“Cisgender”? Cui Bono?


If you read a single post here at CBG, make it this one.

Let’s talk about “cis.”  Some feminists think this word is harmful because it reflects an agreement with gender roles.

I think it’s actually more harmful when it simply means “non-trans,” particularly in the context of the sentence “Cisgender people are a privileged class.”

I’m going to start, as I often do, with an analogy.

Let’s say we had a word that meant “not Black.”  Black people have definitely faced historical oppressions that did not have easy equivalencies in other races, and let’s say that there was an idea that the proper way to fight oppression in the Black community was by defining themselves in this way.  So from now on, you have, say, people who are “melano-racial” (Black), and people who are “leuko-racial” (non-Black).

It would be very justified to say, in this context, that “melano-racial” people are oppressed people.  But it would be a mistake to say “melano-racial people are oppressed by leuko-racial people,” or that leuko-racial people were the oppressor class.

Why?  Because overwhelmingly, violence directed toward Black people, the oppressed class, has not come from simply “non-Black” people.  It has come from white people.  The oppression is not “non-Black supremacy,” but white supremacy.

Why does it matter?  Well, if programs originally designed to help, say, Latinos, or American Indians, were told that they had to also accommodate Black people, using the same budget and facilities, it would matter.  If white people—the actual perpetrators of the huge majority of offenses against Black people—used their institutional power to ensure that they were the group of “leuko-racials” that had to change the least and sacrifice the least in order to achieve equality, it would matter.

It’s likely that some of these “leuko-racial” Latinos and American Indians would accept Black people into their gatherings and spaces, for many of the same reasons that many women are accepting of both MTF and FTM trans people in their spaces—they’d recognize that the “melano-racial” people were facing serious, intense racial discrimination from white people that they empathized with to a strong degree, even though their racial oppressions weren’t exactly identical.

But what would happen if people started decrying “leuko-racial privilege,” and the principal targets of their anger were almost always Latino or American Indian?  What if a new term was invented for Latino people who objected to the new ways they were expected to share the spaces they’d carved out for themselves: MERL, for Melano-Exclusionary Radical Latino?  What if caricatures were made of what MERLs were like, caricatures that played with old stereotypes of Latinos that were hurtful and originally used to prop up white supremacy?  What if there was no similar simple acronym term for white people who continued their oppression, and Twitter filled with hashtags for not only #melanopride but also #killallmerls?

What if, when the MERLs themselves objected—both to the term and to how it was used—they were accused of being violent and melanophobic?  What if even attempting to say “this is a problem caused by white people, not ‘leuko-racial’ people” was met with scorn and derision, or an exhortation to “shut your mouth, MERL scum”?

You begin to see the problem.

“Cis” is a term that pretends to define an oppressor class, but instead works by lumping both the oppressors and many of the oppressed into a single, unified whole.  What this means, in practice, is that women—who are also an oppressed gender minority—are being treated like they are not only the oppressor class, but in fact the part of the oppressor class that needs to sacrifice the most, risk the most, and argue the least.

Terms that mean “non-x” can work to help identify oppression when they are being used to designate an oppressor class and people outside it.  That’s why “non-white” works, or “non-male.”  Anyone who is not in the class at the top gets shit on—to varying degrees, certainly, but iit’s all the same shit. Latino folks have not faced oppression in the same way as Black folks, but it’s the system of white supremacy that hurts both groups.

In other words, when there’s an oppressor class A, “non-A” works to define people experiencing oppression stemming from that oppressor class.  However, if you have oppressed class B, “non-B” can and often does include people of other oppressed classes facing oppression stemming from exactly the same place as class B.

Women and gender non-conforming people (including trans people, genderqueer people, genderfluid people, etc.) are all facing the same oppression: patriarchy and male supremacy.  So an honest and inquisitve person is forced to ask of the term “cisgender” a very important question: cui bono?

Who benefits from a term that groups the oppressor and parts of the oppressed group together?  The answer is easy to spot: the oppressor group does.  Since oppressed groups, by definition, have less institutional power than the oppressor group, the oppressor class will always minimize the impact “non-B” terms like “cis” or “leuko-racial” could have on themselves.  The burden, as much as possible, will be shifted to the shoulders of already-oppressed classes.

