Thursday, August 25, 2011

Whipping Girl FAQ on cissexual, cisgender, and cis privilege

[note added January, 2017: This essay now appears as a chapter in my third book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism]

Note: this was originally posted on my now defunct Live Journal account on 5-14-09. Since penning this, I have written two more updated essays on cis, cisgender, cissexual, cissexism, cis privilege, & the cis/trans distinction, which touch on the different ways this language has subsequently been used (and misused), and the activist strategies underly these varying usages.

Ok, so this is the fourth installment of my Whipping Girl FAQ, where I answer common questions and/or clear up confusion about what I said (or was trying to say) in WG. This FAQ discusses the “cis/trans” distinction and “cis” privilege.

The origin of “cis”

I have come across people who have assumed that I invented the terms cissexual and cisgender, but this is not the case. I reference “cissexual” this way in my book:

I was inspired to begin using the term “cissexual” after reading one of Emi Koyama’s Interchange entries ( Apparently, the related term “cisgender” was first coined in 1995 by a transsexual man named Carl Buijs.

I don’t know much about Carl Buijs or why he coined the term “cisgender.” But as a scientist (where the prefixes “trans” and “cis” are routinely used), this terminology seems fairly obvious in retrospect. “Trans” means “across” or “on the opposite side of,” whereas “cis” means “on the same side of.” So if someone who was assigned one sex at birth, but comes to identify and live as a member of the other sex, is called a “transsexual” (because they have crossed from one sex to the other), then the someone who lives and identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth is called a “cissexual.”

As someone who was assigned a male sex at birth, but who lives and identifies as female, I may be described as a transsexual woman, a transgender woman, or a trans woman. Those women who (unlike me) were assigned a female sex at birth may be similarly described as cissexual women, cisgender women, or cis women.

(note: I discuss the terms “transsexual” and “transgender” more extensively in a previous WG FAQ)

Why use the term “cis”?

I suppose different people might give different answers to this question, so it is probably best for me to explain why *I* started using this terminology, and why I chose to include it in the book.

I began writing Whipping Girl in 2005, before I had heard of the “cis” terminology. A major focus of the book was to debunk many of the myths and misconceptions people have about transsexuals. Initially, I was kind of scattershot in my approach: In one chapter, I would critique the way the term “passing” is used in reference to transsexuals. In another chapter I would critique the use of the terms “bio boy” and “genetic girl” to describe non-trans men and women. In yet another chapter, I would critique the way that transsexuals are always depicted as imitating or impersonating “real” (read: non-trans) women and men. And so on. After a while, it became obvious to me that all of these phenomena were stemming from the same presumption: that transsexual gender identities and sex embodiments are inherently less natural and less legitimate than those of nontranssexual people.

I realized that it would make a lot more sense to write a chapter for the book that thoroughly exposes this double standard and describes the many ways it is employed in order to marginalize transsexuals. As I was contemplating this, I stumbled onto the aforementioned Emi Koyama post, where she discusses the usefulness of the terms cissexual, cisgender and cissexism. She said:

“...they de-centralize the dominant group, exposing it as merely one possible alternative rather than the "norm" against which trans people are defined. I don't expect the word to come into common usage anytime soon, but I felt it was an interesting concept - a feminist one, in fact - which is why I am using it.”

It was then that I realized that the double standard that I was writing about already had a name: cissexism. And the chapter of WG dedicated to debunking cissexism eventually took on the title: “Dismantling Cissexual Privilege.”

People sometimes freak out a bit when confronted with new terms/language. So when doing presentations, I often offer the following analogy to help people understand the usefulness of this terminology:

Fifty years ago, homosexuality was almost universally seen as unnatural, immoral, illegitimate, etc. Back then, people regularly talked about “homosexuals,” but nobody ever talked about “heterosexuals.” In a sense, there were no “heterosexuals”—everyone who wasn’t engaged in same-sex behavior was simply considered “normal.” Their sexualities were unmarked and taken for granted.

If you were lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) during this time period, there was almost no way for you to convince the rest of society that you were unfairly marginalized. In society’s eyes, nobody was oppressing you, it was simply your fault or problem that you were “abnormal.” In fact, it was quite common for LGB people to buy into this presumption of abnormality themselves, as there was simply no other obvious way to view their predicament.

But then gay rights activists began challenging this notion. They pointed out that all people have sexualities (not just homosexuals). The so-called “normal” people weren’t really “normal” per se, but rather they were “heterosexual.” And the activists pointed out that heterosexuals weren’t necessarily any better or more righteous than homosexuals. It was just that heterosexism—the belief that same-sex attraction and relationships are less natural and legitimate than heterosexual ones—is institutionalized within society and functions to unfairly marginalize those who engage in same-sex relationships.

Once one recognizes that heterosexism is a double standard, then it becomes clear that (whether they realize it or not) heterosexuals are privileged in our society. They can legally marry, engage in public displays of affection with their significant other without fear of being assaulted, their relationships are typically approved of, and even celebrated, by others, and so on. Like all forms of privilege, heterosexual privilege is invisible to those who experience it—they simply take it for granted. By describing and discussing heterosexism and heterosexual privilege, LGB activists have made great gains over time toward leveling the playing field with regards to sexual orientation in our culture.

