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Geometry and Vocabulary — no, “cis” isn’t a slur

Of course it’s not about language.

The story behind this image is a piece of magic deserving of a Pulitzer (more on this below!) But for now, just know this: SEAGULLS ARE TRANS ALLIES

WARNING: in this post I discuss homophobia, transphobia and some weird shit about seagulls. Look away now if you’re ornithophobic — shit, too late!

Because I’m no doubt going to get grilled on my credentials, I identify as non-binary, and I usually read as a gay man or a gay woman, so I dunno, maybe I’m performing something like how non-binary’s supposed to look.

I did a little searching on Medium to see if anyone had previously written on the “cis is a slur” phenomenon. A few had, but with more brevity than I can manage. I’ve linked those at the very end of this article, and I recommend that you check them out — they’re pretty good, and not what I expected at all.


So, about that seagull… it all began perfectly innocently, as I recall, with something like someone had taken a picture of a seagull and colorised it, and they accidentally created a seagull striped like a trans pride flag — at least that’s how I remember it; most of the original posts are gone because of various transphobes getting suspended (again) for hate speech (again). But that’s not the half of it! Someone then posted that trans people are appropriating seagulls, compared human behaviour to seagull behaviour (consider the seagull…), and then somebody else explained actual seagull sexual identity to them and from then on all was chaos and anyway you can check out some of the highlights here or by searching “terf seagull” on Twitter (I promise it gets even better!).


The first time I heard the prefix “cis”, I was 16 years old and studying Chemistry at ‘A’ Level. This word, and its counterpart “trans” are used in organic chemistry to distinguish between molecules with the same chemical formula, but different configurations. Where similar atoms (or functional groups like OH, NH₃ or benzyl) are on the same side of a double bond, the molecule is a cis-isomer of the compound in question. If these similar atoms are arranged so that they are on opposite sides of the double bond, it is a trans-isomer.

I had heard the term “trans” before, referring to a transgender person, although trans- is a fairly common prefix in English anyway. When I was at school, Section 28 was still in force, so matters of gender and sexuality were taboo. Most of what I learned of LGBTQ+ issues was through hearsay and the media (pre-internet there was hardly any queer literature available, and prejudices were rampant — certainly in what sources I could access) and we sort-of knew that we couldn’t ask our parents about these things and that if these terms were mentioned it was met with disgust and/or mockery.

The terms cis- and trans- come from Latin, meaning “on the same side as” and “on the other side of” respectively. When applied to gender identity, they have the same sort of meaning:

Cisgender: your gender is “on the same side as” the sex you were born into.
Transgender: your gender is “on the other side of” the sex you were born into.

Note that transgender isn’t the “opposite” to the sex you were born into, because there are more than two genders and sex isn’t perfectly binary.

This isn’t a new invention. English is based on Latin with words on loan from numerous languages. Yet some people are offended by it. Why the hell would someone be so upset about Latin? Grammar and spelling I can understand… but actual Latin words?

Well, it turns out you can make anything political. Some people are claiming that “cis” is a slur and anti-woman. It’s obvious that this is a red herring, but by their appropriation of feminist language transphobes have been able to convince ordinary, well-meaning people that women are indeed being erased by these heinous terms that apparently have just been invented by the hip and trendy transgender elite.

This is a similar argument to claiming that “heterosexual” is offensive, rather than it being the counterpart to “homosexual”. I wasn’t entirely sure about the history behind this, as I was born long after homo- and hetero- came into mainstream use around sexuality. I’ve not personally seen the evolution of these terms, and although I’ve done my best with Google, I’m drawing a lot of blanks.

Fun Fact: Homo- and hetero- are Ancient Greek terms, meaning “same” and “other”, hence homosexual to denote same-sex attraction, and heterosexual to denote attraction to another sex.

I’m aware of the term “breeder” used as a slur against heterosexual people, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not going to oppress great swathes of the population. It could be taken as an insult to those heterosexuals that cannot reproduce, but I’ve never seen the word used in that context. What I have seen is transphobes claiming that women with fertility problems aren’t “real women” (whatever that means).

There are always going to be those that falsely claim victim status, thereby erasing actual victims and causing mockery of “SJWs” (because social justice is so awful, amirite) but I cannot think of a single instance of where “heterosexual” has been used as a term of hate. Even if someone did call a heterosexual person that out of spite, what exactly is that insult going to do? Not much, is the answer.

