Love who you will, say what you must: New words as insult or acknowledgement

The motivation of this article was obliterated on the night we were proof reading for a project due the next day. This article — observing the phenomenon of radicals using the prefix “cis,” was in the back of my mind for weeks. The central point I wished to make is that I only hear people using the term in a derogatory, angry manner, as a sneer, a put down. But when I off-handedly mentioned this analysis to a good friend who was helping proofread, I was given another perspective. “My housemates use the word all the time and it’s more clinical — detached”. That’s good I thought, now I don’t have to write an embarrassing rant.

I’ve primarily encountered cis as a prefix placed before the noun ‘man’, or ‘men’, often paired with the adjective ‘white’ and it seems to connote “straight” as in vanilla, man & wife…heterosexual? The underlying meaning depends on the person using the word. My friend the other night described its function as a counter attack “so that trans is not considered the other.” Trans-Gendered brave hearts have multiplied in the last 40 years and their actions rally us all to challenge the pressures to disappear and accept 2nd class citizenship. My first experience hearing cis in a derogatory manner just so happened to be from someone at odds with some of the community who was getting kicked out of a local house and left a turd on the floor of their former room. Since then I’ve questioned the word, and wondered about the intent behind it.

A fundamental question that motivates me to write this is ‘what kind of world are radicals making in the process of working to achieve a goal?’ A big part of creating new worlds is language, for language informs perception. I think words are great. I like listening to people talk and sing, passionately discuss issues and make indescribable noises. I go to meetings, I dig the collage of noise at cafes, I get mesmerized by radio talk shows as well as underground musicians. I think words hold more value than money. Early on in life while playing in the streets of Berkeley I heard my first slang word — or at least one that wasn’t going to be taught in a classroom anytime soon. A kid said something was “Icy,” and I had to stop what I was doing and decipher it. It was the early 1980’s and I could relate that it had something to do with cool and fresh, except done with more style. Icy wasn’t likely to be a banner on some cheaply made product. It lived on the streets.

Also common since the 80’s is the rise of techno corporate babble that is useful for international trade. Mostly names for products of dubious worth, they represent the fact that common day to day words were eaten up by patents. People couldn’t name their garbage after a familiar mythological character or something in the natural world anymore, so instead a hybrid word would be used. I’m thinking of all sorts of alien words used to sell shit like pharmaceuticals, computer software and hardware, car insurance and the like. Words that just reek of corporate board rooms. For me, cis had a similar feel.

Well I guess looking at the word without looking it up, it could be “SIS” as in “sis-ter-man,” that doesn’t seem so bad to me. I like the incongruent mixings of that and the disorientating of every day norms. But cis comes out of the mouth something like a snake sound — or someone booing an unpleasant speaker. The first time I heard the word, the way it was used, it reminded me the feeling I had when I first heard “HPV,” a word noting a new sexually transmitted disease. In some ways cis resembles HPV, for both words imply something you don’t want to catch. Nor does it seem to be something people can get rid of. You are a straight male indoctrinated by capitalism, and you will die that way.

Radicals have a history of bringing soul and togetherness with their new words. Sure some hate speech is invented and used. But radicals generally use words and ideas that encourage pluralism. Think of a rainbow. They tend to encourage people to identify with others across boundaries.

A part of me could have started this article with an investigation; drawn up a list of intelligent people I know sharp on trans issues and throw them a couple of questions about cis. At the very least you would think I could do is troll around on the internet looking for definitions and people’s opinions and insights. But by not going that route there is also a purity of direct experience. I simply encounter people use “cis-men” in a derogatory vein. Usually it’s after a frustrating experience and the cis-man is judged a problem by labeling him as such. I wonder, sometimes, if they know the meaning of the word as they say it. It strikes me to be similar to another word — “hipster,” which is also used in an abusive manner very different from its origin describing jazz aficionados in the 40’s. The sneer of being called a “hipster” is pretty interesting. What is a hipster these days? Generally it seems to be someone who is young and dressed with noticeable style. It is the common parlance of people who are also confused to be hipsters themselves. What I think it says really is that the Hipster is a person who is not likeable. Cis then is the new thing to scrape off your shoe.

I most often hear it as “cis white man.” The rhythm of that could be a form of casting a spell — the sticking of needles into a doll. But what I’d like to raise is that these are assumptions. Is the person really white…hetero…male? And only that? Did your experience allow you to ask them to define themselves? Scruffy Frank rudely hitting on you at the party just might be a FTM transguy who is of mixed Irish and Navaho stock. His actions may be shitty, but why should radicals do the border checking of identity politics?

If I may mention as an aside, I think there is some discrepancy in labeling people white. Just what does it mean to be white in the “West”? One analysis is that white is all about assimilation. Distinctions of people’s ancestors are set aside for membership in the great white hope. In losing cultural distinctions one is more easily controlled. There is a difference between European people you know, be it Finnish or Spanish. The white question spirals out and ruins the harmony worldwide. Plenty of people get put down for being “of color” and having a “white” inside. Many communities of color also berate people for looking too white. It’s a kind of insanity that desperately needs a dissent. If a person sucks let’s find a more imaginative put down, that is, if we choose not to understand them.

Cis white man can be another category to shelve people in this consumeristic culture. In this light I can see radicals using cis as a put down — as another adopted tool of alienation. My friend and her community use it descriptively, but everyone else I encounter teems with frustration and righteous anger as the word erupts from their lips. So much in our environment allows us not to see how we are complicit in creating oppression.

For the people angry at the insensitivity of people perceived to be White, Male, and Heterosexual, allow me to suggest reading Shere Hite’s work. Her Hite Reports from the mid 70’s are pretty common in free boxes and used bookshelves. But even more worth searching out is her synthesis work called Women as Revolutionary Agents for Change. In it, her research leads to the conclusion that male roles and privileges not only hurt women, but men as well. In the act of keeping up the fronts and expectations of gender roles, there is a psychological price to pay — just like how soldiers who terrorize, harm and murder people start to crumble and disintegrate inside. I feel the work of queer and trans activists is awesome. It’s empowering to give people more options in how to identify. Its just that these categories we create can also be a slippery path and new words can go to building a new prison. Please consider this as one person’s attempt to figure these things out no matter how indelicately. I look forward to seeing responses and other attempts discussed in a paper like this.