Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why I use that word that I use: Cis, cissupremacy, cissexism

A question mark in quotation marks in a speech bubble.
Cis, cissupremacy, and cissexism are words I use a lot when I'm discussing trans people - people whose gender or sex does not match the gender or sex forced upon them by their doctors and parents at birth. Cis and related terms are newish, and they are not very familiar terms to many, so I am offering a simple definition of these three terms and an explanation of why I use them.

Cis means that someone is not trans. It is a neutral way to say that someone's gender or sex is the same as the gender or sex their doctors and parents assigned them at birth. It is an adjective or prefix attached to a noun. Most of the population is cis, and receive certain rights and privileges that trans people do not simply because they are cis.

Cissexism is the positioning of cis identities as better or more real than trans identites. Cis does not refer strictly to gender performance, but gender identity. There are a wide range of cis identities, some traditional and some not traditional, and while cis people often experience sexism or heterosexism based on their performance, their identity still privileges them over trans people.

Cissupremacy refers to the system of oppressing trans people and privileging cis people. Trans people often challenge assumptions about gender and sex just by existing, and thus face a lot of discrimination from cis people who want to make sure that trans identities continue to be seen as lesser. Cissupremacy ensures that trans people face harassment, discrimination, and violence in social, domestic, professional, legal, educational, and cultural spaces (to name only a few) simply for being trans. Cissupremacy also ensures that cis people do not face this brand of hatred; cissupremacy often gives cis people full reign to enforce their prejudice against trans people without punishment.

I say "cis" instead of saying "not trans" because I want to show readers that cis people have gender identity, too. If you self-identify with the gender or sex you were assigned at birth, you are on the cis spectrum and receive cis privilege. Trans identities are marked, and marking trans but not cis identities is a way of othering trans people and showing that they are not right. If I call cis women just "women" or "normal women" and always call trans women "trans women", that says that trans women are not real, regular, or normal women. Cis identities are no more or less legitimate than trans identities, and referring to them as cis reinforces that idea.

Cis is not a word I made up, nor is it an academic word. It was first used in 1995 in Internet communities by trans man Carl Buijs. Julia Serano popularized the term in her book Whipping Girl. She writes:
"[A]s a scientist (where the prefixes “trans” and “cis” are routinely used), this terminology seems fairly obvious in retrospect. “Trans” means “across” or “on the opposite side of,” whereas “cis” means “on the same side of.” So if someone who was assigned one sex at birth, but comes to identify and live as a member of the other sex, is called a “transsexual” (because they have crossed from one sex to the other), then the someone who lives and identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth is called a “cissexual. "
Serano learned this word from Emi Koyama of She writes:
"By using the term "cissexual" and "cisgender," they de-centralize the dominant group, exposing it as merely one possible alternative rather than the "norm" against which trans people are defined. I don't expect the word to come into common usage anytime soon, but I felt it was an interesting concept - a feminist one, in fact - which is why I am using it".
Lisa Harney has written extensively on language and cissexism, and Questioning Transphobia is an excellent resource if you're new to words like this. In a post entitled "How to Check Your Cis Privilege", she wrote:
Many people who are known for expressing the most transphobic views in public, react very badly to the term “cisgender,” claim that it is a slur, that it is imposing gender on them. It’s none of these things – it simply means “someone who is not a transgender person.” ... This is an othering tactic – by claiming that “cisgender”, “cissexual”, or “cis” is an offensive slur, you’re saying outright that you’re unwilling to allow trans people to stand on equal footing with you. That you’re normal and they’re deviant. That you require the right to name trans people as other, but that trans people have no right to name you as privileged and oppressor. That it is normal to assume that not being transgender is the natural way to be, in the same way that not being gay or lesbian is assumed in straight society."
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This and other "Why I use that word that I use" posts are a 101 space - if there's something that you're not getting, you have greater room than usual to ask basic questions.

ETA: Check out the comments for some necessary expansion and critique from Sunset and pokemontaco.


  1. I'm afraid I have a HUGE disagreement with this post. This disagreement centres around the replacement of the word "Cisgender" with "Cissexual".

