Monthly Archives: August 2013

Something chronic

In many respects I appear to be, as O am, highly privileged. I’m white, cisgendered, privately educated, and I’m in a stable mixed-gender relationship. But there are two ways I’m not privileged. I’m bisexual, which is awesome but frustrating. And then there’s the subject of this post: I have a chronic debilitating illness. I’ve had it all my adult life, and I still don’t know what it is. It’s been classed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is a diagnosis of exclusion – in other words, they’ve ruled out lots of things, and slapped a descriptive label on what’s left. No-one has proposed any sort of causal mechanism for my symptoms, which are now mostly worse than ever. I discovered the most effective drug for symptomatic relief myself, quite by accident.

The symptoms are invisible and unpleasant: wildly variable gut function and dysfunction, shooting muscle pains, and near-perpetual exhaustion. The gut trouble is extremely uncomfortable, socially embarassing, and makes me very worried about my attractiveness. (As far as I know it’s very rarely even noticeable to others, but I can’t escape the self-consciousness.) The tiredness hampers me in my professional work and my domestic tasks including childcare. It’s much more debilitating, day by day, than my intermittent poor mental health. And it never gets any better.

My previous employer sent me to see Occupational Health, just as my current employers are about to. This is supposed to be a form of support, but it serves mainly to make one feel guilty for being ill, as though being incapacitated was a matter of volition. The previous Occupational Health doctor required me to trek up to Harley Street to be told that it wasn’t IBS (without any tests to check this). He also flatly informed me that my condition could not be regarded as a disability in law, despite the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equalities Act) saying so in black and white. That meant his official advice to my employers was that they didn’t have to do a damn thing to help me manage my condition. I’m very much afraid the same is about to happen again.

I’m a union member, which has helped me in the past. I’d recommend union membership to almost anyone. The simple fact of being a prominent trades unionist was excellent leverage for getting small adjustments made. But my current employer does not recognise any unions. It has a ridiculous sockpuppet entity that it calls a staff consultation group, but it’s independent of management in the same way the Press Complaints Commission is independent of newspaper editors. And my illness means I can’t muster the energy to organise a union branch from scratch myself. And thanks to legal aid cuts, I couldn’t afford to take my employers to an employment tribunal if I needed to.

The side-effects suck too. I have a fairly substantial appetite, but eating only barely keeps me going. I find it a tremendous struggle to keep my weight above ‘underweight’ for my height. One day a fortnight ago I was so hungry I ate five meals, and still suffered a fainting fit that evening. Anyone who thinks it’s wonderful that I can eat what I want and not gain weight will be lucky to escape as the recipient of merely a hard stare. Similarly, the effects of my illness on my private life and inhibitions are at least as profound as the effect of five years of Catholic high school.

Next month I go to see a gastroenterologist to try and refine my diagnosis. (Thanks, NHS!) But knowledge won’t make me less disabled, just as passing that knowledge on to others won’t automatically make them stop making my life difficult. Having an invisible disability sucks, and there’s no support charity for diseases that have no name. I’m lucky that my many forms of privilege give me opportunities to fight back, but they don’t make it OK. It may very well never be OK.

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Jumping out of the cistem

A very short word is causing controversy in the Twittersphere. No, not YOLO; shorter than that. The word is cis, and it attracts pedants and bigots (and many who are both) with unfailing efficiency. Some of you may have seen me tangling with various people on Twitter on this subject, so I thought it might be worth collecting all the key points in one place.

A lot of the arguments I’ll be discussing are wildly irrelevant to any issues of real substance, so let’s establish how people are actually using the word. In short, cis parallels the use of trans as a short form of transgender; cisgender is an adjective describing a person whose gender identity matches the sex/gender assigned to them at birth; cis is short for this. That means that I am cis, and so are most other people. It’s a useful term, and it’s short. And the reason that there are discussions drawing attention the difference between cis and trans people is that trans people continue to get a hellishly raw deal in our society, even in legislation allegedly designed to address LGBTQ issues. (The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, for example, actually makes life harder for people who are married and then begin to transition.) Trans people started using cis in this way in order to make these discussions a little easier. After all, it’s hard to have a sensible discussion when the other party thinks they can define their own status as ‘normal’ without question. Clear terminology that actually relates to the subject in hand, and doesn’t transmit such assumptions, makes a difference.

