Offensive words I: defining “cis privilege”

Its been an interesting and possibly enlightening week in more ways than one. I will start with a topic that is possibly of greater interest to the theoreticians out there, but does also impinge on the trans community – and that is the use of the term “cis”. Or possibly the phrase “cis privilege”. This post covers the first in two issues that I think the word gives rise to – what it means to be cis: the next takes a poke at the more exciting questions its use provokes, like when is it OK to ban a word.

Latin roots

If you are trans yourself, chances are you have either come across “cis” or heard it and wonderd quite what it meant. Personally, I love the word: but then, I’m a Latin scholar – albeit a fairly rusty one. “Cis” is short for “cisgendered”, which is usually used to mean something along the lines of “someone who is comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth”. It is pure latin, in the sense that “trans” is a latin prefix, meaning “on the other side of”, whilst “cis” is the prefix for the opposite position, meaning “on this side of”.

Caesar was much pre-occupied with marching his troops around Gallia Transalpina (literally: the bit of Gaul that lay on the other side of the Alps) before marching them through Gallia Cisalpina (the bit on THIS side) on his way back to Rome.

So far so good. In common parlance, “trans” propsered, whilst “cis” dwindled, being found nowadays mostly in the realms of biochemistry and gender studies. But it is seeing a resurgence and oddly is creating something of a stir along the way. I picked this up reading a heated debate on one forum – informed consent – last week, which appears to have resolved with a compromise that may or may not be such, in which the word continues to be allowed – but not if it is used in a derogatory fashion. Why might that not be a compromise? Read on…

A useful word

I said that I like the word. Its useful and could find growing usefulness at, say, the GP’s. A week or so back my GP reviewed my hormone counts and said I was high for testosterone. Er, no. I’m only high now because the NHS system has me down as female. I am low if you regard my body as still essentially, biologically male. The problem, of course, is the NHS system is attempting to crowbar two sometimes conflicting concepts – bio gender and identified gender – into one single tickbox.

The word therefore has use. It also very obviously has use in discussion of gender issues and it finesses debates around the straw man of whether one becomes a “real woman” (or “man”) as a result of “gender re-assignment”.

I say “straw man” because although I recognise that many trans individuals go with the binary and prefer, in time, to drop the “trans” from their self-identification, others are never wholly comfortable with that. At the same time, the jibe “you’ll never be a real xx because..” is both hurtful and diversionary. Maybe being closer to what one ought to be is better than achieving some standard of perfection.

A controversial word

I digress. The fuss arose around the fact that some chose to use the phrase “cis privilege” in debate. This is problematic. No: not because of the term itself, so much as the fact that it is used in wildly differing ways by different individuals, and therefore whilst one person can use it as pure insult, another might use it as delicate political analysis.

You’re only saying that because of your “cis privilege” can, in some hands, translate raoughly to “so fuck you and the cis horse you rode in on”.

There are, however, two other ways in which the phrase has meaning: similar, but subtly different. The first and most obvious is to draw attention to the privileged status that most cis folk have next to trans persons, simply in terms of being able to live their lives. Most cis folk do not have to put up with a constant low level of abuse just for walking down the street.

Most can use the toilet in public without fear of being arrested (as recently happened to a trans woman in Texas). Most can…well, the list goes on, but at base it catalogues the stuff that cis people take for granted and that we have to fight for almost every day of our lives.

Very hard to realise how hard the fight is at times: one of the first things I was warned when I “came out” was that I could say goodbye to my “male privilege”. At the time, I thought they were joking: a year on, and I am well aware of my harsh new reality: there’s a lot of stuff you don’t realise you had until its gone.

Still, some people objected to being told they were “privileged” in this sense: fair enough, as some of those so described might be oppressed for other reasons. Their sexual orientation. Their disability. Whatever.

But still – and this is where I see the week as enlightening – there is one futher dimension to this. If its just about “privilege”, why can’t us trannies talk about “non-trans privilege”? Good question.

I am indebted to one poster who drew me to a blog by the insightful Julie Serrano. This is seriously intense thought, but at base it points out that there is serious reason for creating a balancing word and concept – and that lies in the realms of the link between language and thought. Where the dominant culture is utterly bought into the idea of its own normalcy – and of everything else as deviance from that normalcy – it is not enough to say that there is a word for the non-normal and that’s that.

A direct action word

Because by having words for what is “other” – and no words for what is “non-other” – this simply reinforces the sense that the “other” is deviant, abnormal…wrong. That battle was fought – and won – by gays in the ‘50’s and 60’s, who over-turned cultural assumptions to the effect that there was normal (so much so that you didn’t even need to call it that) and non-normal, aka homosexual, by promoting use of the word “heterosexual”.

“Cisgender” – and “cis” – is therefore not just an analytical tool: it is direct action in and of itself. It is a means of stating that there is trans and there is cis. We are both types of people: and we are both entitled to our identity. SO get over it.

In this sense, “cis privilege” has nothing to do with all the nice things (like safety in town centres at night) that cis folk have: everything to do with the idea that cis folk, at present, are so normal when it comes to gender identity that they reckon they don’t even need a word to describe their normalness.



About janefae

On my way from here to there
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