    As someone who is transgender but not transsexual, I feel that this is part of a general movement towards transgender being redefined as inclusive of only transsexual people, which seems to be happening more and more, although most of this redefinition seems to be coming from outside the transgender community.

    The word "Transgender" has been a very successful umbrella term which has brought trans people together to compaign for trans rights. By using "cissexual" instead of "cisgender" we risk fragmenting the trans community once again and equating transgender with transsexual. this would not merely be an act of anti-solidarity which most transsexual people I know reject, but it would probably be political suicide for the trans community.

  2. This is a fantastic post, though I do have to object somewhat to the idea that gender assignments are "forced" on infants at birth. I feel that using the word "force" demonizes the parents of trans children - many of whom really are accepting and supportive.

  3. Natascha:

    I'm not seeing any indication in even Serano's quote that the word cissexual is replacing cisgender. In fact, I'm seeing an indication that cisgender and cissexual are both being used now and ought to be used to describe both situations.

    That's certainly how I use it.

    For instance, you would be a cissexual transgender individual. RMJ would be a cissexual cisgender individual. And I would be a transsexual transgender individual.

    It merely connects to the fact that transsexual folk face certain elements of transphobic oppression (called cissexism) that transgender people who are cissexual do not face because they aren't changing their bodies and whatnot.

  4. Jumping in to point out that gender isn't only forced upon infants by parents - RMJ also mentioned doctors, but extended family and most people with which babies and young children come into contact also contribute. I think "forced" is very apt at this stage, and doesn't undo or erase the things supportive parents and family do later in life.

  5. With regards to "forcing" gender upon infant, I have to agree that "forced" is the right word to use. Which I say as a cissexual cisgender person. I wouldn't though, say that it demonizes the parents of trans children, it's not just the parents of trans children who immediately start gendering their child, generally speaking ALL parents do this. That section I think implicates all parents (and extended family and even random strangers on the street as well as the medical establishment etc.) in this process of gendering that is done in our society.

    That implication is important, because we do all have a role in perpetuating that process.

  6. I have to agree. Gender IS forced, no matter how supportive those parents and teachers may be later -- because gender is largely subconscious in our society.

    For example, I have a friend who is expecting twins, and despite being very aware of feminist issues and quite liberal herself (as well as in a same-sex relationship), she found herself worrying about waiting to find out the sex of her babies to make baby blankets for them or "whether (she) should just go with something gender-neutral". I love her, and if her child's gender did not match its sex I'm sure she would be supportive. But this is just one action -- assuming that colors match genders -- we're not even to toys or socialization yet, and we're pushing gender on these kids.

    Similarly, when I worked at a preschool-sponsored day camp, the kids, who were primarily around age 4 and 5, were already freaked out to the point of crying if they were boys and got handed purple scissors. Where did they learn that purple was a girl color? Not from the ether. In retail, where I work now, I can't tell you how many times I've seen parents go "silly, that's for girls."

    It gets pushed on kids young, from the media, from their parents, from friends, from all sorts of places.

    So yes, it is forced. Even if there's no ill will meant.

  7. Also re Serano's quote -- I don't see that indication either.

    "So if someone who was assigned one sex at birth, but comes to identify and live as a member of the other sex, is called a “transsexual” (because they have crossed from one sex to the other), then the someone who lives and identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth is called a “cissexual."

    This is an if/than statement. Certainly "if someone who identifies as a gender other than that they were assigned is called "transgender" then someone who lives and identifies as the gender that they were assigned is called "cisgender".

    I definitely agree there's a lot of cissexual bias wrt the transgender community (from both without and within - I'm cisgender and cissexual so I'd see it from without, but have quite a few trans* friends who have experienced this bias from within), but I don't think that's being expressed within this post.

  8. Sorry, er -

    'Certainly "if someone who identifies as a gender other than that they were assigned is called "transgender" then someone who lives and identifies as the gender that they were assigned is called "cisgender".
    is the next obvious statement.'

    is what I meant, obvs.