Male supremacy and patriarchy are the oppressions that hurt trans people, gender non-conformers, and all women.  In the words of the hashtag, yes—all women.  Terming “cis” the oppressor linguistically erases the oldest and most common form of oppression on the planet: male supremacy.  It allows members of one oppressed group to claim they are “punching up” while in fact hurting another group of oppressed people.  It allows a reversal by which other oppressed groups are viewed as the primary perpetrators of oppression.

“Cis” benefits men.  It can only benefit men, in the same way that redefining white supremacy as non-black supremacy can only benefit whites.  You can’t fight an oppressive system by redefining its victims as its aggressors.


31 thoughts on ““Cisgender”? Cui Bono?

  1. A logical argument, but surely it applies to “straight privilege” as well? Women aren’t the oppressors of men.

    1. Heterosexual women experience privilege that is completely off-limits to homosexual women. I have seen heterosexual discourse trying to paint the heterosexual female experience as a tale of “sleeping with the enemy”, completely disregarding the often-violent lived realities of homosexual women and pretending that compulsory heterosexuality does not affect them.

  2. Um … there are black latinos and black native americans.

    Afro-Latino and afro-native people DO experience extra discrimination.

    This is like the worst analogy in history.

    1. I don’t think you understand the idea of analogies. How do the existence of the people you mention change the analogy to being an invalid one? “Your analogy isn’t identical to the thing being analogized” does not mean an analogy is invalid; it merely means it is an analogy.

      1. “Latino” as a term also refers to a shared culture, in the sense of a pan-Latin American siblinghood. There is a racial “expectation” of sorts that often pops up (specially in white people’s heads), but latino still continues to refer to people of a vast range of phenotypes with shared customs.

  3. We have words that mean not black.
    Like “white” & ” Caucasian”.
    Cisgender its not about defining privilege either.
    Its about defining internal identity.
    If you are congruent mind/body/sex.
    You are cisgender.
    If you have a discrepancy with mind/body/sex. You are likely transgender.
    That’s it. Kind of like the hetrosexual/homosexual binary.

    1. “Kind of like the homsexual/heterosexual binary”??? I’ve never heard of such a binary, and I don’t believe there is one shred of evidence that such a thing exists.

  4. A term like leuko racial loses its value because of the large amount of races (apologies for making this assumption, I am not black and haven’t taken the time to discuss this idea with one or more black people to see what they actually think).

    By contrast, there are only two states of being infused with pharmaceutical concoctions that alter your secondary sexual characteristics. Cissexual and transsexual. The terms take on completely different contexts due to the binary.

    I won’t defend transgender, bigender, genderfluid, gendercurious, or any of the other stupid bullshit humanity has come up with. I do have a soft spot for agender even though I am not.

    I don’t go to my local trans women’s meetings anymore, because the last time I was there I had to share that space with a man in a trashy green wig that looked like it came from a Halloween big who sexually harassed me, touched me against my will, and wouldn’t shut the fuck about the violent actions he had taken. You see, he wasn’t a man or a woman, he was ‘trans.’

    There were two boxes. Both of them seemed pretty shitty, but I perceived one of those boxes to be less shitty than the other, so I climbed out of mine and tried to cram myself in the second box. Doing so was extremely painful, I’m not much of a contortionist. That’s what makes me a transsexual woman.

  5. “Kind of like the homsexual/heterosexual binary”??? I’ve never heard of such a binary, and I don’t believe there is evidence that it exists.

  6. Women are an oppressed majority, as it happens – a slender majority, but we are about 51% of the world’s population.

    I’m enjoying reading your archives very much.

  7. This is real simple. All cis women have power over trans women just as surely as all straight women have power over lesbian women. Deny this and you are doing the patriarchy’s job for them.

    1. Saying this over and over doesn’t make it so. You can make whatever specious comparisons you want, but transgender women are men. They are adult human males. You are describing a men’s rights movement. You are saying “all women have power over all men claiming to be women.”

