An Important Message About Vocabulary
While I do have a particular instance in mind, this little epistle is really in reaction to several comments, essays, loaded questions, and diatribes I've seen over the past three or four weeks in various places (though I hadn't seen it blow up into a shouting match anywhere until a couple of days ago). Note that if you don't know what the verb 'to other' means, or how the umbrella term 'transgender' is used, you may have some homework to do before getting into this. I expect that most of my readers already know those concepts.
[Minor edit to fit use of 'cisgender' instead of 'cisgendered' to current accepted style.]
Folks, 'cisgender'1 and 'cisssexual' really are intended to be neutral terms and will be so until/unless some sort of general stigma gets attached to the concept of living / identifying / presenting as the gender society always expected of you because it was on your birth certificate. I don't see that ever being likely. (I have a hunch that I'll be responding to a lot of criticisms of this essay by pointing back to this very pragraph, starting at that "until".)
It's important to note that there's no reclaiming of an old slur involved, nor repurposing of a word with other baggage, because 'cisgender' was coined specifically for this meaning and this purpose, and wasn't a word before that. Any baggage the word has now has to have accrued entirely over the last decade and a half.
('cisgender', from 'cis-', "on the same side", + 'gender'; in contrast to 'trans-', "crossing over"; both from Latin, and both prefixes used in Chemistry with similar meanings.)
The reason it feels jarring -- "naming"? "marking"? -- to you, and gets your hackles up is quite simply that y'all are accustomed to being the unmarked class, and giving you any concise name is going to feel like an imposed label that, because you're not used to having to acknowledge a label at all, some of you start to suspect is somehow insulting or denigrating.
Stop a minute and ponder for a moment the magnitude and type of privilege that is contained in not having to think about or acknowledge a label. Compare that to TVs, TSes, DQs, DKs, GQs, and all other subgroups of transgendered people. You don't like it? Pick and popularize a different label, but pick one that doesn't stigmatize everybody else in contrast to it. That you now have a label doesn't 'other' you; it merely makes you like everybody else who has a label. If one group gets to insist on not having a label, that 'others' everyone else. If we remove the "default class" from you, that loss of privilege you have a gut reaction to isn't because you're being insulted; it's because the field just got a tiny (tiny!) bit more level.
(Here's a big hint: 'normal' and 'real' fail the doesn't-stigmatize-everyone-else condition spectacularly. Prefixing 'man'/'woman' with 'bio-' or 'genetic' or 'born' to denote not-trans, 'others' the rest of us slightly more subtly, but only slightly, and no less problematically. Either respect us, be an ally, and use non-othering language; or admit up front that you don't respect us -- that holding on to your privilege is more important than supporting us -- so we can classify this as a variation on the "tone argument" and write you off as Part Of The Problem.)
 While I learned 'transgendered' as having '-ed' on the end to make it an adjective (and applied the same pattern to 'cisgendered'), within the trans community you will find most now insist on 'transgender' and 'cisgender' as adjectives themselves, without an '-ed' suffix. If you see the '-ed' versions, they mean the same thing but are an older form.
Othering And Non-Othering Labels
|Othering|||||Not (or Less) Othering|
|Unmarked2||Marked|||||Equally Marked||Equally Marked|
|straight||queer|||||het||gay, lesbian, bi
'queer' sometimes works here as well
|regular guy||geek|||||lay user||techie|
|real woman||tranny|||||cis woman||trans woman|
|bio-man||transman|||||cis man||trans man|
 I've labelled one member of each row "unmarked", though they're obviously no longer completely unmarked in a list like this, since they have acquired one or more form of normalcy tag as a result of the 'other' being talked about. In many situations these are literally unmarked however, so that the Other is assumed to be entirely absent unless specifically mentioned by label.
This table illustrates othering combinations of labels, and non-othering or at least less othering pairs.