  9. thanks for this.

    i knew what cis meant but never knew the etymology. now i feel less clueless about using it.

  10. I'm curious how you would place a non-binary person in the location of privilege? As someone who does not consider myself cis, but doesn't fit the qualifications of "trans" either, it's an area of particular interest. It seems to have its own rules as far as how it interacts with society and social privilege.

  11. Hey Sunset! Being comfortable at my end of the binary myself, I would not term non-binary people as having cis privilege. Being on the binary is definitely a form of privilege. The extent to which a non-binary person suffers from cissexism is entirely up to them to determine. I believe Kinsey ( has written some on this topic.

  12. The definition of cis as simply someone who is not trans doesn't seem correct to me, if trans means someone that comes to identify as the *opposite*/other sex. As Sunset asked, where do non-binary or gender-neutral and such fall in such definitions? It seems like by that definition they would also be considered cis.

    One issue I have with the labeling of non-trans people as "cis" is that they may not, well, *be* cis at all. Such people that seem to get so angry over being called cis often seem to be people that believe that genitals/assigned at birth is all there is, and are unable to examine the very idea that there is any other choice/possibility. That does not necessarily mean they are cis-gendered.

  13. pokemontaco - you have good points, and they're well taken.

  14. Hey stop making my morning blog list longer! I'm running out of time to read!

    Ok seriously thanks for the link. I rather like pokemontaco's points, they're close to what I was thinking. I identify as a nonbinary individual. I recognize that in certain situations I have "cis" or "passing" privilege - I can choose to appear as a cis woman when I wish to benefit from cis privileges like not being harassed or worrying about my job. At the same time I daresay there's something called binary privilege that some of my "trans" friends benefit from - the ability to feel comfortable in one or the other of the socially available boxes, to make changes so your appearance matches the prescriptions for your internal gender, etc.

    In other news I need to restart my blog, blogspot fubared and lost my attempt at it. Will stop hijacking your thread now and go write my own.

  15. Not at all, that's exactly what I was trying to get at :) I think that my post doesn't exactly cover the non-binary experience of cis privilege and lack thereof, and y'all have done a wonderful job of exploring that deficiency in this piece of my writing.

  16. As a genderqueer person, I consider myself to be cissexual and transgender. From your other blog posts, I see that you separate sex and gender, and I appreciate that.

    I face a point of ambiguity in the use of "trans" when it comes to non-binary gender, though. If, as quoted above, “trans” means “across” or “on the opposite side of,” whereas “cis” means “on the same side of”; then by chosing "trans" over something else, am I not recentralizing the dominant group by taking on the label of the aspect of my gender that is more "not normal"?

  17. Hi! Thank you very much for this valuable resource--I'm linking to it from my blog bio, at I hope your page never gets lost to the fickleness of the internets!


  18. First, I think this is an excellent resource on what cis* means. Thank you.

    I identify as genderqueer (although transmasculine might be more appropriate re: my gender presentation) and I would say I'm transgender and cissexual.

    The points above on cis* and trans* both being problematic for non-binary people are really interesting. I like think that since transgender is an umbrella term for all people who don't completely identify with the gender they were assigned/socialized into from birth, non-binary people would fall into the transgender category as well. Since having a non-binary identity is transitioning, in a way, from a binary identity assigned at birth, using trans still makes sense for that journey (even if you haven't make it to the "opposite" side of the spectrum). The overarching theme connecting trans* identities is that you're not in the same place re: gender that society made you start (and expects you to stay), even if that place is now completely beyond the spectrum.

    I can't wait for the day when everyone just has a gender and everyone else is just fine with it... maybe it will look something like a gender version of Paula Rust's Sexual Landscapes model (a really thought-provoking view on sexuality, I'd link it, but I only had a PDF of it from a class).

    Also, sorry for rambling (and abuse of parentheses). I do that. A lot.

  19. I'm neither Trans* nor cis-gendered. I am GenderQueer. By using "Trans*" a la "cis people are not Trans*," you imply that I am cis, which I am not.


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