Elon Musk. Unfortunately.

Cis isn’t a Slur


Content warning: Since we’re talking about slurs, we are inevitably going to be mentioning some slurs. I’ll try not to mention them myself, but I won’t edit them out of any quotes I use.

Elon Musk, who is officially History’s Biggest Loser, declared last Wednesday that the terms ‘cis’ and ‘cisgender’ would be considered slurs on Twitter. The claim “cis is a slur” — or its more extreme version “cis is the new n-word” — has long been a favoured standby of transphobes. But there’s just one problem: It’s complete nonsense.

In this post I will be detailing precisely why cis isn’t a slur, and along the way pointing out how the claim that it is is used to oppress trans people.

A Bit of History

‘Trans-‘ and ‘cis-‘ are Latin prefixes that have formed an antonymic pair since Latin was spoken as a living language (and probably even before, extending back into Proto-Indo-European). You don’t get one without the other.

The prefix ‘cis-‘, of course, survives in not one, but two words that mean “on this side of the Alps”: ‘cisalpine’, which means “on this (Italian) side of the Alps”, and ‘cismontane’, which means “on this (French) side of the Alps”. There are a few others, too, but it is certainly true that the prefix ‘cis-‘ is less common in English than the prefix ‘trans-‘. I have an idea about why that is, which I’ll tell you later. See if you can guess.

TERFs love to tell stories about how the term ‘cissexual’ was coined by a paedophile or something, because they can’t go two seconds without insinuating some excuse for violence. But the fact of the matter is, that person did not so much ‘invent’ the term as note that if the term ‘transsexual’ exists, the term ‘cissexual’ must, by extension, also exist, since ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are and always have been an antonymic pair. And it’s really hard to argue with that, regardless of who said it.

I’m wary of etymological arguments, partly because, well, slurs have etymologies too, and, on the other side, partly because a term shouldn’t have to be ancient to be acceptable. But there’s the background.

What’s the Alternative?

The bare minimum for a term to be a slur is for it to have an alternative, non-pejorative synonym to describe the same thing (or, in more fancy academic terms, to denote the same referent). As Stephen Finlay notes in Value and Implicature (2005):-

If pejoratives do indeed carry colouring conventionally, it is partly because they exist in the language as alternatives to other words with the same denotations. Why would a speaker call a person a ‘faggot’ rather than a homosexual, or a ‘nigger’ rather than a Black or African-American? This choice of terminology is explained by the intention to express contempt towards a group. Were these pejoratives the only efficient means we had in our language to denote their referents, they would no longer be conventionally pejorative.

Finlay’s suggested alternatives for the slurs are a product of the fact that the paper was written in 2005. I think in 2023 we’d have different preferred alternatives. I also kind of think “intention to express contempt” is only a partial explanation for slurs. But regardless, the primary point remains that we do have alternatives. The n-word is a slur because there are other ways to denote black people — for instance, “black people”!

These alternatives are conventionally called “neutral counterparts” but Jennifer Foster introduces the term “non-pejorative associates” (NPAs) which, for one reason and another that we don’t really have to go into here, I think is a better term.

With that in mind, what is the NPA for ‘cis’? If ‘cis’ is indeed a slur, it must have one. And yet, unlike every single anti-slur activism movement in history, the people claiming “cis is a slur” seem very reluctant to say what they should be called instead.

If you press them on this, they’ll most often go the bigots’ retreat of “don’t call me [term]; I’m normal”. We’ll discuss that more in the next section, but for now it’s worth pointing out that even if you insist that being trans is abnormal, it is not the only way to be abnormal, and therefore ‘normal’ is insufficient as an opposite to trans. Indeed, some abnormal people are quite categorically not trans, and more specifically, calling the kind of people who object to being called cis ‘normal’ is a huge stretch.

In summary, if we don’t call cis people ‘cis’, what do we call them?

Othering and Asymmetry

I make a distinction between ‘othering’ and ‘otherness’. Otherness is axiomatically a symmetric relation: If A is other to B, then B is other to A. If you’ve ever watched a sci-fi show where the human protagonists meet some aliens and thoughtfully note, “to them, we’re the aliens,” this is an example of this principle.

Othering, by contrast, attempts to turn otherness from a relation into a characteristic. There is not a lot of concern for what those designated ‘other’ are ‘other’ to; only that they are ‘other’. In this way, ‘other’ becomes much more of a value judgment, a synonym for ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’.

By objecting to the word ‘cis’, transphobes attempt to turn the word ‘trans’ into the latter of these. While a one-sided otherness can, by definition, only make sense from a situated, subjective viewpoint, bigots leverage societal power to pretend their subjective viewpoint is objective.

