The Meaning of Cis

Cisgender, or cis for short, is still a relatively little-known word. As I write this, my computer’s spellchecker is underlining it and insisting that I actually mean all manner of unrelated things. Which makes my spellchecker rather like a certain subset of feminism.

I have never seen a word more wilfully misinterpreted than ‘cis’. There are several tired old arguments against it, ranging from the ridiculous (“It rhymes with ‘cyst’, so it’s an insult!”) to the sly insinuation that trans people are using the term to police people’s genders.

Let that sink in a moment. Trans people, whose genders are constantly policed by a society that treats them as aberrations, who are marginalised and hurt and killed for not conforming to social expectations, are somehow forcing cis people to conform to particular constructions of gender. Despite the fact that they have no structural power with which to do this.

Cis is nothing more than a way of saying ‘not trans’ that doesn’t label non-trans people as ‘normal’, and therefore, by default, also label trans people as ‘abnormal’. That’s it. That really is all there is to the word.

I was going to write a rebuttal to the people who leap on the word ‘cis’ as an excuse to attack trans people, but frankly, I don’t think there’s much point. They’re not going to change. Instead, I thought I’d address what cis really means, for those who are unfamiliar with the word.

With thanks to T. S. Eliot:


The Meaning of Cis

The meaning of cis is the simplest matter

It isn’t an insult, a jibe, or a slur

(Although there are some who insist on the latter

And claim that it’s short for “Don’t listen to her!”)

The meaning of cis isn’t shorthand for “Woman

With double-X chromosomes, lipstick and curls

Who relishes life as a second-class human,

Submits to the men and buys shoes with the girls.”

The meaning of cis is just this: It’s the Latin

For ‘on the same side’ – not a measure of worth,

It just means ‘not trans’, and implies that your gender’s

A match with the sex they assigned you at birth.

Cis doesn’t mean that you never take issue

With sexist ideas of what people should be

Cis doesn’t mean you’ve not hated your body,

Not looked in the mirror and loathed what you see

Cis doesn’t mean that the tropes all ring true

That you’re puppy-dog-tails or you’re sugar and spice

A big burly man who likes football and beer

Or a sweet little lady who’s ever so nice

All that cis means is ‘you are not transgender’.

Full stop. The end. There’s no need to take fright

Or rail oh so hard at a neutral descriptor

That’s no more a judgement than ‘dark-haired’ or ‘white’.


Oh, and just for the record – I’m cis. I loathe the assumption that any hobby, career or activity is ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’. I’m a proud feminist who will not accept women (or any other marginalised group) being dehumanised or treated as ‘less than’. I’ve had times where I’ve been so at odds with my own body that I’ve wished I could just be a brain in a jar. And I’m still cis, because I’m not trans. Because that is all that cis means.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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