“You’re a flaming heterosexual!”
“Er, yeah, guess I am. Um…”

Like “cis”, heterosexual came into use because there was a perceived need to have a counterpart to “homosexual” — a term invented in the 19th Century to describe the socially-defined deviance of same-sex attraction — but heterosexuality at that point in time wasn’t seen as “normal” either, and was used to describe those opposite-sex attracted people who “suffered” from “unnatural” desires at a time when sexual intercourse was publicly acknowledged as a purely functional act for the purpose of reproduction. Obviously this wasn’t universally accepted, as literature from the time demonstrates, but the “official position” (fnarrrr) was that sex was a necessary evil and something that nice people didn’t admit to.

“No one knows exactly why heterosexuals and homosexuals ought to be different,” wrote Wendell Ricketts, author of the 1984 study Biological Research on Homosexuality. The best answer we’ve got is something of a tautology: “heterosexuals and homosexuals are considered different because they can be divided into two groups on the basis of the belief that they can be divided into two groups.”

— Taken from the below article:

And so we began using the term “heterosexual” as a medical term, and the concept was fairly new to most people. Prior to the 1860s, people were aware of same-sex and different-sex activity, but they didn’t use the terms we do today, and some cultures didn’t view homosexuality as a “thing”, even though it existed in their communities. In more recent times (i.e. the last 5 centuries), terms like buggery and sodomy would have been used, usually in condemnation of such acts. Looking back on these cultures we have to acknowledge that our own definitions and biases don’t apply to the way that previous humans saw the world.

Over the course of the 20th Century, the word “heterosexual” came into common usage, and humanity coped just fine with it. We ran into problems when heterosexual was accepted as “normal”, and homosexual as “abnormal”, still overwhelmingly not oppressing the straights though.

Do we really want to put more generations through similar horrors to fit an ideology that doesn’t reflect real life? There is that danger — although we have now accepted that sexual orientation is not a choice, we are still carrying baggage over the immutability of gender. As quoted above from Ricketts, mightn’t we just as well say that

“cis people and trans people are considered different because they can be divided into two groups on the basis of the belief that they can be divided into two groups.”

Gender variation has been recorded in many human societies but the West has tried to force everyone into two distinct categories even while we know of significant numbers of people who do not fit. It’s such a similar problem to the one prioritising heteronormativity, that it seems odd that we’re lagging behind in dealing with this issue.

It’s good that nowadays we recognise that harmful beliefs about sexual orientation need to be stamped out and that one’s sexuality is not a choice — but we’ve not solved all the problems yet. We’ve still got a long way to go, and some people will retain their homophobia for the rest of their days, but progress is happening. We’ve moved on past the ideas that gay people are “recruiting” children (Won’t somebody please think of the children?!), yet some of these old-fashioned scare tactics are being used again about transgender people (mostly about trans women). Compare this 1950s p̶r̶o̶p̶a̶g̶a̶n̶d̶a̶ educational video with some of the bullshit espoused by so-called feminists in the media and all over Twitter:

This video manages to be grossly homophobic and delightfully twee all at once; I feel rather conflicted about it.


The word “homosexual” is seen as problematic by some due to its use as a medicalised, pathological term, and descriptors like “gay”, “lesbian”, “bisexual”, etc, are generally preferred. At present “transgender” doesn’t seem to carry the same baggage. This could be because we’re at the start of the journey for public acceptance for transgender people, and this is the most accurate / suitable word we have for now. But “cisgender”, the supposed default, is being decried by some as a slur. Well, there’s a few problems with that.

There’s no such thing as “cisphobia”

No matter how hard transphobes play the victim card, no-one is buying the lie that cisgender people are being oppressed by the “powerful trans lobby” that is allegedly controlling the media, government and the PTA. “Cis” isn’t a slur any more than “tall” or “bilingual” is. It’s an adjective, and one that describes the majority of people, who do not face discrimination or prejudice because of their gender identity. But some people really want it to be a genuine insult so that they can claim the trans overlords are forcing their “ideology” on an unsuspecting public. It’s strange that the actual minority has managed to look beyond negative connotations of the word used to describe them, while the unaffected majority want some kind of participation trophy.

There are real prejudices against cisgender women from all of society — but this isn’t the fault of trans people. There are separate and connected prejudices that harm trans women in the form of transmisogyny, and while there may be sympathy for the idea of ensuring women retain protections afforded them to combat injustice, it’s unfortunate that this has been characterised as conflicting with trans rights. It certainly doesn’t have to — and many trans women support and participate in feminist causes, such as in the recent referendum on abortion rights in Ireland.

