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.