This is related to the concept of ‘markedness’, described by Linda Waugh (1982) as “the asymmetrical and hierarchical relationship between the two poles of any opposition”. Often in an opposition, there is a a ‘marked’ and an ‘unmarked’. Sometimes this can be contextual. For instance, if someone asks for “a glass of water”, ‘cold’ is unmarked, and ‘hot’ is marked, because we expect someone to want a glass of cold water, and if they wanted hot water they would have specified that (and probably wouldn’t ask for it in a glass). That is to say, ‘cold’ is unmarked (and therefore hierarchically higher) because it is a relatively safe assumption.

I would go so far as to venture that the prefix ‘trans-‘ shows up in English far more often than the prefix ‘cis-‘ precisely because ‘cis-‘ is unmarked. You only really need the prefix ‘cis-‘ in direct comparison to ‘trans-‘. Otherwise, its semantic content can simply be assumed: “Of course it’s on this side. If it were anywhere else, I would have said.”

When it comes to social relations, however, these assumptions can be actively harmful, reflecting as they do the perspective of the dominant group, and entrenching that perspective as ‘normal’, ‘natural’, or ‘default’. As Wayne Brekhus wrote (1996):-

Social marking is a rigid, asymmetrical classification process that accents one side of a contrast as unnatural, thereby tacitly naturalizing the unmarked side. Mental coloring intensifies the rigid contrast by figuratively painting all members of the marked category under a single stereotypical image. […] Ultimately the social marking of identity legitimates unequal treatment of marked categories by creating the illusion that they are less natural than the unmarked.

This is the basis of the “don’t call me cis; I’m normal” I alluded to earlier. It is also the basis of TERFs’ insistence on contrasting trans women with “real women” as opposed to “cis women”, as well as the basis of the bigots’ fave, “shoving it down our throats” (‘it’ being awareness of people different from you existing in society as if that’s just a normal thing, which it is, grow up).

A Twitter post by Emma V, PhD (@emmahvossen)

Gamers are still convinced there are only:

Two races: white and "political"
Two genders: Male and "political"
Two hair styles for women: long and "political"
Two sexualities: straight and "political"
Two body types: normative and political
Apologies to the original author, but no way am I linking to Twitter.

When The Gamers™ say, “keep your politics out of my video games,” (and movies and comics and TV) what they are really saying is, “video games should represent the dominant unmarked rather than people with a marked identity”. Because they confuse unmarked for ‘natural’, they also, by extension, confuse unmarked for ‘apolitical’, but nothing could be further from the truth.

TERFs likewise, in the way they throw harassing tantrums against anyone who so much as acknowledges that trans people exist as valid actors in society, demand that assumptions that hold for the dominant unmarked should hold for everyone, and if not, well, that’s just your problem.

In this way, “unmarkedness” is related to privilege. Markedness not only, as Brekhus said, “accents one side as ‘unnatural'”, but by extension it also paints the accommodation of that side by society as ‘unnatural’. In Brekhus’ words, it “legitimates unequal treatment”. At its extreme, the idea that the unmarked should be accommodated and the marked should not is a rejection of living in a plural society, and carries within it the seeds of ethnonationalism. To not only be unmarked but to insist on it is to say, in effect, “The world is made for us, not you, and you are the ones who should have to deal with it”.

This can be seen in the furore we saw over halal meat on supermarket shelves. There is honestly very little reason to oppose halal meat that doesn’t also apply to meat in general. Sure, some try to argue that it is a less humane method of slaughter — I don’t know whether it is or not, but either way, “humane slaughter” is already a bit of an oxymoron. No, the real problem people had with halal meat was white-hot bigoted fury over the fact that someone with a marked identity (Muslim) was being accommodated. Not at what it cost the dominant group (because it didn’t cost them anything), but simply that it allowed someone not in the dominant group to live like a person.

Similarly, when JK Rowling set up a shelter that specifically excluded trans women, it was because, even though trans women are 50% more likely to be sexually assaulted than cis women, and more than twice as likely to experience domestic abuse, services set up specifically for people more likely to experience those things should more “naturally” accommodate the unmarked than the marked. Rowling has literally adopted the position that some survivors of sexual and domestic abuse should “naturally” be treated with degradation, humiliation, and suspicion, and has the fucking temerity to pretend that position is a feminist one.