Second-wave feminism is built on assumptions about gender that are challenged by the existence of trans people. Trans people rejecting the rigidity of sex and gender roles could have been a natural counterpart to radical feminism of this era, but it exposed a flaw in this school of thought: that because transgender people assume a gender role different to that they are born into, they are somehow reinforcing the idea of prescriptive gender roles.

So… accepting the prescribed gender role you’re born into is ok and totally feminist, but rejecting it for a different gender role is propping up the patriarchy…

This is where the second-wave norms tie themselves in knots, because in order to counter the challenge to the existence of gender roles, they end up enforcing those very same gender roles by narrowing the definition of womanhood. They want to reject gender roles, but retain the gender binary. What? If only we could agree that both patriarchy and the rigidly-enforced gender binary are harmful to all women.

The inclusion of trans women would broaden (or leave the same, depending on your original stance), the definition of “women”, which again comes back to the idea that women as a class should have special protections not available to non-women; and that expanding this definition might cause cisgender women to suffer. The argument becomes circular and confusing rather quickly and relies on a lot of hypotheticals. Of course, second-wave feminists don’t use the term “cis”, they talk about “natural”, “natal”, or “born” women — with the rest (i.e. trans women) not being women. And in order to bolster this argument, it is necessary for the word “cis” to be labelled as a slur.

If you think that was a lot of mental gymnastics to justify their point, you’ll love the logic that went into this tweet:

Still not as good as The Seagull Incident. (Name concealed to protect the guilty)

While the rest of the world was perfectly happy with whatever internal definition of “woman” that we all have, transphobes apparently want women to be categorised like food products. If you’re interested, the legislation referenced in that image is to do with the place of origin of a food that uses that place in its name — like a Cornish pasty, or a Melton Mowbray pork pie. Maybe they think women come from Womenswold.

Erasure

There is a more sinister side to the claims that “cis” is a slur. Those making this statement believe that we shouldn’t have a concept of “cisgender” because we shouldn’t have a concept of “transgender”, i.e. trans people shouldn’t exist. The argument goes something like: gender is assigned at birth, and even if you change the body, your gender is still fixed, even though radical feminists don’t think the brain is gendered. So if the brain isn’t gendered (which it isn’t — although it’s complicated), how does the changed body retain its assigned gender? Honestly, the whole thing falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.

However, the argument is that biological sex is the same thing as gender, so there shouldn’t be the concepts of “cis” and “trans”. Evidently trans people do exist, so this argument doesn’t work in practice as well as in theory. But dammit, it’s proponents are going to try to change the facts to make the theory work, just you wait and see! The problem with that, apart from the obvious, is that in doing so they magnify the stigma that trans people experience. The inevitable consequence is that transgender people argue back against these dehumanising statements, and then are painted as the aggressors (remember that faux-victimhood I mentioned earlier?). Well, “cis” is obviously a slur if it comes from those that have been painted as the enemy, right?

Privilege

Many of those who claim that “cis” is a slur do so because of the associations of privilege that go along with it, and their choice to reject that privilege. It’s a frustrating dilemma to broach, because cisgender women do lack privilege in many situations. It’s very easy to consider the use of “cis” as an attack on an underprivileged minority (which is what transphobes want). But privilege is relative. Between cisgender women (especially those with academic tenure and several media platforms) and trans women, yes — the cisgender women are privileged on that particular axis. There will be other axes that intersect with gender identity and expression that complicate things, but that’s just how life is. We’re all privileged or disadvantaged on some scale, and it’s not a competition.

Yes, highlighting that a person is “cis” might well be to point out their inherent privilege or some kind of bias. And that needs to be addressed. Instead of wailing about how unfair it is that someone used an accurate word to describe them, the right thing to do here is to address the actual point being made. This is not an insult, and it’s usually not meant to offend — rather it’s to point out something related to the different experiences of cis and trans people, that the cisgender person is missing / ignoring.

And sadly, some cisgender critics of trans people will weaponise the word “cis” to claim that they are being attacked in a similar way to how cisgender white men claim that reverse racism and misandry are real. Please don’t fall for that one.

Identity

Some cisgender people will reject the label and claim that “cis” is offensive because they don’t identify as cisgender. Not identifying as cisgender is perfectly valid, as any trans person (and tons of cis people) will tell you. But delve a little deeper and we find that they’re deliberately missing the point. “I don’t have a gender identity,” So you’re agender, then? “No, I don’t have a gender identity because I’m the gender I was born with.” Well, that sounds a lot like “cisgender” to me, but as we know they don’t like that term, because apparently it is a slur and legitimises the existence of trans people.

via @mcclure111 on Twitter

For people who have seriously considered their gender identity, cis and trans, this is a huge slap in the face. You don’t get to opt out because your ideology rejects actual living people; it’s like saying you reject the word “blue” because you don’t believe in the existence of the sky. Having put a lot of thought into their own gender identity and gone through a load of difficult shit in terms of acceptance of themselves and how society views them, of course trans people are going to be pissed off when someone with no idea what they’re talking about flippantly says that they reject the word “cis”. Which leads nicely on to…

Die Cis Scum!

