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That Slight Discomfort You May Feel

March 8, 2010

If, as I’ve often read and as I believe, marginalized people don’t have an obligation to bring everyone up to speed on their issues, how will allies learn? Well, what I’ve found is that, though marginalized folks don’t have any obligation to play teacher to the rest of the population, given a comfortable forum and a modicum of respect, so many people are willing to talk about their experiences outside the mainstream that it’s often not hard (if one knows where to look) to learn a good deal, and to be a better ally.

I’m cissexual. I’ve known at least for a few years what that term means (I have a habit of pronouncing it “ciz,” which my spouse tirelessly reminds me is incorrect), though I certainly mess up on trans issues a lot and have a lot to learn. It surprised me a while ago when some folks started expressing discomfort with the application of the “cis -” prefix to their lives. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would take it as a prejorative. But some folks did, and do. (I’m not going to link to some awful shitshow comment thread.)

To me, it seems perfectly sensible to have some value-neutral way of saying “people whose history is not trans and who don’t have the experience of assignment-at-birth not reflecting who they are”. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way probably ought to go read Asher Bauer’s 101 post on this topic at Carnal Nation. Among other things, Asher explains:

Look at it this way: if there are cis people and trans people, then we can talk about people who are trans, and people who aren’t, as two distinct but equal categories, making no judgments about either of them. But without the word “cis,” then we’re left with just trans people and…what? “Regular” people? “Normal” people? “Biological” males and females? “Women born women” and “men born men?” Worse yet, “real” men and women? In short, there’s just no way to talk about the differences between trans people and cis people, without using the term “cis,” that isn’t mired in cissupremacy.

Asher had something to say about the folks that he has these conversations with:

Most of the people with whom I have the cis conversation are well-intentioned, or say they are, and sure as heck don’t think of themselves as cissupremacists. But you don’t have to actively hate trans people, or consciously believe that cis people are superior, to hold attitudes that treat trans people as inferior. And you don’t have to realize that you have those attitudes in order to express them through language.

For my part, though I’m not hearing the definition of cissexual for the first time or hearing about trans issues for the first time, this was a paragraph that bore rereading. That’s still me: well-intentioned, sometimes clueless and with a bunch of (hopefully steadily decreasing) unexamined prejudices rattling around in my head. That slight discomfort I sometimes feel is the sensation produced by checking my shit and trying to do better.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2010 10:40 am

    What is the “correct” pronunciation of the “cis” in “cissexual”?

    I’ve only read it, I’ve never heard anybody other than me use the word in RL, so I genuinely do not know.

    When I’ve used the term in conversation (invariably with folks who’ve never heard it, because I don’t move in the type of circles where that type of terminology would be in common use) I pronounce it [CIZ-sex-shul] – because I assumed that’s how you say it.

    Could you enlighten me on this, Thomas?

    What is the “correct” pronunciation of cis?

    Gregory A. Butler

    • March 8, 2010 10:48 am

      Pronounced like “sis,” as in sister.

      • March 8, 2010 11:09 am


        I did not know that!

        I just assumed that since it was spelled with a C, you pronounced it the way you spell it!

        Gregory A. Butler

      • March 8, 2010 7:36 pm

        The prefix is Latin, which is where that pronunciation comes from.

      • Heather permalink
        February 1, 2012 4:02 pm

        If it was latin pronunciation it would be a ‘k’ sound like “kis” not a soft “cis”. Like the latin pronunciation of Caesar is Kae-sar.

  2. March 8, 2010 12:09 pm

    I think part of some cis people’s anger or discomfort at the term “cis” comes from conflating sex and gender – they assume that the label “cis” means “perfectly happy and comfortable with all aspects of their assigned sex *and* socially-assigned gender role”, and then get angry at it being applied to them if they do challenge, question or are unhappy with gender norms, not realising that if it’s cis*sexual* that’s being talked about, that’s quite specifically relating to dysphoria about one’s bodily sex (or rather the absence of it).

    I think it would help a lot if it was made clearer that it’s perfectly possible to be:

    – cisgendered and cissexual
    – cisgendered and transsexual
    – transgendered and transsexual
    – transgendered and cissexual

    (for example, i’m very comfortable with calling myself “cissexual”, because that’s what i am – i have no desire to change either the primary or secondary sexual characteristics of my body. But i am very emphatically *not* cisgendered…)

    I think unambiguous usage of “cis/transsexual” and “cis/transgendered”, rather than just “cis” and “trans” on their own, would clear things up a lot on this issue.

    • March 8, 2010 2:19 pm

      Cissexual but not cisgendered? Would that be the same as genderqueer – you’re fine with your body but like the idea of presenting as, or acting like, a stereotypical version of the opposite sex?

      I think I need a more thorough explanation of your terms.

      • March 8, 2010 3:56 pm

        Um… yes and no. Genderqueer people can be cissexual or transsexual, but by definition not cisgendered (ie, “genderqueer” is a subset of “transgendered”), but genderqueer isn’t the same thing as cross-dressing or drag (which would probably better describe “presenting as, or acting like, a stereotypical version of the opposite sex”) – although some genderqueer people can and do do that. In my interpretation, genderqueer isn’t about presentation, but about open non-identification with any of the binary sex *or* gender “choices” on offer in mainstream society.

        (My “presentation” – not that i really intentionally “present” as anything – ironically actually pretty well matches my assigned sex, at least on a very superficial level – although it probably wouldn’t take too long observantly interacting with me to notice that i really don’t conform to either stereotypically “masculine” or stereotypically “feminine” traits at all.)

        If you want a fuller story (for me, not for anyone else who identifies either as “genderqueer” or as “cissexual but not cisgendered”), go here.

        (People who have no desire to change their bodies, but who like to dress or act as “a stereotypical version of the opposite sex” – some of whom identify as cross-dressers, transvestites, drag queens/kings, and probably other things, and some of whom may *also* identify as genderqueer – do exist, and would also fit within the category of “cissexual but not cisgendered” – however, i’m not one of them…)

  3. Kat permalink
    March 17, 2010 3:02 am

    To me it seems that those who are cissupremicists (or at least get uncomfortable with trans rights/concerns/etc) won’t use the term “cis” because they don’t want to legitmate the term “trans.” It seems to be a dichotomy between accepting a cis/trans dichotomy or accepting a “normal”/trans dichotomy, the second dichotomy placing “trans” in a pejorative light because “normal” is, under a heteronormative ideology, what is considered “good.” (Whether or not “normal” actually exists or whether a “dichotomy” actually exists is another matter entirely.)

    I’m still in a process of trying to break down the barriers being part of a privileged community has instilled in my mind–if that comment reflects privileged idiocy, please let me know 😀


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