“Cisgender” is not a slur, John Aravosis

In response to a post about a recent glitter-bombing, gay activist John Aravosis claims that the words “cis” and “cisgender” are somehow “a slur” against people who aren’t transgender. The term originated as a neutral counterpart to “transgender” in reference to the Latin prefixes “cis-” and “trans-“, meaning “on the same side” and “on the other side”. In contrast to people who are transgender, people who are cisgender experience an alignment of their gender identity and their physical sex. The term is not intended to carry negative connotations – just as the word “transgender” is not a slur against trans people, neither is the word “cisgender” a slur against cis people.

Aravosis, however, seems to think that calling cis people cis is comparable to calling straight people “breeders”, or calling trans people “trannies”. But it’s not exactly helpful to throw that out there without any explanation. If anything, it’s like calling straight people “heterosexual” by analogy to “homosexual” – a dispassionate and equitable way of referring to sexual orientation. Is “heterosexual” a slur against straight people? Hardly. It’s not a term of disparagement, and neither is “cisgender”.

Aravosis later provides a variety of justifications for his initial statement, and they’re not entirely persuasive. He first claims that the term cisgender is “not a word” or something less than a “real word”, and that most people “don’t recognize or use” it. But what makes a word a “real” word, and what makes it any more or less real than any other word? In this instance, the meaning of “cisgender” is understood and agreed upon, and this is how it’s used. Aravosis himself necessarily recognizes this in his criticism of the term. After all, if it weren’t even a word, then what would be the sense in objecting to it? Indeed, “cisgender” seems to be the only word specifically meant to refer to people who are not transgender. The fact that there may be a limited range of contexts where the term is applicable does not make it any less real than other words. Many people may still not understand what it means to be “transgender”, yet this is clearly a word. And “cisgender” is no different.

He then claims that the term is inappropriate because it was not created by cis people to describe themselves. Of course, straight people didn’t collectively reach an agreement that they would be known as “straight” or “heterosexual” before these words were used to describe them. Straight people may not identify as straight or heterosexual, or believe they need any words to describe their sexuality. But this doesn’t mean we can’t ever have neutral and nonjudgmental terminology to refer to straight people. These words aren’t an insult just because straight people, or cis people, didn’t come up with them.

He later argues that the word simply “sounds offensive” and “sounds like a slur”. Why? Apparently because it was used in the context of pointing out cis people defending and minimizing incidents of transphobia. That’s rather shaky ground for concluding that the word for cis people must therefore be a slur against them. Straight people, white people, and men may also be singled out for their ignorance or prejudice, but no one would say that the very names of these groups are intended to denigrate them. It’s even more troubling to suggest that calling out members of a majority for their mistreatment of minorities somehow constitutes an offensive and unjustified slur against them. This effectively demolishes any possibility of discussing such issues, and marks them as something that can never be mentioned for fear of offending majority groups by drawing attention to their misbehavior. This is an asinine restraint on meaningful discourse, and it only serves to benefit established majorities. The same objection could be made to any term for cis people other than “cisgender” – if it’s ever used in the course of criticizing cis people, that makes it a slur against them. How would choosing another word be an improvement? By this standard, there can never be any word for people who aren’t trans, and this actually seems to be what he’s getting at. In a very revealing comment, Aravosis says:

…we don’t label ourselves as ‘not trans.’ I can’t think of once in my life that I searched for a word to describe myself as not trans. I simply said I’m a gay man and people understood that that meant I was genetically and in my heart and soul a guy, and that I liked guys. There was no need, or even thought given, to how to define myself as not trans.

Consider the implications of this. By claiming that he should just be able to call himself a “man” and have everyone else understand that this means he’s cisgender, he’s asserting that cis people should be the default and unmarked class of people. To be a man is to be cis – a trans man cannot simply be a man, but must qualify his manhood and mark himself in a way that cis people don’t have to. The very purpose of the term “cisgender” is to eliminate this disparity. In reality, not all men are cis. Some men are cis, and some men are trans, and saying that you’re a man can mean that you’re a cis man or a trans man. Having a parallel term puts everyone on the same level here. Rejecting the possibility of any name for cis people as a group is akin to saying, “We’re not cis, we’re just people. And trans people are just trans people.” It’s really no better than if a straight man said, “I’ve never needed a word to describe myself as not gay. I just said I’m a man, and people understood that meant I was a guy, and that I liked women.”

