What’s Up With Cisgender Anyway?

Having stepped away from public trans life in 2000, returning in 2005, which meant creating an online persona, flummoxed me.

In 1995 I participated in a small, and I mean tiny, group of other trans and intersexed people totally no more than 5 people. We felt like it them against us.

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 to meet collectively as a group seemed to only ever draw the five of us. The same five people that didn’t include the other trans people I knew around Chicago.

One of the strangest encounters I had upon reentry happened when I first learned about the term cisgender, a term I’d never before heard.

Language and self-naming changes over time. When I first came out, everyone in transgender and genderqueer communities used to be called transsexual.

Transgender was new, requiring explanation and arguments as to why it should supplant transsexual.

The opposite of transsexual, or even transgender, was nontrans. This terms seemed clear and concise, without confusion. The term also allowed us to quickly communicate with others.

“Oh, Joan is nontrans.”

Fast forward to the mid 2000s. Now Joan is cis.

What? She is what? (Remember I’m in 2005, having lived a quiet working life with my bride, and just emerged in an attempt to reconnect with larger communities.)

She’s a sissy? A sister?

In my confusion I balked at the term. It just sounded clunky to me. Then I read the term came into existence by a German academic, and I understood why I initially thought the term clunky.

My foray into online commenting, where I used nontrans 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 had wanted to write at the time. But I didn’t.

I quickly gave up commenting and rarely participated in these newly emerging online communities. Whatever experience and history I had seemed unwanted.

Cisgender stills sticks in my craw. Honestly, I hate the term and cringe every time I read it or hear it. I won’t use it, either.

Nontrans has become my cri de couer against both the elitism of academia and the aging of my body. Using it, I mark myself as so old school as to be permanently unawake. Now I’m one of the old guys younger activists snicker at.

Actually they probably ignore me. No longer trendy and committed to my linguistic Ludditism, I have little to offer them.

But, as a writer, the precision of words and how that precision can become potentially revolutionary, drives my work. So I will say, again and again and again, until I’m desiccated, then 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 non, we say that she is not of us, not important and lacks trans.

I find it emancipatory, even for a moment, to disdain someone because they aren’t like me, never will be and frankly don’t have the moxie to be like me.

Non does that for me. 
Chances are also I don’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”
  • historical
  • 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 say 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 Jane might have to do with chemistry.

Not everyone in our communities can access academia or the internet. Cis generates misunderstanding. It doesn’t lend itself to intuitive understanding. But when someone uses another term like nontrans, as I did, watch out for the virtue police. They’ll correct anybody, even people with limited or no access to either academia or the internet.

What do we gain by correcting people in condescending and snide tones?

Who are we to do this?

Non is easily understood and difficult to thwart.

When I call someone else nontrans I state who I am and who they are.

Clear, honest language can drive political change. I had the honor of volunteering to overturn an antigay ballot inititiatve in Ypsilanti MI in 1998. The co-chairs of the Ypsilanti Campaign for Equality talked with dozens of activists across the country.

Many had failed in their towns and cities with similar campaigns. 
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. Period. Not human rights or one human family. Gay rights.

Using this language, we defeated the homophobes not once, but twice.

What do we achieve by using an ambiguous term requiring explanation?

Who really wins and who really loses?

cover for Moxie, Vol. 1 by Jay SennettMy essay collection, Moxie, Vol. 1, will be released January 15, 2018. Preorder your copy today at Amazon, Nook, Kobo and Apple Books.