One can easily understand the potential power of cis/trans terminology by simply replacing “heterosexual” with “cissexual,” “heterosexism” with “cissexism,” and “heterosexual privilege” with “cissexual privilege” in the above analogy.

Critiques of the “cis/trans” terminology

While cissexism and cissexual privilege are useful concepts, I have met many people (both cis and trans) who don’t like the cis/trans distinction. Here are my thoughts on some of the more common criticisms:

1) It sounds too academic/jargony; why can’t we speak in plain, simple English?

First, “cis” is not an academic term, it is an activist one. And it sounds like jargon simply because most people are unfamiliar with it. On a recent Feministing post on this very topic, cannonball put it this way:

“words that start with cis may seem esoteric, but how many times are words like “sexism” and “heterosexism” thrown back at groups who work to end oppression as too academic?”

(note: cannonball’s post was a response to two earlier excellent posts by Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia: Cis is not an “academic” term and Cis (2). In those posts, she goes more in depth into the cis-as-academic trope than I do here.)

To be honest, when people make the can’t-we-speak-in-plain-simple-English complaint, I just want to bonk them over the head with a stack of George Orwell books. Our ideas/thoughts/concepts/beliefs are very much constrained by the words available to us. If we didn’t have the terms heterosexual, heterosexism and heterosexual privilege, those of us who are LGB wouldn’t have the language to describe (and thus challenge) the marginalization we face because of who we sleep with. If we all just spoke “plain English” circa the 1950’s, where do you think we’d be these days with regards to sexual orientation-based discrimination?

2) comment often made by cis people: “but I don’t identify with the term cis.”

Cis is not meant to be an identity. Rather, it simply describes the way that one is perceived by others.

An analogy: I don’t strongly *identify* with the terms “white” and “able-bodied,” even though I am both of those things. After all, I have been able to navigate my way through the world without ever having to give much thought to those aspects of my person. And that’s the point: It is my white privilege and able-bodied privilege that enables me *not* to have to deal with racism and ableism on a daily basis!

In general, we only identify with those aspects of ourselves that are marked. For example, I identify as bisexual, and as a trans woman, because those are issues that I have to deal with all of the time (because of other people’s prejudices). While I may not strongly identify as white or able-bodied, it would be entitled for me to completely disavow myself from those labels, as it would deny the white privilege and able-bodied privilege I regularly experience.

3) comment often made by trans people: "I don’t like the distinction between cis/trans because I don’t think that I am any different from a cis woman (or man)."

I can relate to this sentiment. After all, I don’t believe that I (as a trans woman) am inherently different from cis women. Such a view point would be essentialist/universalist, as it would assume that all cis women are the “same” as each other and entirely distinct from trans women. This ignores the large amount of variation amongst, and overlap between, cis and trans women.

When I use the terms cis/trans, it is not to talk about *actual* differences between cis and trans bodies/identities/genders/people, but rather *perceived* differences. In other words, while I don’t think that my gender is inherently different from that of a cis woman, I am aware that most people tend to *view* my gender differently (i.e., as less natural/valid/authentic) than cis women’s genders.

Here’s how I put it in WG:

[Some people] might dismiss much of this language as contributing to a “reverse discourse”—that is, by describing myself as a transsexual and creating trans-specific terms to describe my experiences, I am simply reinforcing the same distinction between transsexuals and cissexuals that has marginalized me in the first place. My response to both of these arguments is the same: I do not believe that transsexuals and cissexuals are inherently different from one another. But, the vastly different ways in which we are perceived and treated by others (based on whether or not we are trans) and the way those differences impact our unique physical and social experiences with both femaleness and maleness, lead many transsexuals to see and understand gender very differently than our cissexual counterparts. And while transsexuals are extremely familiar with cissexual perspectives of gender (as they dominate in our culture), most cissexuals remain largely unfamiliar with trans perspectives. Thus, to ask me to only use words that cissexuals are familiar with in order to describe my gendered experiences is similar to asking a musician to only use words that non-musicians understand when describing music. It can be done, but something crucial would surely be lost in the translation. Just as a musician cannot fully explain their reaction to a particular song without bringing up concepts such as “minor key” or “time signature,” there are certain trans-specific words and ideas that will appear throughout this book that are crucial for me to precisely convey my thoughts and experiences regarding gender. In order to have an illuminating and nuanced discussion about my experiences and perspectives as a trans woman, we must begin to think in terms of words and ideas that accurately describe that experience.

The limitations of cis privilege:

A friend recently told me of a trans woman she knew who complained that other women were exercising cis privilege over her whenever they complained about their periods. This is what I told my friend:

I understand where the person is coming from, but I would be hesitant to call that cissexual privilege. I try to only use the term with regards to social and legal legitimacy (e.g., that cis people’s legal sex & gender identities are taken for granted and considered valid in a way that trans people’s are not). In those cases, there is a blatant societal double-standard at work, and cis folks should be made aware that they are taking something for granted that others cannot.