The people who claim “cis is a slur” resort to “how dare you label us!” There is an implicit accusation of hypocrisy in this, insofar as labelling is involved in othering. But the fact of the matter is that trans people get labelled either way. To insist that only one side of the oppositional relationship should be labelled is to demand access to the asymmetric power that comes with being the hierarchically dominant unmarked. This is why it is so important to make the distinction between othering and otherness. Both require labelling, but the former is an act of domination and the latter is an act of comparison.

It’s even worse than The Gamers™, because people who are called ‘cis’ are usually not people who want to be “left out of the politics” (however ignorant that desire may be); they are, most often, people who have actively chosen to engage in discussion of trans issues. To then complain that the discussion is framed in a way that is relevant to the subject matter is an act of discursive sabotage (more on that later). They insist on terms of discussion that have asymmetry and inequality baked in from the start.

And this inequality isn’t incidental: It was obviously always the goal. For Musk to declare that calling people things they don’t want to be called (‘cis’) is harassment after he also declared that misgendering and deadnaming were absolutely fine (it’s not illegal, after all!), it couldn’t be clearer that the entire point is treating trans people as lesser.

There is a memetic claim by trans people that “cisgender people think ‘cis’ is a slur because they use ‘trans’ as a slur”. I don’t think it’s 100% accurate that they use ‘trans’ as a slur per se, but “cisgender people think ‘cis’ is a slur because they use ‘trans’ as a designation of (somehow) one-sided otherness that implies certain power dynamics that privilege cis people to be ‘natural’ and thereby legitimate the unequal treatment of trans people” doesn’t quite have the same memetic potential.


I also think that slurs work on the basis of connotation, rather than denotation. This is partly influenced by Foster’s paper that I linked above, which showed some — but, crucially, not perfect — overlap between the denotation of slurs and the denotation of their NPAs, but in particular I want to think about the word ‘gay’. ‘Gay’ is a slur really only when it is not literally denotative — calling a gay man ‘gay’ is just a literal and uncontroversial statement of fact, but calling a straight man ‘gay’ is an insult.

Since the speaker is very obviously not accusing the target of being attracted to the same gender (in which case it would not be an insult), what could they mean by the accusation? It is obviously not denotation, and Foster dedicates a section of her paper to explaining that it is not metaphor, so I think we need to turn to connotation. That is to say, ‘gay’ as a slur is not an accusation of the literal definition of being gay, but an accusation of the ancillary societal assumptions (particularly the negative ones) made about gay people.

(Incidentally, in Foster’s paper, a similar example concerns a boy who is called “a girl”. Which raises an interesting point: Nobody denies that misgendering is offensive when the target is a cis person; it’s only when the target is trans that people start to make excuses for it. Now how can we express that inequality if we’re not allowed to say ‘cis’?)

And although other slurs have more overlap than ‘gay’, I think they work in the same way. The n-word is not a mere “accusation” of being black (as if that immediately obvious fact were something that would require accusation); it is a baseless accusation of embodying negative assumptions or stereotypes associated with blackness. The purpose is, yes, as Finlay put it, “to express contempt”, but it is rather more specific than that, in that what is implied by the word goes beyond mere emotional valence. It connotes some quite specific (at least, insofar as connotation can be specific) presumed characteristics and relationships with the speaker.

But insofar as the word ‘cis’ has any negative connotation, it is that cis people are not authorities on trans people’s experiences. Which is no assumption or stereotype; it is simply true. I would like to think that most people intuitively grasp that people’s experiences are their own, and are legible only through that person’s reporting of their experiences. But it is common across many forms of bigotry to reject people’s self-reported experiences and replace them with the bigots’ own assumptions. I have had TERFs try to tell me, to my face, what I experience, what I think, what I believe, often enough. The word ‘cis’ is a challenge to that: It says, “Where are you getting your information?” It says, “you are not a greater authority on me than me.” It says, “you are trying to talk over us.”

In 2014, Anita Sarkeesian responded to misogynistic harassment she faced by saying, “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.” Indeed, pretty much any barbed deployment of the word ‘cis’ is virtually identical to deployment of the word ‘man’ in response to a man trying to act like an authority on women’s experiences. Is ‘man’ a slur, or do TERFs, as usual, just have more in common with misogynists than with feminists?

So objection to the connotation of ‘cis’ is, in effect, “How dare you say that you know better than I do what you are experiencing?” Which is, given the nature of experience, a fairly absurd thing to ask.