Obviously, straight people are not entitled to ownership of the unqualified word “men” to the exclusion of all others. And neither are cis people. But believing that you’re exempt from having a name, while minorities are not, is very entitled.

“Cisgender” is not a slur, John Aravosis

17 thoughts on ““Cisgender” is not a slur, John Aravosis

  1. 1

    Zinnia, let me commpliment you on an over all well thought out and reasonable response. I would like to point out something that you ignore, and therefore lead to the inference that it is unimportant and/or irrelevant. You assume that because a word is intended to be nuetral means that it is inherently used that way and should be perceived as nuetral and any perception of it as otherwise is inherently incorrect. A word created and used without intent to slur can still be offensive, if it is used often enough in an offensive manner. The words “tranny” and “trans” effectively come from the same origins, it is entirely possible that many people who first used “tranny” intended it to be as nuetral as calling a man named Robert Bobby. Ultimately, it was the continual use in a non-nuetral manner that lead to the trans community objecting to it as a slur. So it is incombent upon the people who wish to use the word to make sure that it is used in an appropriate manner.

    This leads to the second issue, just as the majority should not object to being critized by the minority. The minority should not hide their own bad behavior behind the majority being overly sensitive or only interested in protecting their priveledge. While I can agree, that Mr. Avaros has made a poor arguement for his position, that does not follow that the word is not being used as a slur.

    I’m sorry, but how a word sounds is meaningful. Try using the word niggardly, in polite company that are not familliar with it. The latin prefix “cis” is in far less common usage than the prefix “trans”, therefore using a word built on it in a jargon where there is a good chance that the community using the correct meaning is appropriate, trying to carry it over to the general populace who are likely not familiar with the prefix can lead to misunderstanding.

    1. 1.1

      Your reply is an excellent argument for ditching the word “trans” as it, too, is often used as an inferred slur. I will be more than happy to simply be called woman, as opposed to trans woman, though I am in no way ashamed of having transitioned.

  2. 3

    Cisgender? That’s too many syllables to be insulting.

    As we’ve learned with ‘faggot’, ‘cunt’, ‘trannie’, and ‘nigger’…Derogatory terms are best left to the one/two syllable kingdom.


  3. 4

    By claiming that he should just be able to call himself a “man” and have everyone else understand that this means he’s cisgender, he’s asserting that cis people should be the default and unmarked class of people. To be a man is to be cis – a trans man cannot simply be a man, but must qualify his manhood and mark himself in a way that cis people don’t have to.

    That’s the point… Women, for instance, don’t want to be force-labelled ‘cis’ women because they are real women. The prefix seems to indicate some kind of abnormality, but they’re default women. A transperson can never become real women, they’ll always have a man’s body, distorted by hormones and surgery. The ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ terms seem to indicate that both parties have equal claims to being women, when one clearly is and one is clearly deluded.

    1. 4.1

      The whole point of the term is to be equitable in the necessity for a modifying label. The fact that you disagree with the label based on what you’ve said makes it more clear to me that the label is important. It absolutely implies that each person has “equal claim” to self-identify as the correct gender, and our language should reflect that.

    2. 4.2

      For real? You object to people using the term “cis” because it implies some kind of “abnormality,” but then you go off about the trans person’s “distorted bodies,” “delusion” and lack of being “real”? It’s like you’re trying to be a mean spirited hypocrite.

      . . . Are you trying to be a mean spirited hypocrite?

    3. Pan

      The use of the term ‘real women’ that you are using in opposition to ‘trans women’ shows that you have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s hate speech, and trans women are real women. Go and learn about gender orientation.

  4. 7

    When Natalie put “Die Cis Scum” on her jacket the word cis might have been perceived as a slur by some. I am not accusing Natalie of anything, but in that context it is easy for a cis person to misunderstand, no?

  5. 10

    There are so many arguments on both sides of this issue, most of them excellent. But, I am not sure an argument is required. I am willing to address you, or your gender identity with whatever term you wish as a common courtesy. Although I don’t really care which term you use to describe me, if I asked you to use a specific term, would you refuse?

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