Another day in the X-Twitterverse is another opportunity to be harassed by countless bots, see posts you don’t care about from people who have paid to be put into your feed and see Elon Musk, a once-respected entrepreneur, post some ignorant/misinformed nonsense.
Yesterday [in relation to writing this response] was no different, this time resulting in Musk claiming that “cis” was a heterosexual insult and that anyone using it should be ashamed.
As such, I figured we’d cover the origin and uses of the term cis and how it might be used today to find if cis, or even Cisgender, is a “heterosexual insult” like Musk claims. We’ll also cover pejorative uses of words and how some previously innocent words have become an insult. Lastly, we will cover the pejorative use of cis/cisgender and if that has qualified it as an insult in an of itself.
- Cis Origins & Uses
- Sex and Gender
- Cis and sexuality
- Cisgender as a Pejorative
- So, is CIS a heterosexual insult?
Cis Origins & Uses
First, we should take a look at how the prefix, cis, is defined, its etymology and some of the concurrent uses for the prefix.
Definition of Cis
Cis- a Latin prefix meaning “on the near side of; on this side of” (cisalpine);”
Etymology of Cis
word-forming element meaning “on the near side of, on this side,” from Latin preposition cis “on this side” (in reference to place or time), related to citra (adv.) “on this side,” from PIE *ki-s, suffixed form of root *ko-, the stem of demonstrative pronoun meaning “this.” Opposed to trans- or ultra-. Originally only of place, sometimes 19c. of time; 21c. of life situations (such as cis-gender, which is attested by 2011).
Uses of Cis in Science
Cis in Chemistry
Chem: indicates that two groups of atoms lie on the same side of a double bond.
- https://chem.libretexts.org/ Cis-Trans_Isomers_(Geometric_Isomers)
Cis in Biology
“In molecular biology, a cis-acting (or cis-regulatory) element refers to a region of the chromosomal DNA that regulates the transcription or expression of a gene that is on the same chromosome. A trans-acting (or trans-regulatory) element, on the other hand, refers to a soluble protein that binds to the cis-acting element of a gene to control its expression. The gene that encodes the soluble trans-acting protein can reside on any chromosome, often located far away from the gene whose expression it regulates.”https://www.nature.com/scitable/students-page/101Trending
Scientific CIS and TRANS
CIS and its antonyms TRANS & ULTRA are commonly used in science and have been for a long time, however, the use of it in more “everyday” language is far more recent.
The earliest known sexuality-related use of the cis- prefix in any language was in a 1914 German-language book on sexology. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of the prefix in the context of gender in English dates from 1994.
Cisgender was coined in 1994. This means that whilst transgender was thought to have originated in the 1970s it was over 20 years till trans’s antonym, cis, was used to describe the opposite of transgender.
If transgender was used to describe someone with a gender “on a different side” or opposed to their sex, cisgender meant someone that had a gender “on the same side” or in accord with their sex.
Sex and Gender
What is Sex?
Sex, at least in humans, is usually thought of in the simplistic XX or XY chromosome sets.
The assignment of sex at birth (or even its prediction in the womb), however, is not determined on a genetic level but usually the physical presentation of genitals.
Sex, or at least our chromosome sets, is actually a lot more complicated than the XX/XY split we learn in primary school.
Karotypes: Sex Cells Baby!
There are at least six karyotype variations in humans: XX, XY, X, XXY, XYY, and XXXY, that can result in normal life spans and cause people to present differently.
It could be said that there is no female chromosome, as everyone has X’s and instead, there is just the presence of a male chromosome (Y) or not. One might then conclude if a Y chromosome is present you are male, and if not you are not-male and not-male = female.
The issue, then, is what about those with a Y chromosome who have presented their whole life as female and would be none the wiser without genetic testing? There are some rare cases where a female can have a Y chromosome, such as in Swyer syndrome, where a person has an XY genotype but develops as a female due to a mutation in the Y chromosome.
Intersex is another issue that can throw a spanner in the works of sex assignment. Intersex people are individuals born with any of several sex characteristics including chromosome patterns, gonads, or genitals that, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”.
Sex in biology
Biology, or at least some biologists, attempt to simplify this issue, at least somewhat. In biology, sexes are defined by reproductive roles; evolutionary mechanisms by which individuals reproduce. In species like ours that reproduce through two gametes of differing sizes, there are only two sexes; male and female. The male sex is the phenotype that produces many small, motile gametes (sperm) and the female sex is the phenotype that produces few large, sessile gametes (eggs).
