.
20 years ago it wasn’t unusual to see backlash against the term straight and heterosexual. People argued that there was no need to define their sexuality, because they were “normal” and only those who identified as gay or bisexual should have to tell people what their sexuality is. Those beliefs came from living in a heteronormative society, a place that puts heterosexual relationships above all others and presents them as the default, when they’re not the default for a significant amount of people. The fact that getting asked your sexuality is now a commonly accepted question, says a lot about how things have evolved. As a modern society it’s now understood that everybody has a sexuality.
“It’s all just identity politics”
Identity politics as a term has been warped into a new buzzword, one that unfortunately seems to be formed around making equality sound like a bad thing, or a wasted effort. Originally it was meant as a term to fight oppression and understand cultural inequality that was being ignored in mainstream politics. As a term it’s now often casually used to dismiss calls to be more inclusive or mindful of other groups and cultures, it’s become weaponised to criticise marginalised groups.
However, even this criticism ignores the fact that recognising everybody as either trans or cis actually creates unity. It does so by showing that being trans is a piece of somebody’s identity, trans people are not an entirely separate sect of people altogether, we do not have our own unique incomparable and singular type of experience. Someone is cis or trans in the same sense that they might also be young or old, it’s part of who they are, a relevant and important part in certain contexts, but not their entire being.
It’s the same reason we say someone is a trans man, rather than a “transman”, or how we say cis woman and not “ciswoman”. As terms, man and woman describe specific genders, trans and cis are modifiers, not their own gender. You can be a cis woman in the same way you can be a tall woman, a young woman, a black haired woman, etc. “Cis” adds extra information, it doesn’t take anything away.
“Can’t we all just be ‘people’”
I understand where this belief comes from, that labels should be abandoned in favour of us all just being seen as people. But it’s ultimately a misguided viewpoint that ignores the importance and power of identity.
To use myself as an example, whether I like it or not, my identity is political. My right to use which bathroom I’m comfortable and safe in is openly debated by politicians. Meanwhile my appearance is a middle finger to conventional heteronormative beauty standards, I do not fit normal expectations of what an attractive body is for a woman, even though I may want to or feel personally satisfied in my own body. I have had someone yell at me across the street over my appearance before because I don’t look “normal” to them, I look queer which is coded as inferior and worthy of mockery in our society. All of this is because of my identity as a trans woman. I could stop using that label for myself, but it wouldn’t stop any of these things from happening or change the way I look. It wouldn’t suddenly make it so that people who think I am mentally ill or dangerously deranged would accept me. Those people hate what I am, not just the words I use for myself.
There’s also the argument for owning a cultural label out of respect for those who’ve carried it before, and as an act of defiance. Despite all the connotations and issues people have with me being trans, I am proud of being who I am. Owning this label sends a message that I am not ashamed of being me. Yes, I am a person with my own blend of interests and personality quirks, I am not simply a label, but I am also a trans woman.
“But what about ‘Die cis scum?’ Cis is an insult!”
Again, I understand the theory behind why some people cite those comments as a reason they don’t like the term cis, but it must be stated that those jokes are made by some trans people because we’re powerless.
Someone once asked me why “Death to trans people” wasn’t laughed off and overlooked like “Death to cis people”. The reason for that is easy, if you pay attention to who’s actually dying.
Trans people are murdered at a hugely disproportionate number. Meanwhile a heartbreaking percentage of trans people commit suicide, especially youths. Being trans is dangerous, it can be deadly. Meanwhile the community suffers from chronic unemployment, massive levels of harassment and an epidemic of mental health issues headlined by depression. This is on top of seeing ourselves as punchlines on virtually every sitcom from the last 30 years, jokes that have permeated into mainstream consciousness and continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of violence and dehumanisation against us.
Trans people have no institutional power whatsoever. We’re used to being ignored and ground down by the hegemony, which benefits and appeases cisgender people over us, in the same way that it also prioritises white, straight and male interests.
Refusing to call yourself cis because some people joke, or even sincerely, talk about hating cis people, is the same as refusing to call yourself white when you are white, because some people of colour rightly say that they’re angry at white racists or institutional racism.
It’s all about context.
“Being trans is just a new trend”
Transgender people are in the media a lot lately, but we’re not a new invention. You can find trans people all across history, across different cultures all over the world. You’re hearing about us more now because more people finally feel safe enough to tell you they’re trans. We’ve always been here.
We’re seeing more mainstream acceptance and developing legal protections but there’s a long way to go until we have transgender equality. Like it or not, when someone resists being called cisgender, when they know they’re not trans, they’re throwing up a barrier to accepting who we are. What we hear as trans people is that rather than make the smallest effort, to passively accept that cisgender and transgender are an opposite set of labels (and thus legitimise transgender as an identity), you’d rather continue to only tolerate us on your terms, which don’t respectfully accommodate us.
All that said, if you have a (polite) objection to the term that isn’t covered here, then you’re welcome to message me privately.
As a final point, I just want to stress that all we want to do is live. We just want to achieve a level in society where we’re respected and can be who we are in peace, without having to fight every step of the way or accept that we’re somehow lesser.
You can help by accepting cisgender as a legitimate term.