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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2 responses to “Jumping out of the cistem

  1. Blunt, but not sharp – very well expressed, thank you, I will find this handy as somewhere to direct distressed cisfolk.

    And I like the nod to Hofstadter in the title (and I’m sure he would too).

  2. exactly.

    i’ll see if i can remember this article if i ever need to explain it but can’t be bothered to write the whole explanation all over again in my own words. the intended content would be the same as in this, but i’m not confident i could express myself this clearly.

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