So let’s dispense with a few of the most spurious objections. Firstly, the term is not, and was never intended to be, derogatory. It’s occasionally used to circumscribe groups like ‘white middle-class cisgendered straight men’ as being likely to be clueless and privileged. But honestly, if the meanest thing people are doing to you is observing that you’re unaware of your own extreme good fortune, you have it pretty easy. No, cis is technical language, clinical in the same way that transgender can sometimes be, but with the advantage that if it applies to you, you don’t have to go to an actual clinic to be taken seriously about it.

Secondly, it has absolutely no connection whatever to sissy. Sissy comes from sister, and has a very obvious derogatory meaning of ‘effeminate man’. (Of course, the idea that it’s bad for a man to display feminine traits is both sexist and transphobic.) Although English-speakers universally pronounce cis the same as the first syllable of sister, it’s originally a Latin word pronounced almost exactly like the English word kiss. Sissy was already well-established by the time that any of the modern uses of cis took off.

Thirdly, some people object to being labelled. Frankly, if you’re happy to apply labels like ‘gay’ or ‘transgender’ to others, you shouldn’t flinch from accepting labels like ‘straight’ or ‘cisgender’ yourself. To argue otherwise is simply self-indulgent. If you expect to have such an argument taken seriously, you must have a pretty cushy life. I personally think it’s flat out wrong to suggest that the commonest position is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ in a way that others aren’t; but even if you don’t, it’s harmless to apply clear, functional labels to commonplace positions.

cis and trans isomers of dichloroetheneOn to the more substantial (though still tangential) points. Cis has not been dragged kicking and screaming into the English language by neologism-toting lefty gender activists. It has a well-established use in chemistry: Organic molecules are essentially strings of carbon atoms with bits tacked on. They’re generally pretty floppy, and the tacked-on bits rotate freely. But if you have a double-bonded pair of carbon atoms (as in the raw materials for polythene, PVC or Teflon) the structure is rigid, and the extra bits are in fixed orientations relative to each other. A molecule is called a trans isomer if the bits point away from the double bond in opposite directions, and a cis isomer if they point the same way. No organic chemist would see anything remarkable in this usage.

So why is cis the opposite of trans? Because that’s the exact meaning it has in Latin. In Latin, cis and trans are prepositions, meaning ‘on the near side of’ and ‘across, on the far side of’. Used as prefixes, they turn up in placenames quite a lot. The ancient Roman Republic had provinces of Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Transalpina. Rendered into English as Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, the names literally mean Gaul on this side, and on that side, of the Alps. Similarly, ancient Germany was thought of as Cisrhenane (on the near, i.e. Roman-occupied, side of the Rhine) or Transrhenane (pretty much the whole of Germany). “Transylvania” is another example of this naming convention – it means ‘beyond the forest’ – but as far as I know there was never a *Cisylvania. As late as 1867, when the Austrian Empire was divided into quasi-independent ‘Austria’ and ‘Hungary’ sections, the western part was known as Cisleithania and the eastern part as Transleithania, after the otherwise insignificant river Leitha. It’s not a coincidence that in all these examples, the ‘cis’ side is the side aligned with the imperial capital, and the ‘trans’ side the more troublesome side, requiring pacification or appeasement.

I’ve seen it objected that the Latin cis and trans are thus prefixes and cannot be standalone words. This is self-evident bunk. Practical examples can be found throughout Caesar’s Gallic War. For instance, book 4, paragraph 4, includes “et cis Rhenum dispositis praesidiis Germanos transire prohibebant” – “and [the Menapii], having placed guards on this side of the Rhine, hindered the Germans from crossing”. Other examples are easy to find. It might be countered that these words are prepositions, and in the modern English usage they are being employed as adjectives. Well, language change happens. We are not speaking Classical Latin, or even Vulgar Latin. The chemists got there first, and did what speakers of dominant languages generally do – they adapted bits of another language to their own purposes. It may jar with an English speaker than in French parking, smoking and camping are nouns and not participles, but so what? They’d make for terrible English, but they’re acceptable French. Similarly cis and trans make for perfectly satisfactory English adjectives.

But in the end, the most important thing I’d say to my fellow cis people who object to this usage is this: if it bothers you more that people describe you as ‘cis’ than that trans people suffer so much terrible discrimination, if that’s what you’re dedicating your time and energy to fighting – adjectives, rather than assault and exclusion – you need to take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror. You are not born with the automatic right to apply labels to others and not receive them yourself. You don’t get to choose how other people experience their own gender, and you don’t get to tell them how to feel about it. So if someone else applies an entirely functional and innocuous label to you, don’t react as though it burns you to accept it.  Don’t waste the campaigning energies of trans activists on nonsense about parts of speech; they have better things to do, and it’s a safe bet that you do too.

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