Thursday, 22 January 2015

Explaining "Cis-" for Greens...

When confronted by evidence of a problem in its own ranks, the Green Party, pretty much like all the other parties, it has to be said, hastens down the well-worn path of the blaming one individual, the rogue/maverick defence, one that usually unravels fairly quickly. The transphobic attitude of one of its candidates has been shown not to be held by only one individual but by the Young Greens in his local party at the very least. It now seems that, from another set of tweets coming from a Green party member, that this problem is not a local phenomenon. 

The above screenshot illustrates the problem. Whether this misinterpretation of the term “cis” is wilful or simply the result of misunderstanding is not clear, but the writer seems to be engaging in the same practice as the TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists; trans haters who use feminism as a cover for bigotry); redefining the meaning of the word “cisgender” to mean what they want it to mean and then declaring it to be oppressive. A quintessential straw man argument. 

So this blog post is intended to examine the meaning and deliberate misinterpretations of the prefix “cis-“ to clarify and explain why the Green Party’s problems on this issue are important.

The prefix “cis-“ is Latin and originated from historians' need for a word to differentiate between people living in one part of Gaul (now mostly France) and another. In those days some of Gaul was also in the area now known as Northern Italy. This part of Gaul was on the same side of the Alps as Rome whereas the rest of Gaul was on the other side of the Alps. So two prefixes were used to describe these different parts of Gaul. The part of Gaul on the other side of the Alps from Rome was known as “transalpine Gaul” and the part of Gaul that was on the same side of the Alps as Rome was known as “cisalpine Gaul”. The word dates back to at least 1540 and quite possibly to the time of the Roman Empire. Incidentally it was also used in 1796 Napoleon used the words Cisapadene Republic and Transapadene Republic to describe puppet states the French created on either side of the Po River in an area we now know as Piedmont. 

That is where we get the prefix “cis-“ from. It simply means “on the same side as”. Moreover it is most often used in binary opposition to the prefix "trans-"

Note that it was specifically NOT an identity. The people who live in cisalpine Gaul were Gauls, the people who lived in transalpine Gaul were Gauls; one’s Gallic identity was unaffected. The distinction was important for bureaucratic reasons because people from cisalpine Gaul, if they possessed a penis, may, possibly have been allowed to become citizens of Rome, whereas people resident in transalpine Gaul could not have become citizens of Rome regardless of their genital configuration. The residents of the Transapadene and Cisapadene Republics were similarly not affected in terms of identity.

Those who oppose the use of the word “cis-“ like to pretend that it is oppressive because it is forcing an identity onto cis people. Well not according to the original usage of the word cis, no.

These people also like to claim that “cis-“ is an invention of trans people to oppress cis people. Once you have stopped laughing hollowly at the idea that a disempowered and minuscule 1-2% of the world’s population is oppressing the other 98%+ this is clearly wrong again. In fact the prefix “cis-“ referring to gender was first used by a cis man; Dr Herbert Burcher in Berlin in 1914 in an academic publication. 

The term was used for the first time on the internet in the early 1990s in discussion groups where the term “cisgender” was used to denote people who are not transgender. It was used as an alternative to “non-trans” or “normal”. The reason for this is straightforward, if you have a binary opposition “trans” and either “non-trans” or “normal” you have in effect Othered, trans people, we are not “normal”, it is a kind of pathologisation, or problematisation, it says “there is something abnormal, something wrong with trans people.”. It also implies that trans women are not women or trans men are not men. Having a word for cisgender people levels the playing field. That is the intention, and that is the way it is used. It is nothing to do with one’s sexuality or anything else, it is about one’s gender identity. A good explanation of what it means to be cis is written here by Zoe Stavri a cis feminist.

The problem is that a small number of TERFs have started to manipulate and wilfully misinterpret the term for their own transphobic ends. They declared that, because they are not “comfortable” in their gender roles that they are not cis. The problem is that this is not about comfort, the whole idea of “comfort” is a straw man, it is about not being trans, it doesn’t say you have to be “comfortable” as a man or a woman. For the record, being trans is not about feeling “uncomfortable” in ones assigned gender, it is about feeling terrified, it is about feeling suicidal, it is about feeling helpless and hopeless, “discomfort” doesn’t enter into it.

The reason theses TERFs have attempted to do this is straightforward, they consider that trans people are a threat to them, or something. They apparently want trans people to stop existing because they want to preserve “clear lines of oppression” of women. In other words it is a marketing strategy. They want us to cease existing because we are inconvenient and make it harder for them to tell other women that they are oppressed. An inconvenient people.

This is also the reason they want to stop us from using the word “TERF”; “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist” pretty much does what it says on the tin; they claim to be radical feminists and they exclude trans people. Simples. The term is useful because it also differentiates TERFS from radical feminists who are not transphobic. Instead they have started to describe themselves as “gender-critical” feminists. A term as misleading as “big society”. Most feminists, including trans people are critical of gender, but are not transphobic like them, a deliberate blurring. Also they do not engage in critique of gender, they just abuse and harass trans people. They want to deny trans people the language with which to express our circumstances. 

So it is clear that the Green Party has a problem, the TERF narrative seems to have taken hold and is not just restricted to one individual, the fact that the line that "cis is oppressive" is so readily parroted suggests that this is not something that is just emanating from one or two individuals but something that goes far deeper. Attempting to deny trans people the language with which to describe our lives, to make sense of the world and to speak with cis people on equal terms represents an oppressive act. I really can’t believe the Green Party is doing this. I hope they stop soon.

For the record, I don’t think there is anything negative or wrong with being cis. Indeed I was talking to a Green Party activist a few days ago and we both agreed, without hesitation, that we would have much, much, much preferred to have been born cis. If I could have a pill that would make me into a cis woman, I would swallow it without hesitation. I know this is not the position of some trans people, especially those who identify as non-binary, but being cis is something I would dearly love to be. If that makes you feel oppressed, there is no point in any more argument.

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