If you wade into any of the exchanges between trans people and transphobes, you’re going to see insults hurled all over the place. There’s no rational debate or friendly discussions to be had there. Unfortunately that hornet’s nest is just asking to be poked, and clashes frequently happen (mostly on Twitter). In the heat of the moment, people get quite animated and say mean things. But the use of the word “cis” in that context is similar to how feminists might say “ban all men” or if a black person blamed white people collectively for the role they play in their oppression. And in both those cases they’d have a point. The words “men” and “white” aren’t slurs, but they are being used to describe the group that is perceived to have caused a problem. As per the privilege argument above, the problem itself needs to be addressed, not the fact that someone identified the source of the problem. It’s just shifting the blame onto the oppressed party, and I could understand why you might be called “scum” for doing that.

If you’re unfamiliar with conversations around gender identity, it can seem intimidating and cliquey. There are going to be people who will be upset if you’re wading into the discussion without knowing your stuff. It could come across as elitist if there’s required reading that must be done before you can participate, but if you want to have a nuanced discussion about the finer points of feminist study and gender identity, you need to have some idea of what the conversation is actually about.

It does seem that some people align with transphobes because they’re taking their word for it that trans = bad, and words like “cis” are slurs. We can all benefit from educating ourselves on this topic (and plenty others), so as to not get caught out by linguistic trickery like this. It’s not just a problem in the language used for gender variance; feminist and gender studies use terminology that seems florid and impenetrable to an outsider and you need to take your time to learn what it all means. Often, academic language is used to offer a respectable veneer to out-and-out transphobia, so watch out for that, too.


This appears to be a matter of linguistics; every argument put forward in support of “cis” being a slur is founded in arguments about etymology and definitions. But is it really? If we look at the bigger picture, there’s something else happening. It’s not just a war of words, it’s about excluding those who are different and manufacturing victimhood then blaming it on the genuine victims of oppression. No-one is trying to erase women or re-define what it means to be one. The great irony is that those claiming this is the case seem to believe that they are the gatekeepers of womanhood. People from all across the gender spectrum — including a lot of cisgender women who end up on the wrong side of the gates due to the ever-narrowing definition of what it means to be a woman — remonstrate with those that call themselves “gender-critical” feminists, pointing out the reasons why their ideology is harmful.

That’s one of the ever-enduring issues with minority rights: they often affect and/or benefit the majority. And if those rights are eroded, you can guarantee it doesn’t just harm the minority under fire. But that shouldn’t be our main argument for supporting any minority — we should do it because that’s what decent people do. It can be difficult to accept what is thought of as a “new” minority — which is what trans people look like as they’ve been erased from much of Western history — but a lot of what scares people is the bad arguments that are touted as fact. Transphobes are getting a lot of airtime at the moment, making transphobia appear like a legitimate concern for women, children and other vulnerable groups. But those “concerns” are based on imagined dangers and straw-man (straw-person?) arguments. They get away with this because the average person isn’t clued-up on gender issues or the history of the feminist movement.

There is a fashion at the moment, for some of those in privileged groups, to disparage the issues raised by minorities and to paint them as the real villains. BLM, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, they all have their detractors wishing to drag us back to the Dark Ages. We live in a time of political turmoil, which we should have learnt from history is conducive to oppression of the marginalised. It’s frustrating to watch otherwise smart and well-meaning people be fooled by hateful rhetoric masquerading as academic inquiry and a matter of “free speech”. We have to look beyond the words used, and identify any subtext. The dog-whistles are pitched just that little bit higher, and we must adjust our receptors to realise what’s going on. Because it was never really about language, the same as it was never really about bathrooms or protecting children. It’s about bullying, and we shouldn’t tolerate it.


At the beginning of this article, I said that I’d found dome useful articles written by others on here. Well, here they are. First up is The Cis Slur by Ashley J. Cooper, short and to the point:

Next, we have a little of the scientific background to the use of cis- and trans, from Jessica Compton:

Finally, I found a very insightful and sensitive understanding of the topic from a cisgender person who listened and took the time to think about it and then didn’t act all defensive and outraged or rant about seagulls (see, it is possible!).