Note: throughout this essay I place certain words in “double quotes” to set them apart from other words in a sentence, so it’s understood they’re the focus of analysis, not my preferred language. My purpose is greater clarity, not invalidation of the perfectly legitimate word “cisgender” through the use of what are sometimes called “scare quotes.”
A few years ago I published a short piece on Medium (read it here) in which I argued that use of the word “cisgender” was an exercise in power in that displaces cisgender people from the social ‘center’ by naming what often goes unnamed: everyone has a gender identity, sex assignment, and gender expression/presentation — not just those whose gender identities are marked with some additional modifier (like transgender, gender non-binary, and genderqueer people).
In this, the word “cisgender” is a lot like the adjectives “white,” “male,” and “heterosexual.” Such added modifiers help make normative social categories, and those who inhabit them, ‘visible.’
That piece attracted a large number of responses accusing me of weighing in on the “Is ‘cisgender’ a slur?” debate, the existence of which I was mostly unaware at the time. Rather, my intent was to offer a response to claims that the word “cisgender” is merely a neutral adjective, which it’s not. It’s an exercise in power and those who use the word should own that.
But, here, I want to focus more explicitly on the “cisgender slur” question and suggest why I think transgender people have invested so much intellectual energy in this debate.
When asked if a word is such-and-such, it’s tempting to turn to a dictionary for guidance. My handy-dandy computer dictionary defines “slur” as “a derogatory or insulting term applied to a particular group of people” as with a “racial slur.” (I think we all know which term it has in mind.)
But that definition isn’t especially helpful. If the word “cisgender” is inherently a slur, does that mean my usage of the term here is “derogatory” or “insulting”?
That doesn’t seem correct.
We need to be able to talk and write about language — even problematic language — in order to understand it and why it’s problematic. Within an analytical context, some “slurs” don’t function as slurs. They function as objects of analysis and explication.
And that suggests how we should approach the question, “Is ‘cisgender’ a slur?”
Words are not inherently meaningful. They derive their meaning from four elements of language: the intent of the user, the understanding of the audience, the context in which they’re used, and the historical ‘baggage’ by a particular word.
It should be obvious that the intent of the user contributes a great deal to the meaning of the word. After all, the user is the person who’s selecting the word from all available alternatives and deploying it in an attempt to convey meaning.
But users don’t get to determine the meaning of a word on their own. Those hearing words — the audience — also play a role in deciding their meaning, a reality that’s often surprising to digital content producers. Just because you wrote the words doesn’t mean you get to determine how readers will interpret them!
Words also occur in specific contexts that inform user intent and audience reception. Can we all just agree that the “N word” means different things when it’s used in a rap song, by African Americans in casual conversation, and by a torch-bearing mob of white-hooded klansmen?
This example is also helpful for thinking about the historical ‘baggage’ of words. Some words are so freighted with past harmful usage that it can be difficult for users or audiences to wrest new meaning from them.
The use of the “N word” in White supremacist contexts to terrorize and oppress Black Americans is so offensive to enlightened sensibilities that it can be difficult to subject that word to dispassionate analysis, much less write or type it.
Who wants to risk the word’s historical baggage tipping the scales of meaning toward slur and what that would say about the user? (Not me!)
Any attempt to determine if “cisgender” is a slur will have to consider all these factors — intent, audience, context, and historical ‘baggage.’
I have seen the word “cisgender” used on social media with apparent intent to silence, marginalize, or isolate individuals deemed to be cisgender based solely on the evidence of their profile photo. Sometimes the audience for that usage understands that intent and resists it, thereby tacitly agreeing that “cisgender” is functioning as a “slur” in that context.
But I’ve also seen the word used in a sincere effort to neutrally describe the social reality of gender: some people’s gender identity corresponds to the sex and gender they were labelled at birth (i.e. they’re cisgender).
In both these examples, the historical baggage of “cisgender,” a relative neologism, seems pretty negligible. Unlike words like “faggot,” dyke” or the “N word,” “cisgender” just hasn’t been around long enough to carry much baggage — positive or negative.
If we’re going to be honest about how language operates we need to acknowledge that “cisgender” has the potential to function as a slur but that doesn’t mean it always does.
But I don’t think this debate is really about language. At all.
To argue that “cisgender” is a slur is to argue that meaning inheres in the material form of a word. Regardless of intent, reception, context, or historical usage, there’s some inherent, ineffable characteristic of a word itself that determines its meaning, always and forever.
And that’s just silly!
There’s plenty of evidence that the meaning and usage of language changes over time. One need only review the etymological history of the word “gay” or its sometime synonym — The Other F Word — to see that.
This kind of essentialist thinking is antithetical to transgender conceptions of the gendered self: that a person’s biological sex does not determine their gender identity or gender presentation. Informs? Sometimes, yes. Determines? No.
Claims that “cisgender” is a slur aren’t about “offense” or “harm” to cisgender people. Nor are they about cisgender people being “oppressed.” They’re about some cisgender people posturing as victims when the relationship between their biological sex and gender identity is accurately named. Just as it is for transgender and gender non-binary people.
And they’re a deeply conservative effort to justify cisgender power and privilege by anchoring it in the apparent fixity of the sexed body. But, as with language, there’s plenty of evidence that biological sex isn’t as stable or unchanging as some choose to think.
We only have to think of puberty or menopause to be reminded that the sexed body is a dynamic, ongoing process not a fixed or stable object. Which, when you stop to think about it, is an objectively Good Thing.
The debate over whether “cisgender” is a “slur” is a proxy for larger struggles over social power, status, and privilege and whether they’ll be shared with sexual and gender minorities long relegated to the margins. I suspect that’s why transgender people have engaged this debate so fiercely.
As with similar projects throughout history, biological determinism in the guise of linguistic essentialism is doomed to fail. There’s just too much contradicting evidence that sex doesn’t determine gender — like the historical and cross-cultural existence of those we now call transgender and gender non-binary people.
In the end, that evidence will prevail.
Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.