Yes Mean Yes – Why Cis Is Not a Slur

Very often I talk about feminism in terms that are critical of other feminists, most particularly of feminism that does not recognise it’s own colonial, transphobic structural flaws.  There are good reasons for that – feminism (at least for me) is about addressing complex systems of hierarchy within a patriarchal society, and is at it’s best when it can celebrate the victories of other women over some part of that system without fear or favour, cherishing women who value their hard won autonomy over their bodies and lives.

So when that doesn’t happen it is important to speak up and say – no, wait, hang on a minute.  Of course the reasons why that encouragement and support hasn’t been offered might vary: in the case of Sarah Ditum, who did not celebrate Laverne Cox on the cover of Time  because she wore sexy clothes, I suspect that it was very simple. (And I have a huge problem with this, but more on that in another post because the thoughts I have on this whole gatekeeping thing will need it!).

Having been brought up in the gender binary world – that the patriarchy requires us to live in because it supports the power structures – and having been so conditioned by that gender binary, I suppose the idea that gender is fluid, that gender exists on a spectrum, should have been anathema to me.  But once I had reconnected with my feminism, and begun to develop a broader and more nuanced faith and political language for it, one thing seemed so strikingly obvious that I wondered how I had not seen it before: the political, social, economic and physical dominance that the patriarchy has would lose at the very least a good deal of it’s power if the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’ were not pre-eminent – i.e., if the binary poles of gender were simply part of the rich tapestry of the gender spectrum.

I cannot (nor should not) try and speak about the experiences of those who are transgender, or gender fluid: there are some excellent blogs, articles and books by writers who live this reality and experience. Some of them, like Roz Kaveny or Janet Mock might be names you know: others like this list of transgender writers might be less well known to you, but you should acquaint yourself with them if the idea of fluidity of gender is new or strange to you.

What I can talk about however are some of the words or ideas which feminists might resist or find offensive,  which brings me to ‘Cis’ gender, why I use it to describe myself and why I disagree utterly with feminists who insist it’s a slur. Because it isn’t.

Having just spoken about gender fluidity and how that would affect the power balance of the patriarchy, you might wonder why I am happy to claim a term that is applied to the very binary I increasingly reject. I think it’s important in the first instance to say that I am a cisgender woman because other women are trans* gender. Or as it states here:

Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal.  Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people’, but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.

In other words, not all women are simply called women. Until all of my sisters are simply my sisters, one way (but not the only way) that I can support them and value them for who they are is by using such a simple descriptive.

Because that’s all it is – a descriptive word. On the rich tapestry that is gender, it is one thread within a multiplicity of threads; one colour amongst many within that tapestry.

But also this: I say that I believe transgender women to be women and my faith reminds me that my ‘yes has to mean yes’ – that my actions must support my words or my words would not be truthful.  So I would ask my fellow feminists  who say that they accept transgender women as women but who reject the descriptive term ‘cis’ as a slur – step back. Think again.  Are your words of acceptance for transgender women entirely truthful?

I am not suggesting that you have to use the term cis to recognise your transgender sisters as full sisters – it is only one way of showing that you do. But if you cannot celebrate Laverne Cox’s victories without accusing her of being a tool of the patriarchy (which was shockingly disrespectful!) then do not be surprised if the truth of your words are questioned.

5 thoughts on “Yes Mean Yes – Why Cis Is Not a Slur

  1. In the case of Cox I think the ‘she’s propping up the binary’ argument fell over an elephant before it even got into the trans room. Femininity/womanhood is constructed AGAINST constructions of black women & any white feminist whining that black women are harming the cause by wearing lipstick or whatever is either culpably clueless or intentionally racist.


    • Exactly that Zanna, and thank you for enunciating that so eloquently! Ditum’s through-gritted-teeth ‘acceptance’ of Cox as a woman rings hollow in the face of her ignorance of that, and it rang hollow enough in any event.


  2. Thanks for writing about it, I was so angry about it and really tied up with work – I was too anxious to write properly. I will try to write again later, not to change her mind which is hopeless but for the waverers.


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