What is Cis?
For those unfamiliar with the term — and that’s okay — cis is short for cisgender, and WikiPedia describes it as “related types of gender identity where individuals’ experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth.” Cis is the Latin antonym of trans, and so the meaning can be easily understood as “not transgender, but cis[gender]”.
In other words, it’s all the people who are confident being the gender they were assigned at birth.
I’ve had the lifelong privilege of growing up as a boy, adolescent young guy, and eventually adult man, without ever having the experience of feeling doubtful about my assigned gender. I spent most of my life treated as the male person I feel I am, and I use that word “most” quite intentionally. There was a time where I — regrettably, one might say — wore my hair in a ponytail. It was the 90's, I was young, and… I’ve run out of excuses now.
While I grew up in the comparatively quite tolerant Netherlands and consequently faced little more than very minor taunting from school friends over my ponytail, there was a summer period in which I was in Turkey, visiting the other half of my extended family. It was there that I (amusingly, in a language I did not speak or understand fluently enough for it to hit home) faced a fair amount of cis-normative harassment.
Turkey is a relatively progressive country in many ways, but gender-fluid and gender-inclusive politics are still, to this date, a little ways behind, let alone in the 90's. Especially when it came to the less metropolitan areas, which is where we would generally spend our summer vacation. Being openly and randomly harassed on the street for having my hair look “like a woman’s” was not a very uncommon occurrence, and it taught me, more than anything else, that not everyone in the world is as tolerant as I was used to from my home country and environment. Conversely, it also taught me that people could learn to be more tolerant. After all, in the grand scheme of things the only thing separating Turkish people from Dutch people is their cultural life experiences and what kind of person they choose to be, and Dutch culture was simply a bit more multicultural and liberal.
Cutting off the pony tail was not an act of woeful regret over experiencing this intolerance, but even if it was, it was something I could easily enough control on my own without too much sacrifice. As a cis person, I had the privilege of easily reducing (this type of) street harassment by making a sacrifice that was neither particularly painful for me, nor difficult. Non-cis people, e.g. transgender and genderqueer people all across the gender identity spectrum, likely do not have such an easy way out from whatever negative experiences they encounter, perhaps (or probably) on a daily basis.
Being cis, therefore, is an active reminder to me that when it comes to gender identity issues or questions, I probably lack a huge amount of information — experience and perspective accumulated across many years—which could easily prevent me from making correct statements or assumptions. Since these are really important issues to people who face any level of discrimination over their gender identity, it is something I try to defer my opinion to them over, in the hope of learning and not unintentionally contributing to whatever hardships they already endure.
There is nothing I lose from doing this: I do not suffer or miss out by being quiet and listening, or by admitting to them that I might have done or said something wrong or hurtful, or by apologizing for any mistakes I’ve made. If someone calls me out on something cis/non-cis related, I try to not get defensive about it, because as a cis person, I’m probably wrong. And it’s okay to be wrong, especially when we’re talking about incredibly complex and subtly nuanced issues like gender identity. Again: I lose nothing over this. Perhaps my ego takes the tiniest of hits, but if so it probably deserved to be deflated anyway.
Being cis and self-aware of that means, to me, that I should try not to get in the way of a debate over these topics unless I feel really quite well-informed about the point I plan to make. And by “quite well-informed” I mean “I’ve read actual studies and/or books on the specific subject,” as opposed to just having read an article here or a review of Orange is the New Black there.
For anyone interested in a quick primer about gender issues, this 20-minute video is a good intro.
What “cis” does NOT mean to me
Cis does not mean a slur to me. I’ve seen plenty of people get ridiculously vile and aggressive for being called “cis” like it’s some kind of slander (hint: it’s not). It’s quite similar to when people are called privileged, and react angrily and defensively — it’s not inherently an insult, it just means you need to stop thinking you’re right about everything in the world and listen for a bit. Really not rocket science, but I digress.
I don’t feel at all insulted or personally attacked if someone calls me cis. For one, it’s an accurate claim. For another, it is not in any way an insult, even if some people do use it as a label to dismiss cis people’s opinions (especially on trans issues, but it can happen in any gender debate). I don’t personally support doing this, because reducing an argument to an exchange of labels that are to represent our viewpoints distracts from the actual argument that is to be had. (It’s entirely likely I’ve done this myself in the past; I am by no means suggesting I’m not flawed in this manner, just stating that I actively try to avoid it in any circumstance where I hope to participate in and/or facilitate informative discourse or debate.)
Of course, I understand where people come from when they dismiss an opponent as being cis — when you’re cis, like I am, you never live your life being forced to experience or even understand what it’s like not being cis, nor the costs to your health, relationships and career opportunities that come with it as were they some inextricable baggage. As a cis person, you have to actively invest time and empathy into understanding these realities for other people, and most cis people simply don’t. Because they don’t have to. That’s a privilege, and it’s a privilege that hampers you with a dearth of knowledge and understanding if you ever attempt to participate in a serious discussion about gender issues.
Being cis also does not mean I feel I have to be ashamed of, or feel guilty for, being cis. Again, being cis is every bit not a negative trait of me as an individual person, as being trans or queer is of anyone else. Yes, some people may dismiss your opinion for being cis — you’ll be just fine. You don’t have to “win” every argument, you don’t have a right to have your voice heard or listened to everywhere you go, especially not when you inject it somewhere uninvited.
Being cis is not a “negative”. It’s also not a “positive” for that matter; it simply gives me privileges I would not have enjoyed if I were not cis — and for a very brief time in Turkey, I got the tiniest of glimpses of what that would be like. I strive to use those privileges not for my own ongoing benefit, but to push for the better understanding among other cis people, so that they, like me, can do a better job avoiding obvious missteps.
This is just an account of what cis means to me, and does not have to represent anyone else’s viewpoint. That said, it’s entirely possible that I made cis-normative mistakes or assumptions in this piece when describing others or their experiences. I welcome any corrections. Being cis also means it’s harder for you to hurt my feelings. What an unfair privilege that is.
My name is Faruk Ateş, and I am cis. I’m okay with that — are you?
I wrote this article because while it’s great that our current media culture is bringing increasingly many trans and queer perspectives and characters into TV-shows and movies, there are many people who are not so tolerant that they enthusiastically embrace these new points of view into their world, and who might assume that other non-trans/queer people feel as uncomfortable about this as they do. To them, specifically, I wish to say this: it’s okay to feel uncomfortable about these things. Don’t react with anger to them, even if you as a cis person might, for instance, be confronted with a bad thing you did in the past that made non-cis people feel excluded. Nobody is perfect, and being criticized over something you did is an opportunity for you to apologize and grow. Try it; you’ll be amazed at how easily people forgive and forget when you apologize sincerely and attempt to learn from your mistake.