Note that it is generally the name for the unmarked state, and its implications of being normal/default/good/real, rather than the name for the marked state, that makes the unmarked/marked pairings problematical and othering. 'rightie'/'southpaw' would be fine, because the problem with the first example isn't the word 'southpaw', it's the claiming of right-handedness as the unmarked state. The problem with 'normal'/'regular'/'real' should be obvious; the flaw with 'straight' may be less so. If that's the case for you, consider how many different layers of meaning there are on the word 'straight': pure (unadulterated), honest (not crooked), undamaged (not bent), sober (not using drugs), clear (not confusing or obfuscating). Now reconsider what message you're sending by defining your class as 'straight' and some other class as not-straight. (I did not get this myself until a stranger took me to task for using 'straight' to mean 'het', and even then my first instinct was to get defensive about it instead of thinking about what his point was.)
Note also that some of the marked/unmarked pairs have problems of inaccuracy as well! Many people who do not identify as polyamourous, are not in explicitly polyamorous relationships, and even sneer at poly folk for being immoral, cheat on their partners. And many members of polyamorous N-ads are faithful to the promises they've made to each other. A "genetic woman" (an older usage that I don't hear as often nowadays) usually only knows her exact chromosomal makeup if something goes wrong that leads to a test -- we just assume that babies who look female and grow up to be women are XX because that's most likely, but we don't check ... and a few transsexual individuals discover along the way that they aren't the XX or XY their parents had assumed they were (for a particularly well known example, see Caroline Cossey, who is chromosomally XXXY).
Another set of terms, the cumbersome 'FAAB' and 'MAAB' meaning "female-assigned at birth" and "male-assigned at birth", attempt to sidestep that problem by digging down to what we usually mean to refer to anyhow: whether the parents were told, "congratulations, you have a daughter," or, "congratulations, you have a son," when the individual was born. Even "bio-" isn't a very meaningful label, since all humans are still biological, trans or not. Note that while 'FAAB' and 'MAAB' are useful in certain contexts when discussing the ideas of sex and gender abstractly, when used casually outside of that context they still reveal too much emphasis on the idea that initially-apparent biology = destiny, and can be used as sneakier ways of saying "real man" or "real woman" for cisgender in order to exclude trans individuals from gendered spaces.
|Unmarked||Marked|||||Equally Marked||Equally Marked|
|real woman||trans woman|||||woman||woman|
Finally, note that in most everyday contexts -- that is, normal social encounters and conversations and most policy matters, not specific medical or research or rights-activism contexts -- an even better version of the last two rows of the table would look like this version to the right --->
... but alas, I know there'll be a lot of pushback on that, from various quarters. Some of which really ought to know better. (There are some valid concerns there, and the conflict between different sets of rights and needs can be tricky to resolve, but more often the opposition to this idea stems from simple, conscious or unexamined cissexism.)
About Neutral vs. Non-Neutral Terms:
This started off with my observation of some
or pretty close
|Disparaging Or Worse|
|gay man, lesbian||fag, dyke, pansy, lezbo|
|person of color||[I'm sure we can all come up with far more examples to go here than we need, and I really don't even want to type most of those words]|
|fundamentalist with OT emphasis||Levitican|
|atheist, apathist||Godless heathen|
|tranny3, shemale, he-she, it|
|cissie or cissy4|
 N.b.! There is ongoing debate within the T* community over the use and attempted reclaiming of this word by trans men. Many trans women feel that since the negative use has mostly been directed at trans women and also used against any woman the speaker deemed "not femmy enough" (or in at least one case that comes to mind, for just being wrongheaded and mean-spirited despite being gender-conforming), it is therefore not trans men's word to reclaim.
 I've never heard these in the wild. And, significantly, the only real sting in them comes from being homophones of 'sissy' -- by suggesting a meaning very different from their actual root!