    2. No. Transwomen have jumped to the front of the LGBT (or TTTTTTTTTT) groups, get all sorts of public funding, and are constantly pandered to by society over actual women. Why?
      Because they are men, and they still have male privelege.

    3. Female sex-selected abortion, the infanticide of female babies, female genital mutilation, rape as a tactic of war, child brides, child sex trafficking, child domestic trafficking, hysterectomising of 1 in 3 women in the Western world for problems whereby hysterectomy is not necessary, forced episiotomy, abortion rights and the countless pieces of legislation solely enacted on the biological female body, the media representations of female people as being a joke once we reach 30-35 years old, the Western world’s version of FGM through re-virginisation, labiaplasty and unnecessary butt and boob implants, the requirement of hairlessness and makeup or one is unkempt, endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian cysts etc and the medical misogyny that must be fought for any semblance of decent health care, menstruation and menopause as too dirty and must be hidden from polite society…

      Oh the f**king privelege of being norn female.

  8. I use “cis” because “cis” and “trans” were originally (and still are) terms used in chemistry. “Cis” is the typical presentation of a molecule and “trans” is when the molecule changes into an atypical shape, to put it very, very simply. See also “trans fats.” There are trans-fatty acids and cis-fatty acids.

    So I don’t really take offense at the use of the term *to generally denote not-transgendered*. Where I depart from their norm is believing that transgender is a biological state (I think it’s a mental disorder or a complete misunderstanding of what gender means, leading to making some permanent and damaging choices for oneself) or that it’s possible AS A FEMALE to have sex-based privilege. If I have privilege, and I do, it comes from my race or from the fact of my having been born American or from my living in close proximity with one of the vanishing middle class (I am not middle-class myself). Is there also privilege for females who perform gender in the way society demands? I suppose, until you consider that being male and performing masculinity brings much more privilege. And I don’t perform feminine correctly anyway. I don’t get the perks that a girly-girl woman gets, and she does get some. So you see how the concept of “cisgender” is very slippery in the first place.

    1. “Cisgender” is also not connotative of privilege in any way in the definition you give. In other words, according to the not-trans definition of cis, only MEN who are “cisgender” are privileged…not women.

    2. You should read the foot-binding priveledge essay on this website.
      Women who perform femininity for the patriarchy are punished as well. It’s the whole ‘if you dress like A, you’re a slut; if you dress like B you’re a prude’ etc.: It comes down to one thing – there isn’t a way for women to win in a patriarchal society.

  9. Though you may raise valid concerns about generalization, your definitions are problematic:

    * cis is Latin for “on the near side of, on this side”


    * trans is Latin for “”change of one substance to another”

    Here you see the problem is that cis does not mean “not-trans” as you may have heard others falsely claim. Therefore, regardless of your intentions, your whole argument is founded on a pseudo-definition.

    This society founded and maintained by are for patriarchy, and its strict gender roles which favor patriarchy, set up patriarchal notions of male and female [1], and strongly represses decolonization from these gender assignments and re-socializes people who challenge these roles. In short, this is a society of “cisnormativity”. Though not all cis people are strictly oppressors, the “cis” quality is the default, and people are forced to submit to their the caste roles of their gender assignment or face repercussions to varying degrees of severity.

    @ @ @ @ @


    * Men are made by socialization to masculinity. Being a man requires a psychology based on emotional numbness and a dichotomy of self and other. This is also the psychology required by soldiers

    * Female socialization is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls—otherwise known as “grooming”—to create a class of compliant victims. Femininity is a set of behaviors that are, in essence, ritualized submission.

    1. So instead you’re saying “cis” means “on the side of gender norms,” and that this is the natural state of women and girls. Believing oppression is the natural state of women and girls is misogyny, sir, no matter how many footnotes you add.

