Last month, Hollywood actor William Shatner took offence to being called ‘CIS’, short for ‘cisgendered’. “Some need labels and categories to separate people in order to harass or debase them… Do we need these labels in order to communicate? No. So those that use them when describing others are doing it for neg[ative] reasons,” Shatner tweeted.
In a Twitter battle that raged for days, many pointed out to him that cisgender was not a pejorative at all, that it was simply a descriptor. But Shatner persisted: “It’s used as a slur & term of harassment.”
So, is cisgender a term of slur and harassment? Or is it a harmless adjective? More importantly, what is cisgender?
The term cisgendered is used to define people whose gender identity matches the identity assigned to them at birth.
When a child is born, it is assigned a gender identity based on its physical characteristics. Many believe that gender is a social construct, and growing up, the child may or may not confirm to the birth identity.
Children assigned male at birth can feel they identify more authentically as a woman, to give one example.
For transgender people, their sense of gender identity does not match the one assigned to them at birth.
The latin prefix ‘cis’ literally means ‘on the same side of’, while ‘trans’ means on the other side.
Who used the word first
‘Cisgender’ entered Britain’s Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, and the USA’s Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2016.
Both dictionaries document its first usage around 1994. Dana Leland Defosse, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, seems to have first used the word in connection with a study on transphobia, in May 1994.
What is commonly agreed upon is that the word existed in academic journals since the mid-90s. It was popularised by gender theorist and activist Julia Serano’s 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and gradually, especially with the advent of the internet, became part enough of popular parlance to be included in the dictionaries.
Why the word is important
Quite simply, if there are ‘transgendered’ people, there should be a word for those who are not. Giving a label to only one section of the population, especially when that is the minority section, implies that the others are default, ‘normal’, and only that section needs to be singled out and labeled.
According to gender activists and those who use the term, having distinct words for transgendered and cisgendered people denotes that both are equally valid, neutral experiences, with neither being an aberration.
Also, cis and trans are not the only gender identifiers in use. There are many other terms, such as genderqueer, gender fluid and gender variant. Some also choose not to use the traditionally gender-tied pronouns of he/she/her/his, and go for they/them.
Okay, why do we have so many terms?
Having specific words helps people better express who they are, and know they are not alone in their gender confusions. Also, having new terms is acknowledgement that conversation around gender is changing. It can make people who have not had to confront gender struggles as part of their lived reality pay more attention to their existence.
Kiran Naik, a transman (birth identity woman, identifies as man) who works as a trans and disability rights activists in Chikballapur, Karnataka, says: “For you to accept me, you need to first know who I am. I am a transman. This is my identity. Many people simply don’t get what a transman is. For them to understand a concept, there has to be a word. For example, transwomen find it comparatively easier to be understood, because people are familiar with hijdas. They just can’t understand transmen.”
Janani, a behavior analyst and media professional from Bangalore, identifies as genderqueer and uses the pronouns they/them. They agree with the importance of specific terms. “In a world in which it was universally accepted that gender is a construct, maybe terms wouldn’t matter. But in our world, it can be immensely helpful for two reasons: it helps people to use identity labels to work out their gender feels and how they define it for themselves; and it allows typically cis people to build flexibility around the construction of gender,” they say.
Kiran points out that acceptability is social as well as official. “I would like my chosen gender on my ID documents. But for that to happen, the government needs to accept there is a word for that gender.”
Criticism of the word
Some people, including those working on trans rights, feel terms like ‘cisgender’ belong in the realm of esoteric gender theory alone, and their usage can be counterproductive – people are less likely to grasp a message if they have to look up the individual words that make up the message.
Others feel ‘cisgendered’ as a counter to ‘transgendered’ is restrictive – reinforcing a binary of genders that many choose to reject.
Janani says the two terms should not be seen as binaries, but rather as “umbrella terms for two ends of a spectrum”, and the “discomfort of learning new words does not trump the discomfort of non-cis (trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderflux, etc.) people who are experiencing constant policing of their identities.”
Kiran says having an exact term that can define them makes a whole lot of difference for someone who has first struggled internally with their gender identity, and is now struggling with society. “People get annoyed if you pronounce their name wrong. Imagine spending your life with others getting the very nature of your being wrong. I publicly identify as a transman, but people insist on calling me ‘madam’ because of my voice. For my identity to not be erased, it’s important for me to have a word for it.”
Some identity labels in use
As language evolves, a lot of new terms come in and out of use. Also, a lot of words overlap. Here’s a list of some common gender identifiers, though there are more in use.
Agender: Someone who identifies as not belonging to any gender
Androgynous: Someone who identifies as neither man nor woman
Bigender: Someone who identifies as both man and woman
Non-binary: Someone who rejects the binaries of male and female
Genderfluid: Someone whose gender identity changes
Genderquestioning: Someone who is exploring which gender they identify as
Genderqueer: An umbrella term for people not subscribing to traditional genders
AFAB, AMAB: Assigned Female At Birth, Assigned Male At Birth
Intersex: Those who do not possess the physical characteristics of either males or females
Third Gender: Those who have a gender identity beyond man or woman
Also, one can be cisgendered but their gender expression can be different from their gender. For example, a cisgendered man can dress up in a lehenga or a ball gown simply because he likes to.
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On the profusion of terms, Janani says: “There are no rules with how people use identity labels; you pull five genderqueer people in a room and they will all likely define genderqueerness differently, but what they’ll probably have in common is how the labels helps them feel and move in the world.”
Other terms in gender discourse you should know
Many words that are not gender identifiers, but often come up in gender discourse (and on social media) can help one understand these issues better. A few of them are:
Gender dyspohoria: Distress and trauma, significant, long-term, caused by the incongruence between your birth gender and what you feel your gender is.
TERF: Trans-exclusionary radical feminist (recently used prominently for author JK Rowling). These are feminists who deny that transwomen are women, and do not admit that the struggle for women’s rights should include support for transgender rights.
Misgender: Using for someone a gender other than what they identify as.
Cissexism: Favouring cisgendered people over others.
Why language matters
Recently, author JK Rowling faced a lot of criticism for her views on trans rights. Zeroing in on one of the things she said can illustrate the importance of inclusive language. Rowling had objected to a headline that said ‘people who menstruate’, insisting it should have been ‘women who menstruate’.
However, not all women menstruate, transmen menstruate, transwomen may not menstruate. Rowling’s critics pointed out that while all these categories are definitely ‘people’, insistence on using ‘women’ can exclude the realities of those not conventionally “women”, and make their journey of acceptance, already extremely difficult, harder.
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