Cis and Trans: WTF Do They Mean, Anyway?

This is a post conceived as a public service, originally appearing at Kivablog3, which I’m posting until everyone finally gets what these words mean.

As a history and language nerd of a certain age, it is still difficult for me to believe that I have seen a little-regarded Latin prefix like cis- suddenly find its way into the English language as an adjective and noun, finally joining trans- as a real word after centuries of it being a linguistic detail in histories and maps of the Roman Empire. Words get added to English because people use them, and use them because there is a need for them, and discussions of trans evolved to the point that cis came into use in some communities, I assume in academic discussions at different intersections of gender and feminism with everything else, and it spread quickly because it fulfilled a need.

Most of the words from Latin that have made it into English, especially the short ones, got there a very long time ago. At the point when I had to hit pause on my first transition — in 2001, and for fifteen years it turned out — I had never seen cis used as an English word — not even online, and I’ve been online (off and on) since 1993, so I don’t think cis was out there yet. As for trans* women, in the 20th century we had our own slang terms to designate cis women as such in conversation when needed, terms that subtly derogated our own realness, like “GiGi=(Genetic Girl)” (with a hard /g/) because no one else needed to distinguish them from us except us. And we only really learned stuff from each other, the “grapevine” which put you in touch with others trans* women.

That was fifteen years of feminist and lesbian and bi and queer and trans cultural change and growth and theoretical evolution, rethinking and thinking some more, new ideas and words for the ideas, and pronouns and flags, communities forming, all happening so quickly in historical terms. And the rethinking of all this based at least in part on the radical notion that trans people are people, and are the gender we say we are (or aren’t) and the outcome of this idea once put in practice, has led us from accepted to protected to valued in many places.

All of which I am still absorbing, taking it all onboard for reals, swimming through it online, because I had deliberately turned away from it all in April of 2001, when I decided I couldn’t have it, ever, that my attempt at transitioning had “failed.” It just hurt to know anything about it all, and so I didn’t. So now, fifteen years of writing and film and music, cultural transformations, and Jenny Owen Youngs, almost all of it is new to me. I like that.Except the arguments from trans haters, anxious to explain why actually we’re monsters sent by male doctors to disrupt women’s spaces and so we have to be cast out of whatever it is–the space, the community, the Earth. They’re still out there, and they haven’t changed much since 2001. I suppose that’s the point. So sometime between now and then, among other developments, the need to distinguish as a group women who aren’t trans, in a non-condescending way (avoiding old terms such as “genetic girl”), probably in a discussion about women and feminism, this need seems to have led someone–maybe a Classical Studies major–to introduce “cis” into our language alongside “trans”, where it really always belonged anyway.

Cis- means this side of whatever, here as opposed to there.Trans- means across something, the other side of whatever, there as opposed to here. It implies a crossing, of course, not only a journey but one of some complexity and perhaps difficulty: Trans World Airlines (long trip overseas — said airline is no longer in business), Trans-Dniestria (difficult trip — breakaway region of Moldova). Both these words, trans and cis, come from Latin, both made it together into many Romance languages such as French, but only one of them, trans-, made it into English.

At one point, the Romans referred to northernmost Italy, north of the Po River, as Cisalpine Gaul, “Gaul on This Side of the Alps”. When the Gauls had invaded Italy, long ago, at one point even sacking Rome itself, the Romans had managed to push them back north, out of the peninsula. But they stayed in northern Italy, and so it becameGallia Cisalpina.

Cisalpine Gaul was a relatively soft assignment for a Roman officer, a few days’ ride north from Rome in good weather, across a few rivers and there you are. The “Gauls” there had long since become Gallo-Romans, speaking Latin and forsaking beer for wine, and it was relatively simple to govern it and raise revenues.

“Where were you assigned?”

“They’re sending me to Cisalpine Gaul, two years.”

“Hey, nice work if you can get it! I hear the summers are cooler there. You’re all moving up?”

“Yes, but Cornelia does rather miss the city when we’re away, she likes to come back here and visit occasionally, she can see her friends and family, look after the rents and finances, make sure the building doesn’t collapse while we’re gone. You know, the usual.”

[“Here,” of course, was Rome. Even then, it mattered a lot who got to say where “here” was and where “there” was.]

Gallia Transalpina, “Gaul Beyond the Alps,” was very much a “there”: — i.e., France plus Belgium, the vast area which Julius Caesar conquered eventually and permanently. Before that period, though, the Romans did manage to settle some retired soldiers on land along the Rhône River which ran north from the Mediterranean port of Massilia, which they’d taken away from whoever had lived there before, on which they built some victory monuments, calling it Provincia Gallia Transalpina. It was so hard to get there, such a faraway posting (by the standards of the time) that it came to be known to soldiers and officers simply as “the province,” that province, which gave rise to the modern name, Provence.

Aside from the difficulty of dealing with Germanic and Gallic tribes who still didn’t much like the Romans, and just generally the awfulness to a Roman of that time of being stuck in “that province,” there was the labor and uncertainty involved in getting there and back again: the “trans” part of it. Crossing the Alps could only be done in a few places, “passes” that were chilly at best, difficult to traverse, had quickly changeable weather, and sometimes harbored thieves who were dangerous-to-deadly. It’s why they crossed in large, well-armed groups. Slowly.

“Where were you assigned?”

“I’m being sent to Transalpine Gaul! For two bloody years!”

“Oh, bad luck there, sorry to hear it. So. Um, I suppose Cornelia and the kids are staying here…?”

“You could say that.”

“Well, actually I hear the wine is rather good there, you know the Greeks planted vineyards there long ago, when they were colonizing the area.”

(snorts derisively in response)

If you really, really didn’t want to go over the Alps, really and truly, and you were feeling particularly adventurous, you could try getting there in a ship going north along the coast to Messalia (Marseilles), but there were a lot of pirates back then — again, this was pre-Julius Caesar, who would famously rid the western Mediterranean of pirates — along with the always-iffy weather out there on the water, and the patches of rough rock that would try to snag or rip open your ship if you hugged the coast too close in some places.

So if you consulted an astrologer regarding the date you sail and the outlook, and it was favorable, and you sacrificed something to King Neptune before you shipped out, you just might have felt sort of confident about the trip, even. Although (assuming you made it) you did still have to get back, eventually; someday you had to get back to Rome. And there you were, in gallia transalpina, Trans-Alpine Gaul.

People mostly feared travel by sea then, and with good reason. They hugged the coast when they could, and if they absolutely had to cross open water it was by as short a route as possible: Sicily to Lampedusa to Tunisia, Crete or Cyprus to Alexandria. Cornelia and the kids would definitely not be coming along.

I think of this a kind of difficult crossing, not unlike a transgender transition which, as it happens, I’m in the middle of it. And if you did get there, well, there you were, in Transalpine Bloody Gaul. The province. That province. The one you’d have to get home from again in a couple of years. Why would anyone with any sense (or influence) want to go there? Considering the degree of difficulty and uncertainty and the known but real element of danger as well, you wouldn’t. Not unless you absolutely had to.