When I first encountered a group in which the word “cis” was banned as potentially being problematic, the neurodivergent Latin geek in me was flummoxed. How could a Latin prefix possibly be inherently problematic? One may as well ban “anti” or “ex.” It occurs in Caesar’s term Germani cisrhenani – the Cisrhenane Germans, or the Germans on this side of the Rhine, not to be confused with their cousins on the other bank of the Rhine (transrhenani.) Later on, the chemists nabbed it to describe geometric isomerism and the relative position of functional groups within a molecule, again, those which are ‘this side’ or ‘on opposite sides.’
It made perfect sense to me, then, when I learned that the opposite of “trans” in the gender sense was also “cis.” (This is perhaps the right moment to say that this blog is not for the discussion of whether or not trans men are men and trans women are women; if you want to rehash that ancient argument (the Daughters of Bilitis were arguing it back in the 1950s) then go elsewhere.) And the more I read about gender dysphoria the more horrendous it sounded: untreated, it’s a life threatening condition. I defy anybody to read CN Lester’s piece “This is what dysphoria feels like” without feeling empathy and support. If “cis” means “not trans,” and “trans” means “dysphoric” then the vast majority of us are undoubtedly cis and should quit whining and be grateful for it.
But “trans” does not seem to mean dysphoric, or at least not exclusively. It also includes “genderqueer,” a sense of self which exists outside the gender binary of male / female. Again, perhaps, this doesn’t apply to terribly many of us. I have described myself, back in the dark ages of LiveJournal, as “gendermeh” – indifferent to gender identity. Having tried both, I discovered that I perform masculinity just as badly as I perform femininity, and so I tend to go with the path of least resistance, choosing elements of both as and when they suit me. My hobbies and my mode of dress for work are typically coded masculine; my current hairstyle and my mode of dress outside work are typically coded feminine.
But according to some sources, including Practical Androgyny cited on GenderQueerID, that is enough to bring me within the “transgender umbrella.”
‘Transgender’ is an umbrella term that can potentially cover all people who transgress or transcend (go beyond the limits of) society’s rules and concepts of gender. People may be transgender due to their self expression, identity or personal history.
If that is correct, and to transcend or to transgress society’s gender expectations constitutes transgenderism, then that includes me. Yaygender defines gender as tripartite:
gender identity: one’s psychological sense of self; one’s identity; who someone is intrinsically
gender presentation or gender expression: how one presents oneself in society
gender role: the social role someone takes in society
It is not necessary to have all of these at any one time; the site also defines agender, androgyny and bigender as having elements of both, one or another, or none. So if like me you don’t have an overwhelming sense of belonging to what the site describes as a “mutually exclusive male / female binary”, present or express and take a social role outside that binary, even if not always, then the transgender umbrella will open to shelter you from the acid rain of social gender expectations.
However, in doing so, it’s hardly surprising that it’s catching one or two people in the eye. Realistically, however gendermeh I may feel, I move through society and am perceived by others as a woman (and therefore whether or not technically I fall within any trans umbrella I have cis privilege). I am not dysphoric so I have no intention to change that, and so that is how I am treated. I have had the following conversation in a pub after ordering a pint of beer: “Oh, I’m not sure you’ll like that one love… maybe try half a Cocker’s Old Sexism [I don't remember the name of the recommended beverage], it’s very light.” “I’m a CAMRA member.” “Oh. OH. Well, er, okay. If you’re sure.” Perhaps in future I could replace “I’m a CAMRA member” with “I identify as gendermeh and therefore should not be treated as a woman” but I suspect it would have less effect. And why should female-looking, female-identified, or female-perceived people be treated as inferior, not only in comedy beer-ordering moments but in the far more serious endeavours of life?
So if the trans umbrella includes everyone who is uncomfortable in assigned gender roles / presentations or transgresses them, it follows that “cis” as its opposite means those who… are comfortable with them and / or do not transgress them. Which is going to exclude one hell of a lot of women who don’t see why their assigned gender role should be quite such a bucket of shit. I’m not entirely sure that this is the intended effect of the increasingly wide umbrella, nor that my disinclination to wear make-up should be regarded as anything other than trivial next to a person who suffers from dysphoria.
It seems that attempting to define “cis,” as “not trans,” is going to remain awkward if it involves “cis” meaning “people who do not transgress or transcend society’s rules and concepts of gender” – that is, those who are actually comfortable in assigned gender roles. In the meantime, it’s not constructive to shout TERF at women who say that they are not comfortable in those roles and who are therefore uneasy about the term. Personally, I’ll probably continue to use “cis” as a self-definer in the old-school sense of “has no desire or inclination to transition,” but only until “gendermeh” is recognised on gender.wikia.com. At the same time, I struggle to see how I can reconcile “cis” as a self-descriptor with the implication that I have a socially feminine gender presentation or role, because I don’t. The debate will no doubt rattle on. Let’s hope it clears up quicker than the argument over who was really “cisrhenane” and who were actually Gauls – that one’s still going.
But that brings me to the second part of this blog: does it matter? Of course on one level, it does. The whole debate concerns whether or not a gender identity can or should limit one’s presentation or expression, or whether “social rules and concepts” of gender are immutable in the first place. Personally I don’t see why I shouldn’t wear a three piece suit and brogues, wear my hair in a number 2 men’s cut and drink real ale (all things I do) whilst also being cis. Yet the definition above would suggest that that such a presentation would bring me within the trans umbrella. It’s that limitation of what it means to be cis (or indeed trans) that means the new gender freedom looks a lot like the old gender restrictions.
On another level, it doesn’t. I don’t currently get read as male which means that for everyday interactions outside the microcosm of queer feminism, I am read as female. Those of us who are read as female have to engage with a world in which maleness is the default, just as those who are read as trans (which often includes non-binary people) have to engage with a world in which not-trans is the default.
The focus should instead be on helping one another through that world. Roz Kaveney tweeted on 1 August that “To be clear, the major issues confronting trans people are to do with equal access to health care, housing, employment and education.” No amount of navel gazing about my own place on the gender spectrum is going to be of actual help to a trans person facing a housing crisis. I would far rather offer a spare sofa for a couple of weeks to a person in need than I would find the “answer” to the meaning of gender. Likewise, the issues facing non-trans women are not to do with abstracts but with tangibles, the fight for equal representation, equal pay, and reproductive rights. All of us face the spectre of street harassment and male violence: two cis women a week are killed by male partners or former partners while globally, trans people face a murder rate significantly higher than average and locally, both physical and verbal aggression.
The gender debate is interesting, if heated, but it is no substitute for solidarity. To that extent, it matters far more that we campaign with and for one another than that we are lured into the quicksands of definitions.