This essay now appears as a chapter in my third book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism]
For the record: this essay is intended to clarify misconceptions about, and to encourage more thoughtful usage of, cis terminology. Anyone who references this piece in their attempts to deny or eliminate use of the term "cis" (and its variants) is clearly misinterpreting or misrepresenting my views.
In the first essay of this two-part series, I discussed how the way in which cis terminology is often used today can sometimes invisibilize certain forms of gender-based oppression, and potentially exclude people who exist at the margins of the transgender umbrella (i.e., people who don’t fit quite so neatly into a cis/trans binary). In this essay, I want to talk about the different ways in which a cis/trans distinction may be employed, as this can greatly shape the nature and ultimate goals of trans activism.
“Decentering the binary” versus “reverse discourse” approaches
One of the more commonly heard complaints about cis terminology is that it supposedly “creates a new binary” (i.e., trans versus cis). I strongly disagree with this argument. After all, people already make a distinction between non-transsexuals and transsexuals, and between gender-conforming and gender-non-conforming individuals. So the cissexual/transsexual and cisgender/transgender binaries already exist in people’s minds. It’s just that now we (trans activists) have explicitly named the unmarked majority as “cis.”
This naming of the unmarked majority can be undertaken toward one of two potential ends. First, it can be used to undermine the binary in question by decentering the dominant group perspective. So, rather than the standard perspective that trans people’s genders are illegitimate and suspect (which presupposes that cis people’s genders are legitimate and “normal”), we can instead argue that there are really two groups at play here: trans and cis people. Both are legitimate things to be. And trans people are not inherently different or distinct from cis people, but rather we are merely perceived, interpreted, and treated differently. Here, the cis/trans distinction and cis privilege serve as conceptual tools in order to make this under-discussed and often invisible set of cissexist double standards appear visible to people. The end goal here is to get people to recognize and relinquish these cissexist double standards, thus reducing the social significance of the cis/trans distinction. Presumably, in a post-cissexist world, there would still be people who are gender variant, or who socially and/or physically transition, but their gender identities, expressions, and embodiments would not receive undue scrutiny, nor be viewed as less legitimate than their cis counterparts. This is the approach that I strove to articulate in Whipping Girl.
A second and rather different way in which the naming of the unmarked majority can be employed is as part of a reverse discourse. A reverse discourse occurs when a group takes a designation or distinction that has historically been used to marginalize them (in this case, being “trans”) and uses it as a standpoint from which to prioritize their own beliefs, desires, and perspectives. So instead of the cis majority defining, discussing, and critiquing trans people, trans folks now define ourselves and describe our own identities, lives, issues, communities, and culture. What cis people say about us, our predicament, and perhaps even gender more generally, is rendered irrelevant—we are the only authority on issues that impact our lives. Indeed, in a reverse discourse, cis people and perspectives may even be deemed as inherently suspect, illegitimate, or oppressive. Read more via Whipping Girl