  10. It’s also a matter of language, and male supremacy.
    Originally in English, man simply meant person, of either sex. Eventually, over time, person came to mean man as in penis-carrier, and so woman was invented, as in ‘not-man.’ Transwomen are now taking the word woman for themselves (how many times on twitter/etc. do we see transwomen stating that they are women, or that ‘real women have dicks’ or that they are more of a woman than actual women? Quite a lot. And then, if we do only mention women as an oppressed group, they start squealing ‘but what about the transwomen! everything must be about us!’ ironically), and designating women as ciswomen as a way to other us, define us, put themselves as our lord and master (just like men), and to then act as though we are oppressing them.

  11. I never really liked the term, anyway. When I first heard it, I assumed it was a derogatory (or a very clumsy) term for transwomen, as derived from “sissies”. Thus, I find it very hard to believe that there is an alpha-male on the planet who would not want to mutilate me for describing them as “cis”…

    Would you mind if I put a link to your blog in the links page on mine? I would like to include a well-worded and moderate resource on Radical Feminism that intrepid transpeople can look up if they want to know more. I would put a standard trigger warning, though, just for the highly-sensitive souls. Case in point:

    “You can make whatever specious comparisons you want, but transgender women are men.” (Comments thread, above)

    Biologically accurate, I grant you, but not pleasant even for me to hear. I steel myself in advance, though. Others might appreciate a warning.

  12. The conversation could be clarified by accepting what I believe to be the human reality for as long as we have considered ourselves human: there are more than two genders and/or sexes. Trans “women” are not women/female, yet they are not men/male, either. But in this culture, we allow for only two boxes: male or female (and each comes with ridiculous ready made restrictions on what is considered “normal” for that sex). If you are born with a penis, but don’t “feel” male, our culture gives you no other box to jump to besides “female.” Transgender people are trapped by the enforced, oppressive limitations of patriarchy, same as everyone else. Transgenders comprise a group of other genders as yet to be recognized and named by themselves and this culture. They must fight for their own civil rights, to be acknowledged and accepted and to have a respected position in our society. Let us all support transgender people in doing this. Calling lesbians “bigots” because they won’t date/aren’t attracted to trans “women” is ridiculous. Can lesbians not determine who they are attracted to without being castigated!? Sexual attraction cannot be ruled by “political correctness.” Finally, saying that trans “women” are “women, the same as all other women” actually constitutes the final erasure of (real) Woman, the Life Carrier. Even the term “woman-born woman” is absurd, as the underlying premise is that somehow there are “other kinds” of “woman” besides being born so. You are created “woman” by Goddess –you have the potential to menstruate, conceive, gestate, give birth and lactate … and experience that blood mystery known as menopause. If you were not born Woman, with these sacred life-giving powers, you cannot become so at some later date through cosmetic surgery, hormones, electrolysis, makeup, hair extensions, corsets and airbrushing. A surgeon cannot “make a womb,” she can only make a visual approximation, a hole or space in an other-gendered body. That hole or space does not function as a natural organ and it cannot do what a womb does, carry life (not to mention being a Chalice of Shakti and a portal to other realities, but I don’t have time to talk about that here). Woman is the primary and first sex/gender, the sex/gender that gives birth to all other genders and sexes. Woman has been bought and sold, denigrated, oppressed, raped, used, abused, and erased for millennia. Whatever your sex or gender, you were born of your Mother, who is Woman. People may decide to call themselves “trans woman” but no one dares call themselves “trans mother” because the realization of the silliness of that, the biological impossibility of that, would stop one dead in one’s tracks. There is no such thing as a “trans mother.” Likewise, we women cannot allow the term “woman” or “female” to be co-opted by other genders. After millennia of crushing oppression, it truly constitutes Woman’s final abuse and erasure. If we permit this re-naming, we are permitting an essential power to be stolen –after so much has been stolen from us for so long. Female equals Woman and Woman is the only one capable of being physical mother, of birthing the next generation through Her body. That is the simple reality. Whatever your sex or gender, it is time now to honor Mother, Woman, the Female … the One who has –at unspeakable cost–carried every human being ever born –of every gender and sex, including you–in Her Sacred Womb and has delivered you into Life itself through … what? … yes, Her Goddess-given female form, Her Woman’s body … and nothing else. Ava, Presiding Priestess, The Goddess Temple of Orange County http://www.GoddessTempleOC.org

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