What’s Up With Cisgender Anyway?
Returning in 2005 to a kind of public life through the internet, which meant creating an online persona, confounded me. One of the strangest encounters I had upon reentry happened when I first heard the term “cisgender.” When I first came out in 1996, everyone — transgender, bigender, genderqueer — was called “transsexual.”
“Transgender” was the new word back then, requiring explanation and arguments as to why it should supplant transsexual.
In 1995, I participated in a small — and I mean tiny — group of other trans and intersexed people, totaling no more than five. We felt like it them against us. We were thrilled and proud and moved by the changes we were experiencing. We felt like the only ones in the large city of Chicago. Of course other trans people lived in the city. I even knew some of them, but our group only ever drew the five of us.
We developed a language specific to our experiences.
The opposite of “transsexual,” or even “transgender,” was “nontrans.” This term seemed clear and concise, without confusion. In using it, we placed ourselves in the middle, sitting on center stage, projecting out to the world.
We were trans, cool, revolutionary, hip. Others, who weren’t like us and probably would never be like us (and yes, likely never to be cool) were nontrans.
“Oh, Joan is nontrans.” This was one way of saying Joan wasn’t like us.
Fast forward to the mid 2000s. Joan is now “cis.”
What? She is what? (Remember I’m in 2005, having lived a quiet working life with my bride, emerging from my self-created cocoon in an attempt to reconnect with larger communities.)
She’s a sissy? A sister?
In my confusion, I balked at the term. Then I read the term came into existence by a German academic, and I understood why I thought it sounded clunky. I also understood that trans people were no longer in the middle looking out, but on the outside looking in. What had been a term we had used to describe people who weren’t like us, a term we used with pride, a term we used to riff on our remarkableness, was bad.
Nontrans people were now cool and hip. Trans people were the weird crazy, ones. Cis became the term to rehabilitate trans people.
When I used “nontrans” in an online comment because it was (and is) part of my history and my truth, I was scolded. To be dressed down by a person who was in elementary school when I began transitioning pissed me off. Who are you, you snotty-nosed kid, I wanted to write, but didn’t.
I quickly gave up commenting and rarely participated in these newly emerging online communities. Whatever experience and history I had was apparently unwanted.
Cisgender still irritates me. Honestly, I hate the term and cringe every time I read it or hear it and won’t use it, either.
* * *
“Nontrans” has become my cri de coeur against the elitism of academia, the aging of my body and the false belief that nontrans is the default mode of being in the world. It might be for you, but it isn’t for me.
Trans is my default position in the world. Using nontrans, I mark my experiences, my body and my life as primary. I am very proud of being trans and grateful for the extraordinary opportunity to examine the nature of human existence, from the inside out, literally.
As a writer, the precision of words and how that precision can become potentially revolutionary, drives my work. I will say, again and again and again, until I’m dead, “cisgender” is unwieldy, dull, and unclear.
* * *
“Non” can mean any of the following in English:
• not of the kind or class described. (“nonbeliever”)
• not of the importance implied. (“nonissue”)
• a lack of. (“nonsense”)
By stating Jane is nontrans, we say that she is not of us, not important and lacks trans. I find it emancipatory, even for a moment, to disdain others because they aren’t like me, never will be like me and frankly don’t have the moxie to be like me.
“Non” does that for me.
Furthermore, chances are good I won’t have to explain what “non” means to anyone, unless English is a second or third language for them.
“Cis” can mean any of the following in English:
• on this side of; on the side nearer to the speaker. (“cisatlantic”)
• on the side nearer to Rome. (“cisalpine”)
• (of time) closer to the present. (“cis-Elizabethan”)
• referring or relating to people whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. (“cisgender”)
• chemistry denoting molecules with cis arrangements of substituents.
By stating Jane is cis, we are saying that her sex and gender match, which is fine, except then we have these other possibilities, one of which implies Jane is on this side of us. And we won’t even discuss what Jane might have to do with chemistry. Cis generates misunderstanding.
Non is easily understood and difficult to thwart.
When I call someone else “nontrans,” I state who I am and what I am about as I also say what they aren’t. I’m a little sad, even, that they can’t be like me.
I remain at the center, as do all trans people.
* * *
Besides generating misunderstanding the problem of virtue policing arises when someone uses another term like nontrans, as I do. Watch out! The virtue police will scold you and write you a ticket for offenses caused, in the extreme. They’ll punish anyone, even people with limited or no access to either academia or the internet.
What do people hope to gain by correcting people in this way?
Who does this?
* * *
Clear, honest language can drive political change. I had the honor of volunteering with the Ypsilanti Campaign for Equality (YCFE) to overturn an antigay ballot initiative in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1998, a time when ballot measures were sweeping the country.
Antigay ballot campaigns were being defeated about half the time. The co-chairs of YCFE talked with dozens of activists across the country to learn why some campaigns won and others lost.
In determining why they failed, the co-chairs realized language played an important role in ballot wins. In every initiative that used terms like “human rights not special rights” or “equality,” our side lost.
In every initiative that used the term “gay rights,” our side won. The fight was for gay rights. Not human rights or one human family. Gay rights.
Using this language, the YCFE defeated the homophobes the first ballot initiative in 1998 and a second one in 1999.
Clear, concise, truthful language won. I’m willing to wager twenty dollars nontrans will beat cis every time.