But what then in the case of one with a Y chromosome that doesn’t produce sperm? Are they not male? What if someone with a Y chromosome produces eggs? What if they are sterile? What if they produce gametes that oppose their physical presentation? What about one with Swyer Syndrome?
Whilst most karyotypes with a Y chromosome have an active SRY gene and present as male, it’s not always the case.
The karyotypes usually present as male or female and are therefore not considered a new sex, but… Most karyotypes are also infertile (without medical assistance, and often with), which seems somewhat against the whole “reproductive role” and reverts to how they physically appear…
There may be no singular metric over what defines sex. Some might regard the karyotypes as sexes, others the physical presentation of sex, some the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, some may base it on the reproductive role and so on.
Gender is often conflated with sex, and in days past when we understood less this was a more acceptable misunderstanding.
Our sex determines a lot of our physical characteristics. It also determines proclivities to certain behaviours. For example, as a general statement:
Human males tend to be more aggressive, human females tend to be more nurturing and so on.
These behaviours are then split into “masculine and feminine”.
Masculine and feminine are essentially social biases formed around stereotypical behaviours of a particular sex.
It will then be said that a male acting in a non-typical way is acting feminine and vice versa.
These expected behaviours have then gone on to form additional biases around what it means to be a man or a woman.
Expectations differ from society to society, and whilst there are often historical commonalities like the expectation of the females to rear the children, these are mostly born out of necessity. There wasn’t; baby formula, bottled milk, refrigeration, way to express, baby food and so on.
Technology limited the opportunities for people, especially females, and even then we can see some cultures being more balanced or even matriarchal… if you consider the Norse, the women were often the religious leaders, they would also fight alongside the men as shield maidens and so on.
“The state of Meghalaya in northeastern India is home to the Khasi tribe, which is known for its matriarchal society.https://www.unearthwomen.com/5-matriarchal-societies-where-women-are-in-charge/
In the Khasi culture, property and wealth are inherited through the female line, and women have a strong say in household and community decisions.”
So, it’s not like men having financial and authoritative control is an expectation in every society, yet, in most societies we have this expectation for the “man of the house”, being the breadwinner, being into sports and all the other things that tend to jump into people’s heads when we think “man” – and equally the same, often inverse, attitudes are applied when we think “woman”.
Gender, then, may well be born from our sex, but has been shaped by society, especially by religions and laws within said society, and evolved over the years.
These expected behaviours, desires, and so on can put a lot of pressure on people, some more than others.
Before we even broach transgenderism we have to understand that these expectations can lead to schisms in identity and questions of sexuality.
I can lean on my own experience growing up and the questions that arose from them. Whilst I like to play sport, I hate watching it. I’m not interested in cars. I can be quite emotional. I openly cry in movies or TV shows. Even music can make me cry. I love hugs. I can tell if a man is attractive even though I am not attracted to them. I found the company of women preferable to men, for friendships.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, this put me at odds with the world because that was not how boys/men acted. I questioned things like if I was gay, but I didn’t find men sexually attractive. I questioned if I was supposed to be a woman… But I reconciled that I probably only really wanted that for perverse reasons.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was just weird. I didn’t fit the gender stereotype, I wasn’t gay, but I still saw myself as part of the “man” archetype.
For all intents and purposes, I could have been described as a cis-gendered heterosexual man which was a bit weird. Still, I didn’t conform to the expectations of my gender at the time, but I most definitely didn’t conform to those of women either. We could say I was a gender non-conformist, though this isn’t typically how the term is understood and is more often used for those who are trans or non-binary.
I have no clue what it’s like to be transgender. I don’t presume to know what a trans person has experienced in their life in the same way I have no way of knowing what it’s like to grow up black, female, Asian or any other group I’m not part of.
I am sure that there is no singular trans story either. So I’m not going to tell you what leads someone to conclude they are trans… All that matters is that someone who is transgender feels at odds with their assigned gender and/or identifies so much more with a different gender.
Trans and cisgender
If we understand sex as our reproductive presentation at birth and gender as the stereotypical/expected behaviours of a particular sex… Then trans and cisgender are a way to identify our gender as being in accordance/discordance with our sex.