Discursive Sabotage

It is always baffling to me how misunderstood George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is, particularly the concept of Newspeak. Orwell wrote quite explicitly on the meaning of Newspeak in the appendix. Of course, “nobody” reads the appendices, but you can’t really avoid it if you’re directly referencing the meanings of the book. And so, people seem to have associated Newspeak, naïvely, with “inventing new words”, apparently fully ignorant of the obvious and deliberate (on Orwell’s part) irony in so much Ingsoc terminology. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of Newspeak in the book is its resistance to change. In Orwell’s own words:-

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

If the undesirable word ‘cis’ is eliminated, we cannot compare trans experiences to cis ones. All trans experiences get relegated to ‘other’. We cannot talk about the power dynamics between cis people and trans people — at the very least not without being coerced into conceding that those power dynamics are ‘natural’. We cannot name our oppressor: We cannot highlight the agentive role cis people play in our oppression. And through that prescribed and tacitly exonerative focus, our oppression is cast to be either, again, ‘natural’, or worse, our own fault (or even more extremely, as some TERFs would have it, completely non-existent).

It is fairly self-evident that transphobes do not object to being called different from trans people, which is what the word ‘cis’ means. What they object to is that if the word ‘cis’ is legitimate, then the word ‘trans’ must also have semantic legitimacy. JK Rowling said as much, explicitly. She said on Twitter (which I am not linking to because it is Twitter) that ‘cis’ is “ideological jargon” of “gender identity”. She can use ‘ideology’ as a snarl word all she likes, but in doing so she is digging her own grave (metaphorically, which I have to specify lest she pretend that’s a literal death threat again). This is not only because the use of ‘ideology’ as a snarl-word is directly lifted from the anti-feminist movement, and it is impossible to be both a feminist and opposed to ‘ideology’ because feminism is an ideology (or, more accurately, many ideologies). But beyond that, when you complain about, not the content of marked ideologies, but the mere fact of them being expressible, what you are really saying is that the only ideology that should be expressible is your own dominant unmarked one. That is Newspeak. And this is your “free speech advocate”?

More than that, people accuse us of not wanting to “debate” with people who literally complain that we are allowed to express our position. I have to ask those accusers: Did you forget how debate works or were you just using the word for its aesthetic and emotive weight rather than any substantive meaning?

This isn’t a new thing. The past few years are full of examples of TERFs complaining that they have been “silenced” by the fact that trans people are also allowed to speak. ‘Cis’ isn’t the only term that they have declared a ‘slur’ because it expresses our position rather than theirs – ‘TERF’ is another one. And, more recently, ‘GC’, which is literally the term they asked us to call them instead of ‘TERF’, was also deemed to be a slur, because it didn’t actually stop us from presenting our position. The claim was that ‘TERF’ meant “woman with an opinion”, but it doesn’t. For one thing, not all TERFs are women, but more importantly, it is not merely having any old opinion; it is (despite all its self-contradictions, which will be the topic of my next post) a specific opinion, and the demand that that specificity be left unnamed is a demand that it be unmarked, a fully unreasonable demand that it occupy a privileged, dominant, unassailable position.

Twitter has been central to this. For all its faults, pre-Musk Twitter became a platform where trans people could speak in our own voices, on our own behalf, without our narratives being mediated and editorialised by cis people. While services like Tumblr and Mastodon also exist, and while zines and specialist press existed before them, they’re places you only really go if you want to hear from trans people. On Twitter — and really Twitter alone — trans people’s unfiltered voices, for the first time, had the potential of reaching audiences who were not actively seeking them out.

This was, of course, seen as a huge problem by transphobes.

I am not quite conspiracy-minded enough to think that Musk bought Twitter specifically to shut down a unique avenue of trans people’s unmediated participation in society (not because I don’t think Musk is that viciously transphobic; mainly because I don’t think Musk is that smart), but that has rather been an effect. There has been a concerted effort to frame discussions of trans people as being about ‘trans’ first and ‘people’ second (if at all). That is something that is threatened by trans people speaking on our own behalf. When people talk to us rather than about us, they can’t help but see our humanity, our personhood. Research by UK LGBT+ young people’s charity Just Like Us found that cis people are twice as likely to be a trans ally if they personally know a trans person. And what can we infer about the people who see that as a problem?

Saying “cis is a slur” is one of a number of ways transphobes try to enforce the idea that it is more ‘dangerous’ (Rowling’s word) to let people directly see what we have to say than to let people’s impression of us be guided by rumour, myth, assumption, stereotype, prejudice, and, most importantly, by transphobes. The word ‘cis’, above all, punctures the idea that a natural hierarchy exists in which trans people are subordinate.

And in that, ultimately, objection to ‘cis’ is saying, “How dare you challenge my self-declared authority over you?”