Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
For a supposed free-speech warrior, Twitter owner Elon Musk has a funny way of showing it. Mr. Musk regularly manipulates the social-media platform in ways that serve his own business or ideological interests. The latest such case: on June 21, in response to a user tweeting that he’d been harassed by trans activists for not wanting to use the word “cis,” Mr. Musk tweeted out some new company policy: “The words ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’ are considered slurs on this platform.” Later that day, Harry Potter author and famed-slash-notorious critic of trans activism J.K. Rowling posted, without naming Mr. Musk, an agreement of sorts: “‘Cis’ is ideological language, signifying belief in the unfalsifiable concept of gender identity.” To which Mr. Musk replied, “Exactly.”
To address whether “cisgender” (shorthand “cis”) is a slur, it’s helpful to consider how it’s used: some people – transgender and non-binary ones – identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. “Cis” is used as the catch-all term for everyone else. It can function in a pejorative way (the “die cis scum”-type slogans that have at times factored into transgender activism), but it’s also just how many not-trans people describe themselves. (One does not find self-identified “Karens” or “TERFs.”)
“Cis” is nevertheless a frustrating term. Per Merriam-Webster, the term “describes someone whose internal sense of gender corresponds with the sex the person was identified as having at birth.” Trans people, by definition, do not experience that comfort with the gender society had expected of them. Does it automatically follow that non-trans individuals do?
It’s complicated. To be cis is to be at ease enough with your gender that you have no plans to transition to another. This speaks only to relative comfort levels. You can be relatively comfortable and still rather uncomfortable.
Indeed, women’s discomfort with female gender roles is so commonplace that there’s a rather well-known movement – feminism – all about addressing this. Consider all the ostensibly cisgender women whose choice of profession or partner does not line up with gendered expectations. Has it been easy for such women, historically, do we think?
But resistance to conventional femininity isn’t just about women who happen to be lesbians or firefighters (not mutually exclusive categories), but rather a sentiment shared by any woman who wants more out of life than being decorative and nurturing. Any time a woman acts as the protagonist in her own story, she is engaging in gender-non-conforming behaviour. (Having the audacity to think the general public would be interested in one’s opinions – and not caring if this means risking being disliked – is as stereotypically male as any act I can think of. Yet here I am.)
If some feminists object to “cisgender,” it’s because the term implies that a not-trans woman has effectively signed on to her own oppression in a sexist society, and is content with her lot. “Cisgender,” blithely applied to men and women alike, suggests the existence of a gender-neutral ease with gender roles that would at most only exist among men.
But what man is 100 per cent gender-conforming, either? While arguably less confining than its equivalent, conventional masculinity can also be stifling, what with the demands that one be the primary breadwinner as well as an avid sports fan. (To what degree does “cis” apply to a man who, upon noticing toe holes in his socks, promptly replaces them, rather than letting the socks disintegrate?)
Point being, “cisgender” is a concept more fraught than those cheering it seem prepared to allow. And not just to transphobes or culture warriors. It ought to be possible to support rights and affirmation for transgender people without making inaccurate assumptions about those who aren’t trans. If an individual does not want to use “cis” in reference to their own ostensibly not-trans self, that seems … fine? As with the ritual of stating one’s pronouns, people may want to opt out for a range of reasons, and rather than calling them out or trying to parse those reasons with them, one can always just leave be.
A fraught concept, though, is not the same as a slur. And the fact of the matter is that there’s no other shorthand for not-trans. By all means roll your eyes when pedantic progressives insist on affixing “cis” to “man” or “woman,” even when clear from the context. But to ban “cis” is to effectively censor all discussion – even critical! – of gender. Maybe that’s what Elon Musk wants. Anything’s possible.
For what it’s worth, I’ve called myself “cis” and expect to go on doing so. But I do not, to borrow from Shania Twain, “feel like a woman.” I know myself to be one, based on my experience of moving through the world, but I feel like myself. Maybe this means that if I were 20 and not (almost) 40 I’d be sporting a they/them pin. Or maybe it’s my cis privilege talking – that I can be so comfortable with my femaleness as not to even notice it.