Word of the Day: Cis
Good morning, class. Today’s column is a lesson in vocabulary. I’ll be talking about my favorite prefix in the world, a short, sweet, sexy little combination of three letters: “cis.” Pronounced like the “sis” in “sister,” it comes from Latin. And if you don’t know what the heck it means, there’s a good chance that it applies to you.
Now pay close attention, because there will be a test.
“Cis” means “on the same side,” and is an antonym to “trans,” which means “across.” See where I’m going with this? If one who has crossed some invisible, socially-constructed sex or gender line is said to be transsexual or transgender, someone who has not, who has remained on their assigned “side” of the spectrum, could be described as cissexual or cisgender.
In other words, “cis” means “not trans.” That’s it.
Many people balk at labels, especially labels they did not choose for themselves. This is quite natural. So many times, when I have defined “cis” for a cis person, they’ve been resistant, suspicious, or even insulted. They want to know if “cis” is some kind of slur, perhaps the equivalent of “breeder.”
In fact, “cis” is not an insult. It bears closer kinship to “heterosexual” than to “breeder,” and is even more value-neutral than “straight” (since “cis” implies nothing about non-cis people, while “straight” implies that homosexual people are “bent”).
Although it is not an insult, you will probably overhear trans people using the word “cis” with some irritation, e.g. “Some cis dude wanted me to answer twenty stupid questions about my gender,” or “All the cis people were staring at me on the bus today.” But then again, words like “straight,” “white” and “male” are often used in this way, as in, “This straight girl kept asking me why I ‘became’ a lesbian,” or “That white boy just tried to tell me we’re in a ‘postracial’ society,” or “My boss has some serious male entitlement.” In cases like this, the words “cis,” “white,” “straight” and “male” may sound pejorative but, as most people can agree, in and of themselves they certainly are not.
What these terms have in common is that they describe privileged classes. Someone who is cis, white, straight, or male, or any combination of any of the above enjoys certain privileges that trans, non-white, queer, or non-male people do not. Among these privileges is a certain level of ignorance. White people don’t have to live with racism. Men don’t have to deal with sexism. And so on and so forth.
So when a trans person says that “cis people don’t get it,” the word cis is actually functioning as an explanation for their ignorance. It’s closer to an excuse than an insult.
Once I get through explaining that cis is not a derogatory term—and sadly, many people never get past that part of the conversation—usually my interloper wants to know why the word cis is necessary at all. Perhaps “cis” isn’t a bad thing, but what exactly is it good for?
Look at it this way: if there are cis people and trans people, then we can talk about people who are trans, and people who aren’t, as two distinct but equal categories, making no judgments about either of them. But without the word “cis,” then we’re left with just trans people and…what? “Regular” people? “Normal” people? “Biological” males and females? “Women born women” and “men born men?” Worse yet, “real” men and women? In short, there’s just no way to talk about the differences between trans people and cis people, without using the term “cis,” that isn’t mired in cissupremacy.