Many women have written eloquently over the years about their objection to the word ‘cis’. According to those who wish to impose it on us, it is just the equivalent of using the word ‘straight’ to define yourself if you are not gay: without this word some people might be tempted to use the word ‘normal’ for their sexuality, thus positioning the other as ‘abnormal’. So far so understandable, but there’s a fundamental difference in the function of the words ‘straight’ and ‘cis’. ‘Straight’ has a definable meaning, which is ‘heterosexual: attracted to the opposite sex’. Even if homosexuality did not exist, heterosexuality would still be a meaningful definition – you don’t have to believe in homosexuality for heterosexuality to exist.
‘Cis’ however, does depend on a belief system to make it meaningful, and it is this which makes it more than a neutral descriptor. Cis is short for cisgendered, and the usual definition (apart from ‘not trans’) is having ‘a gender which matches your sex assigned at birth’. Immediately there are two major assumptions to challenge: sex is not ‘assigned’ at birth, it is recorded, and ‘gender’ is a concept which is rejected by many people and is in any case impossible to define. Calling me cisgender does not just say I am someone who is ‘not trans’, it ties me in to a belief system I don’t share and which I see as actively harmful, especially to women and girls. This is a perfectly understandable reason to reject the word ‘cis’ and that should be the end of it… but there’s more.
The unwanted labelling of ‘cis’ is enforced whether you like it or not. Many women object to being demoted to a subset of their own sex class, when previously the word ‘woman’ was sufficient and carried meaning. For a movement dedicated to the idea of always believing that people are what they say they are, there is a notable lack of acceptance of the position ‘I’m not cis’. According to the ideology you have to be either cis or trans, and this imposition of gender is one of the things that is most regressive about trans ideology. I didn’t spend a lifetime trying to escape the confines of the feminine gender box only to be forced into the restrictive cisgender box instead.
If you’re forced to accept the word ‘cis’ then you have to concede that women come in both male and female varieties. ‘Cis’ is the other side of the coin to the ‘transwomen are women’ mantra, in that it ensures the category of women contains both sexes. In this system a ‘transwoman’ is a male woman and a ‘cis woman’ is a female woman, and these are now equal subsets of the category ‘woman’. Cis is doing the job of letting men into the female sex class, and it means you can no longer be just a woman, you have to make a choice over what sex of woman you are.
An argument I have been seeing more frequently when women object to men in their spaces, is that it’s not ‘cis men’ who will be allowed in, but ‘transwomen’. Cis works here to differentiate between the men who are really male (cis men) and those who are really female (transwomen), and at the same time it puts ‘transwomen’ and women into the same category. However, without the belief system which says that women can come in both male and female varieties, it is not always possible on the ground to tell the difference between a ‘cis man’ and a ‘transwoman’, especially now that the bandwidth of ‘trans’ has been widened so exponentially. In accepting the word ‘cis’ you have lost the means to differentiate between men and women, because they both now come in both sexes.
Question: “What is the difference betweeen a cis man and a transwoman?”
Answer: “His say so”.
Once ‘cis’ has done its job of mixing up the sexes into a new gender-determined classification, a much bigger problem becomes clear. The two subsets of women (cis and trans) turn out to be not so equal after all. Cis is being used to posit an axis of oppression which subverts the usual order of things and places females as the oppressors of males: if women come in both cis and trans varieties it’s the cis ones who have the privilege. Cis privilege means that cis people oppress trans people, so it naturally follows that males are the most oppressed of all women. Once that’s established, then it’s clear that female women, with all their privilege, can no longer be allowed to organise alone without their male ‘sisters’. Groups like ‘Sisters not Cisters’ have sprung up to make sure we can never have anything just for ourselves ever again.
The result is that women are increasingly being called out when they prioritise ‘female women’, or leave out ‘male women’, in activities which were formerly perfectly well-understood as women-only. What once would have been celebrated as progressive for centering women, helping to promote justice, level the playing field or correct the male default, is now a sign of ‘transphobia’. Karen Ingala-Smith suffers periodic abusive Twitter pile-ons because her ‘Counting Dead Women’ project does just that, and Jean Hatchet endures a similar fate for her ‘Ride for Murdered Women’ fundraising bike rides. The Twitter accounts of ‘Women’s Art’ and ‘Great Women of Mathematics’ have had similar attacks from trans allies who cannot bear to see the word ‘woman’ being used without the inclusion of men. International Women’s Day has become just another opportunity on social media to insist that males must be included in the category of women.
