A few days ago I got involved in what became a heated argument in a Facebook group where somebody had hijacked a post about a radio programme on Women who Abuse to turn it into an anti-transgender attack. I’m not going to address the issues around crime statistics and self-ID here, but a couple of the women contributing focussed their rage on the use of the prefix ‘cis’, which I do want to talk about.
Prefixes, as we all know from school, are elements (properly known as morphemes) added to the front of words to change their meaning. We all play with them all the time, because prefixation is what’s known as a productive process – one that can be used creatively without anyone being confused by it. So for example, I can say “That was a mega-lunch” and you would know it was huge, and I can giggle at somebody being accused of having a micropenis without necessarily having heard the prefix used on that word before. Prefixes tend to be derived from Latin or Greek, and are very widely used in science, where clear dichotomies between macro- and micro-, hyper- and hypo- etc are important.
Cis as a prefix has a very long history. It has been used in chemistry, geography and astronomy for decades, without causing any social outrage or ruptures in the space-time continuum, as the paired prefix to trans- meaning across. So transatlantic = across the Atlantic; cisatlantic = on the same side of the Atlantic. Trans fats are the opposite of cis fats. The problem with the prefix began when certain people involved in political and social debates about gender discovered that it was also being used in gender studies to denote the opposite of transgender, i.e. people who have not changed their gender identity since birth.
There are conflicting views about when the term cisgender was first used in print, which can be followed up here if you are interested. However, what I am addressing here is the objection to the use of the term, which seems to have spread slowly from about 2015 onwards, and accelerated since 2017, when debates centred around proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act pushed trans issues higher on the media agenda.
So why, in the midst of a heated and often bitter debate about the human rights of transgender people, should some ‘gender critical’ feminists focus their wrath on a simple prefix? I think there are three main reasons.
The first is that ‘gender critical’ feminism denies the existence of gender as a social construct. Sex, they say, is a biological fact, and there are only two sexes. Women’s rights are based on their biological sex, not their gender identity, so any blurring of the lines redefines womanhood and therefore affects those rights. The term ‘cisgender’ contains ‘gender’ so is not valid. Now I can’t even begin to unpick the false logic of that line of thought here or I’d be writing a book not a blog post, but I will just permit myself one analogy for you to think about: race. Race is an excellent analogy for gender, because like gender, race is a cause of social inequality. Nobody in the right mind denies that racism exists, just as you can’t deny sexism exists. Yet like sex and gender, race is as much a social construct as it is a biological one. Ask a biologist and they will tell you there is no clear way to define race using genetics or physical appearance. Some people are clearly black, some are clearly white, for many others it is not immediately apparent how they should be defined. So what do we do? We let each person define themselves. And that works just fine. There is a very occasional ‘blip’, such as Rachel Dolezal, who for her own complex reasons identified as black when she had two white parents, but for the most part, campaigns against racism do just fine without a biological definition of race. Self-ID works just fine, and social constructs are a perfectly logical way to define groups for purposes of improving social equality. If we are going to discuss issues around sex, gender, and human rights, terms like cisgender and transgender are important and unavoidable. It simply doesn’t matter to the fight for gender equality precisely where we draw the lines around the definition of womanhood, any more than we need to draw a tight line around the words ‘black’ or minority ethnic’ to challenge racism.
The second is that these objectors seem to misunderstand the way the term is used and the reason for its existence. ‘I do not identify as cis. I am a woman’ they cry. ‘You cannot define me as cisgender if I do not define myself that way’. Well, my friends, I’m afraid the world doesn’t work like that. Nobody is asking you to change the way you identify just because of a word used in academia or medical contexts, but you cannot change the terms used, accurately, in those contexts. Example: many women are disconcerted by seeing on their medical notes the term ‘elderly primigravida’ when they are pregnant. ‘I’m not bloody elderly – I’m only 36!’ However, from a medical point of view, anyone getting pregnant for the first time over the age of 35 counts as in a higher-risk group due to their age. You don’t have to start self-identifying as elderly to accept that the midwife and obstetrician have the right to use that term on their notes. Similarly, you can’t tell sociologists that they’re not allowed to call you cisgender if you are.
The third reason, I think, is that cisgender people are unused to being ‘othered’ because of their sex or gender and therefore it offends them. They are happy to use the term transgender because that is a marked term and it therefore makes the transgender person the one who deviates from the norm. For people who are in a relatively privileged group, it is a shock to have a term used that makes both you and the minority equally marked. ‘I’m not cisgender, I’m normal’ seems to be the next utterance due from some of these angry commenters. From my point of view, however, that is an excellent reason to start using it more! By using prefixes for both transgender and cisgender, we are undermining the idea that one group should be privileged over the other or is more ‘normal’ than the other. I get a warm glow of happiness on the occasions I see someone including their pronouns in their email signature or media profile when they are not trans. This is a lovely gesture to say ‘I don’t want trans and non-binary people to have to explain these things if I don’t have to’ and thus levelling the playing field just a little bit.
So, whether you’re my transsister or my cister, please, can we stop arguing about prefixes and focus on making the world kinder and fairer? Because much as language matters, kindness matters more.