Into It / Not Into It: Using ‘Cis’ as a Slur

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Last month, Grimes’ ex, Elon Musk, decided that using the word “cis” or “cisgender” on Twitter qualifies as a slur and would be dealt with accordingly on his platform. Soon after, right-wing personalities and trolls hopped onto Twitter and proclaimed that they, too, felt deeply offended by the term “cisgender,” even though it was pretty clear that they just recently learned what it meant.

“Cis is a slur because it’s a word imposed on people in a typically derogatory context,” wrote conservative talk show host Tim Pool.

“Cis is a slur and it offends me,” wrote another popular Twitter user.

Now, as someone who has been called actual slurs before, I take any claim of a word being a slur pretty seriously. In order to get to the bottom of this, I spoke to queer people and experts to ask them if “cisgender” could really qualify as a slur. 

First, let’s break down what the word cisgender means. In Latin, “cis” means “on the same side of,” while “trans” means “on the opposite side.” In the context of gender, cis is used to refer to the fact that someone identifies with the same gender they were assigned at birth, while trans people identify with a gender that is different from their gender assigned at birth.

Like many of us, Ruth Carter, who is a queer and trans nonbinary person, didn’t grow up knowing the term cisgender the way many of us grew up hearing terms like gay or lesbian. In fact, Carter first learned the terms “cis” and “trans” in their college organic chemistry class where they were used to describe the configuration of molecules. 

I asked them if, as a nonbinary and trans person, they felt like there was a use in calling out cisgender people’s cis-ness, considering that a lot of the discourse around cis being a slur comes from those who feel uncomfortable at the fact their cis-ness is being paid attention to. 

“I’m not sure if ‘calling out’ is the correct term, but there are instances where it makes sense to acknowledge that a person is cis,” said Carter. “It might be relevant in a situation where a cisgender person has trouble understanding a trans person’s experience of being a different gender than what they were assigned at birth or a nonbinary person’s experience navigating a gender binary-centric society, like in the U.S.”

In other words, noting that someone is cisgender might actually be pretty useful in instances where a cisgender person is being an asshole towards trans and nonbinary people. It’s a way to point out that maybe they don’t get to make decisions about trans people’s lives, since they can’t really relate to their experience on a personal level.

Dr. Alon Lischinsky, a nonbinary linguist and lecturer at the School of History, Philosophy & Culture at Oxford Brookes University, believes that the word cisgender is often used specifically to describe an identity that is at odds with transness. In other words, to say that someone is cis is to say that someone is not trans. But, as Lischinsky points out, this is a recent phenomenon.

This got me thinking of how calling someone “cis” is pointing out something about them that they can’t necessarily change, which seems like the basic premise of every slur. But there is a fundamental and very important distinction. 

“Linguists and philosophers are still hashing out the finer details, but everyone agrees that for a word to be a slur it has to express a negative attitude, like hatred or contempt,” said Dr. Lischinsky. “And, equally importantly, it has to be used against someone with less social power than the speaker, because what makes it a slur is precisely that it builds on prejudices that already exist. But there is no prejudice against cis people in our culture, so there is no way ‘cis’ could fit this bill.”

This rise in (cis) visibility seems to align with the emergence of transphobic, homophobic, sexist, and racist legislation being introduced in various parts of the country.

Rhiannon John

That makes a lot of sense. 

No one in the world outside of the Internet is going around yelling the word cisgender at cis people as a legitimate insult. The discourse around cis being a slur reminds me a whole lot of the conversation on “reverse racism,” or the idea that people of color can be racist towards white people. Calling someone out for being white in America will never be the same as calling someone out for being Black or Latine or Asian — simply because white people have never been systematically excluded or discriminated against in America solely for being white. 

We also have to consider that we probably wouldn’t be using the word cisgender in any context if cis people weren’t now actively trying to harm trans and nonbinary communities. “This rise in (cis) visibility seems to align with the emergence of transphobic, homophobic, sexist, and racist legislation being introduced in various parts of the country,” Rhiannon John (she/they), a sexologist, tells me.

We live in a world that favors cis people in every way. Being called cis reminds some cis people that trans people exist. Throughout history, there have always been people who feel rage at the mere thought that not everyone is like them. Essentially, this is where a lot of the cis angst is coming from.

When I asked John, the sexologist, why cis people are suddenly so bothered by the term cis when it never seemed to be a problem for them before, they say it has a lot to do with cis people feeling threatened at the prospect that maybe they’re not the norm anymore. 

“Within certain communities or cultural contexts where LGBTQAI+ identities are not widely acknowledged or comprehended, individuals may perceive themselves as conforming to societal norms and expectations,” says John. “Consequently, the introduction of the term ‘cisgender’ could be interpreted as a direct challenge to their established sense of normalcy, evoking defensive responses or even hostility.”

I get that — being different is uncomfortable. It’s a reality that any queer, trans, and/or person of color in the U.S. is aware of. The difference is that the dangers we face as queer and trans people are tangible and real, while the threat that cisgender people feel right now is mostly imagined.  

To conclude, I am definitely into using cisgender as a slur, if only because by definition it can’t be a slur. You can call a cat a dog, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stop meowing and sh***ing in a litter box. Until we live in a world where anti-cis legislation is being passed and people are unironically feeling in danger for being cisgender, the word is fair game.♦

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