It’s a double bind: we are apparently expected to adopt the categorisation of ‘cis women’ but then we are not allowed to organise as ‘cis women’.
Trans people on the other hand are allowed to have meetings and days of rememberance, days of visibility, and all manner of trans-only events and celebrations, without bomb threats or violence or protest. ‘Inclusion’ of other categories is not demanded of trans groups, it’s only demanded of women. When we are lambasted for ‘excluding’, there is no recognition that we are losing something we are entitled to, and often something we rely on. ‘Women-only’ has meant a place of safety or of sanctuary or of healing ever since second wave feminists fought for our rights as women, decades ago.
The Women’s Institute is the latest women’s organisation to come out as trans inclusive, which means it is no longer women-only. It is not just the case that women’s organisations have the choice whether or not to include males, it is now the fact that any which decide not to are hounded until they give in, or forever have to accept the label of bigoted transphobes. We are very nearly at the point where whenever we do anything for women we will have to include men. Many women are happy with this, actively wishing to include men who identify as women, and this is their choice. The choice though, for women who don’t want to, or can’t, include men, is dwindling. These women are often the most disadvantaged and vulnerable: sexual abuse or domestic violence survivors, prisoners, women who need refuge and women of particular faiths for example. For other women it’s just a matter of preference: the presence of males in the room makes a difference: men dominate, they talk louder, they interrupt more; sometimes you don’t want that; increasingly it’s being forced on you.
The implications of this are far-reaching. When services are advertised as ‘women-only’, or expected to be so because of social convention, then a possibility arises that a woman needing a male-free environment, for whatever reason, will at some point come across an unexpected male, possibly when she is in a state of undress or otherwise vulnerable. Very few women in this position will know what the new rules are. Not everyone is on Twitter. No woman can say on behalf of any other woman that it is now ok for ‘women-only’ to mean ‘both sexes.’ Nobody has that right. Each woman gives consent for herself and herself alone.
The equality law in the UK works by protecting certain characteristics that have traditionally suffered discrimination. Although ‘sex’ as a protected characteristic can be used to protect either sex, in reality sex discrimination mostly discriminates against women. The fundamental basis of women’s rights is a distinction between the sexes, allowing single-sex spaces and services where this is ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.’ It is the service which is judged by these criteria, not the individual wishing to use it, and up until now the aim of providing a healing space in which to recover from male violence has always met those criteria. Single-sex spaces are therefore ‘allowed’ by the law, even if the provision of them discriminates against another protected group.
It has been suggested many times (as a serious argument) that the aim to keep women’s toilets and changing rooms women-only would entail a policing of people’s genitals at the doorway, as if we were not very good at determining the sex of anyone we come across without checking their chromosomes or looking inside their pants first. Pictures of ‘passing transwomen’ are rolled out as a ‘Gotcha’, as though the successful feminisation of a single man disproves the male and female sex binary. It doesn’t though; quite the opposite: it highlights just how difficult it is to escape the confines of biological sex, with its combination of obvious and subtle visual differences. The problem is that you may say ‘transwoman’ but we see ‘male.’
What’s the difference again, between a ‘cis man’ and a ‘transwoman’?
His say so.
There is no definition of ‘ciswomen’ in law. ‘Ciswomen’ is not a protected characteristic. Choosing to use the definition ‘cis’ turns ‘woman’ into a two-sex category for which the law cannot deliver single-sex protection. Arguably, that’s the whole point of it. The protected category of sex becomes unworkable, and with it women’s basic rights. Distinct rights for women become impossible if ‘women’ includes ‘men’. If the use of the word ‘cis’ becomes normalised, then as females we will always be yoked to males.
Every manifestation of the word ‘cis’ is detrimental to women. There are no benefits. We have everything to lose. Don’t give in, don’t use the term ‘ciswomen’.