The examples I'm giving here may become dated as language shifts, and may even already be subject to differences in regional usage. There is a sort of euphemism treadmill for some terms so that the more-polite phrase gradually accrues all the negativity of the original epithet and needs to be discarded for a new euphemism; and there's 'reclaiming', by which some terms lose their stigma and become mostly neutral barring tone-of-voice cues. (Also, at least with the T* community, when the community was much younger and still discovering/inventing apropriate and useful language, it embraced terms that were later realized to be troublesome. So if you read older texts, you may see trans folk casually phrasing things in ways that would attract flames today. We were -- are -- still learning and evolving.) Bear in mind that even some of the neutral terms can be suspect if used when there was no reason to bring them up in the first place. But in my dialect at this time, I think this is a useful illustration.
Here's the thing: if we meant to be insulting or disparaging in our choice of word for people who are not transgender, you'd know. It wouldn't be this nagging discomfort over finding yourself in a marked class and worrying about having a label at all for a change. It'd be a proper insult. (And as people have noted elsewhere, expressing exasperation with an individual member of a class does not make the name for that class into a derogatory term. It's possible for a T* person annoyed at a cis person's abuse of cis privilege to call them a thickheaded, bigoted cis person without making 'cis' the insult; it's the first two adjectives that are negative, not the identifier at the end. In the same way, someone can refer to "an evil man" without making 'man' into a derogatory term, because the negativity is in 'evil', not 'man'. So just because you've heard a trans person complain about a cis person, that is not enough to serve as an example that "'cis' is used pejoratively".)
Similarly, I've seen plenty of men try to argue that a woman who has said anything negative about one man or an identified subset of men must hate all men (therefore her opinion can be ignored), white people who've cried 'reverse racism' when a person of colour has called them on their bullshit (therefore PoC are "just as bad" and their complaints can be disregarded), and countless cases of would-be allies complaining they feel attacked when a disprivileged person has complained about specific actions of some members of the group the would-be ally is a member of (and therefore the minority group is about to "lose an ally" because they were "mean"). Tone Argument, "it's all about me", and strawman "you people are just as bad", are derailing. Fifteen yards and loss of down. Don't go there.
And yes, some of the negative words can be used by members of the communities they're applied to, either as an early stage of reclaiming or because they have different connotations when used ironically by people who have a stake in those words. That's really a large enough matter on its own to warrant a separate essay. For our purposes here, consider uses of the words by a random cashier, cop, or passer-by who is not a member of the described group and isn't already a friend of the listener who is a member of that group. If you pull out the "Well, I heard some _____ people saying ______ once so it doesn't belong on the bad list," in this context, that'll be a five yard penalty for distraction. That is, it'll put you farther away from making your case, not closer. We can have the discussion specificaly about that phenomenon elsewhen.
(I should probably note discussions elsewhere regarding 'person with attribute' vs. 'adjectived person' vs. 'just a noun' labelling styles -- e.g. "person of colour" vs. "coloured person" vs. "black" (or other 'racial' marker used as a noun); or "person with diabetes" vs. "diabetic person" vs. "diabetic". Even a cursory examination of that topic would be too much of a distraction right here, but it's something that folks preparing to discuss labels should at least be aware of.)
If this sounds like I'm saying you have to agree with me to be allowed to speak, do a Google search for privilege bingo card and see how many of these "clever" arguments have been used so many times, regarding sexism, racism, ablism, poverty, and pretty much every other topic that involves a group struggling to be treated decently, that the very existence of these tactics has become a bitter joke. The rule isn't that you have to agree with me; it's that you have to fight fairly and argue in intellectually honest ways, rather than adopting the tactics of oppressors while claiming to be on my side.
A Significant Distinction:
"Now can het people jump in and declare they are insulted by being called 'het' or 'straight?' or can i cay 'i never really agreed to be called 'white' so it's insulting? and if not, what's the fucking difference?"
-- maevele, 2009-06-29
An argument I've heard is that since we transgender people get to tell others what labels to use for us and which words are unacceptable, cisgender people should not have a label forced upon them. But we never got to choose whether to have a label; we only got to argue about which labels we didn't find insulting. The 'cis' debate appears (so far) to be about whether cis-folk should be given a label at all, which is hard to see as anything other than default-class privilege.
