“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.