Cis and sexuality
Cis, at least so far as gender is concerned has no direct link between being homosexual or heterosexual.
Homo is one of those words/prefixes that is strongly misunderstood, especially 20+ years ago. Homo without a specific suffix added has nothing to do with sexuality.
Homo = same, hetero = different or other, sexual = sexual interest.
Homosexual = interested in the same sex, heterosexual = interested in the opposite sex.
A cisgender person can be either (or both or neither), just as a transgender person can be.
Homogendered typically means “people of the same gender” e.g. a group that all identify as men, but as a synonym is a word with a similar meaning and not necessarily exactly the same we could use them synonymously in the sense that homo = same and cis = on the same side of… We could coin a new use for homogendered. In this use, a homogendered person is one who identifies with their gender… Like a homosexual is one attracted to their sex… But to reiterate, being cis/homo-gendered says nothing about someone’s sexuality.
Cisgender as a Pejorative
There may be some who have taken to using cisgender in a condescending or patronising way. Whilst I disagree with this use I can understand why people who have persistently had their experience cast aside start to see those who are cisgendered in a negative light.
It’s akin to those who say there’s no systemic racism because their black colleague got a promotion above them. They haven’t taken into account everything that person has done to get there, the uphill struggle to be seen as an equal, or the much bigger picture of all those who have been and still are overlooked, largely due to their ethnic origin. Yes, things are much better than they were but we are far from in an ideal situation.
If someone had to deal with hate, and denial of said hate, every single day, you could imagine them being annoyed with those discounting their experience.
I’m white. I don’t get the black experience.
I’m male. I don’t get the female experience.
I’m cisgendered. I don’t get the transgender experience.
The best I can do is listen to the tapestry of experiences those different to me have, and do my best to understand.
Innocence to Insults
Historically, we can see examples of some words moving from innocence to insult or derogatory comment. Perhaps these words were used to describe the colour of one’s skin or ethnic origin, and they have since become taboo words.
There are many factors at play here, but the main one to consider is those in power. Those in power who oppressed others and used these terms in derogatory ways. Those who added a negative connotation to those words as a default, made people sneer at the word itself.
Through various equality acts the harm caused by these words and their associated connotations have been codified as slurs, although in many instances the reasoning is not explained to people as to why certain words cannot be used.
It is also why you might find older generations using these words, often without malice.
Can we say that cis has been used to the point that it has actually become an insult though? Just because a word is used as an insult sometimes, doesn’t make it an insult in and of itself.
Even vulgar words that are considered insults as standard can have positive uses. For the sake of the more sensitive readers, let’s just say “the C word”. In England, it’s a double-edged sword, it can be one of the worst insults but also how you address your favourite people.
So, whilst I don’t deny the experience of people feeling insulted by the use of the word cis, nor do I deny that some people do use cisgender in, at the very least, dismissive and condescending way, does that qualify it as an insult in an of itself like the C word is often seen?
Most of the time, when I see someone thinking cis is an insult, it’s a conservative male who is so against the language, that the underlying content is unimportant to them. They take offence to cis (perhaps thinking it is akin to ‘sissy’) even though it matches how they see themselves. Their gender matches their sex.
The problem is that they lack the imagination to see the world through any lens other than their blinkered view, so the suggestion that sex <> gender is an affront to their sensibilities. It doesn’t matter the multitude of psychological studies on the matter, the presupposition that sex = gender is a firmly held belief that will not be moved.
Unfortunately, those with a fixed and deep-seated worldview are more likely to be offended that there’s something they don’t know or have got wrong.
So, is CIS a heterosexual insult?
What does that even mean?
An insult to heterosexuals? No… Because cis is related to gender and not sexuality.
An insult made by heterosexuals? Not that I’m aware of…
Cisin itself has a wide variety of uses and is not an insult as a default.
It *could* be used as a pejorative but this would be a limited number of cases. A hammer can be used as a murder weapon.. that doesn’t make it a murder weapon. Numbers can be used in a secret code. That doesn’t make them a secret code. People can demonstrate bad behaviours. That doesn’t make them bad people.
So sure, maybe there are some fringe cases where cis is used pejoratively, but that does not make cis or even cisgender an insult and even if it was it still wouldn’t be a “heterosexual insult”.
Musk couldn’t really be any more wrong.
I’m sure he’ll try though.
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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