You don't get to hold on to being "just plain [unmarked] men" and "just plain [unmarked] women" and not have a label for your class, because that continues to promote the idea that trans men and trans women aren't really men and women. I sure hope that you can understand why trying to stop that meme is important enough to risk pissing off some folks we'd been on good speaking terms with before they started insisting on turning back the clock.
"I'm giving up on using the words man and male because in a patriarchy, it's the default assumption behind human, just as cissexual/cisgender is the default assumption behind man and woman.
"So, instead of men and women, we'll have humans and women.
"There, now we can avoid offending men, er, I mean humans."
So here's the deal. I obviously do not speak for
transgender people as a whole -- to be precise, I
speak for nobody but myself -- but if instead of
complaining about having a label, you propose
a label you like better than 'cis'/'cisgender', a
label that doesn't start with 'a-', 'an-', 'un-',
'non-', or 'im-' and doesn't simply translate as
"real" or "normal", and you get a significant portion of
the not-transgender people who are engaged in
conversations with trans folk about language to agree
that the word is a candidate worth discussing
(I'm not asking for a majority of that group,
just enough that we're not having the same conversation
eighty zillion times with a different word that has
only one supporter each time), I'll
listen, and I think some other T*people will as
we I may
still have criticisms of the label you choose, and/or
helpful feedback; I may wind up pointing out that
you've still left in 'othering' aspects that demean
trans people; but I'll listen and discuss and you
really do have a shot at convincing me to try to get
others in the community to use your word instead of
'cis' if it really is a neutral term (i.e.,
not just a sneakier way to reassert cis privilege).
Oh, there'll be pushback from some quarters
even if its a great word, because some people just
hate having to learn new words and habits (just look
at the number of people who've used, "we don't need a
new word" as an excuse to oppose 'cisgender' over
the years! Or to step back farther in time, the men
who used similar excuses for not wanting to use 'Ms.'
when asked to), but bring labels you find respectful and
acceptable that don't just go back to denigrating trans
folk in contrast, that don't cast us as 'other' to your
'real', and there'll be a real conversation and maybe -- I
hope -- a meeting of the minds.
But as long as what I'm hearing is, "Waah, I don't want to have to have a label," or, "I don't like 'cis' but won't suggest something better," you can shut the [expletive] up. Because that's not a polite request for the right to choose your own nomenclature, it's just incredibly privileged whining about suddenly being treated like everybody not of the default class. And clinging to your privilege at my sisters' expense doesn't make you much of an ally. And my transgender brothers and sisters (and bi-gender, agender, and polygender siblings-in-arms) can hear that too, and most aren't just going to roll over and say, "Oh sure, unmarkedclass, we'll other ourselves just because you say it's impolite to try to be equally valid to you." While y'all are feeling butthurt about being handed an adjective (and not knowing which pocket to put it in), there are a lot of trans people busy just trying to get consistently recognized as human instead of being considered piñatas/targets, fetish objects, scapegoats, and comedy props.
Bring it. Bring the suggestions. Get a real conversation about this rolling. Until then, I'm going to continue using 'cisgender' unapologetically unless someone can show me why it really is offensive beyond existing as a label at all. This essay is a rant rather than a conversation, a shout at a bunch of whiners-for-privilege, but it's also an invitation to start a conversation if there really is a meaningful conversation to be had. I'm not saying, "Here's your label, like it or suffer" -- rather, I'm saying "If you don't like it, suggest something better." Show me there is a real basis for a conversation. Or quit complaining. Either way works for me.
Some people will read this who have already progressed beyond this stage, with or without input from me. You should be able to figure out whether you're one of the people I'm yelling at or not. If you're offended because I yelled at all, then even if I wasn't yelling at you when I started, I might be once I find that out.