But once we get into issues of biology or bodies (rather than the rights and entitlements associated with them), things become more fraught. For example, I have white privilege, not because my skin has less pigment than people of color, but because my whiteness enables me to not have to face racism on a day-to-day basis. I have able-bodied privilege, not because I can see or walk "just fine", but because (in a society that presumes that everyone can see signs or walk up a flight of stairs if necessary) I don't face the same obstacles or barriers in my day-to-day life that differently-abled people do.

Sometimes, when other women I know are complaining about their periods or pregnancies, I get really sad. While I certainly don’t doubt that those experiences are painful and difficult, I feel a sense of loss about not having the opportunity to choose to bare a child if I wished. (I’m not sure that I would want to do that if I were able, but it would be nice to have that option available to me). I have a cis female cousin who had very irregular periods her whole life and who was distraught to find out as a young adult that she couldn’t bare children (she & her husband eventually adopted after years of infertility treatment attempts). While we’ve never talked about it, I’m sure we both relate to our similar situations in very different ways. For me, it’s wrapped up in my sadness about not having been born female. For her (being socialized female), it’s more likely tied to her having imagined since she was a child that someday she’d become pregnant and have her own children.

Both of us are biologically unable to have regular periods or get pregnant. Both of us experience sadness and loss at the fact that we have been denied something that other women take for granted. But to say that people who properly menstruate have cis privilege, or menstruation privilege, plays into a kind of pathologizing mentality. It plays into the idea that my (and her) body is intrinsically “wrong” while other bodies are “right.” I know some trans people see things that way, but I find that disempowering. I wish I had been born female and that I could menstruate, just like I wish that I didn’t have skin cancer two years ago, or that I wasn’t hypothyroid, or that I wasn’t on the verge of needing bifocals (and I’m only 41 for Christsakes!), etc. But I don’t feel like I was denied any privileges because my body isn’t the way that I wish it was. It only becomes about privilege when I am deemed inferior or less legitimate than other people because of my body and situation.

My cousin and I share some similarities, but also some differences. She was able to qualify for adoption despite being infertile. It is very likely that if I applied for adoption (on the grounds that I am infertile because I am transsexual) that I would be denied because of my trans status. If I were denied for that reason, that would be a clear case of cis privilege. And while I don’t consider it cis privilege when other women are complaining about their periods, I have had cis women tell me that I am “lucky” that I don’t have periods. I know for a fact that they would *never* tell someone like my cousin (an infertile cis woman) that she is lucky for the same reason. In that case, I would definitely say cis privilege is at work (because of the double standard).

I am glad that WG helped to popularize the usage of cissexism and cis privilege. But it is important to keep in mind that all of us are privileged in some ways and marginalized in others. As a trans person, I am very sensitive to cis privilege, but not so attuned to my own white privilege or able-bodied privilege. In the past, I have presumed that someone was exercising cis privilege over me only to find out later that they didn’t even know I was trans. And I have had people (rightly) call me out when I have inadvertently said something that was steeped in my own white privilege or able-bodied privilege without being conscious of it.

This is especially important to keep in mind in feminist settings, where both cis and trans women are marginalized in largely overlapping, albeit sometimes different ways. Being forced against my will into boyhood overall really sucked for me, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience *some* advantages as a result. For instance, I was given more freedom in many ways than my sisters growing up. And I honestly can’t say whether or not I would have become a scientist if I was raised female. Similarly, I have no doubt that there are a lot of aspects about being raised as a cis girl that really suck. But there are also advantages (e.g., having people take your gender identity seriously, not being forced against your will into boyhood, etc.).

I want to be a part of a feminist community where we can talk about cis woman-specific issues *and* trans woman-specific issues without the former group being automatically called out for exercising cis privilege and the latter group automatically being called out for supposed male privilege. To achieve this, it is important for us to challenge oppression/privilege when it occurs. But it is also important for us to listen to what others have to say, to give people the benefit of doubt whenever possible. Some people are stubbornly prejudiced and repeat offenders, and they of course should be taken to task for it. But most of us (I hope) genuinely want to both understand *and* to be understood. Discussions of “privilege” should be about teaching (and learning) how we each see and experience the world differently; how we each have blind-spots; how we each make incorrect and undermining assumptions about other people. Discussions of “privilege” should serve as a teaching tool, not a weapon to wield.

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. The terms "transvestitismus" and "cisvestitismus" appear in an early 20th century medical dictionary in German, referring to crossdressing or non-gender-variant modes of dress. They most certainly are scientific terms.

    1. actually, cis and trans are prefixes derived from Latin that are used in both scientific and non-scientific words (e.g., cisatlantic). I have been using cis/trans as an activist since 2005, and I had not not at all heard about the early 20th century German terms you mentioned until last year someone brought it up to me last year. I am almost 100% sure that the first trans activists to use the terms cisgender/cissexual were not aware of the obscure German medical literature reference you mentioned, but rather came up with their own neologisms based on the fact that cis has a long history of being a complementary pair to trans.