A little over a week ago, Twitter owner Elon Musk announced that targeted harassment on the site would lead to account suspensions — which had been company policy well before he bought the social platform at a grossly inflated price. His declaration was in response to a user indignant that others had called him “cis,” short for “cisgender,” meaning his gender identity conforms to the sex he was assigned at birth. It’s a term that describes someone who is, simply, not transgender.
Musk agreed, however, that this clinical label is offensive, and went so far as to call it a “slur” of the kind that could get your account suspended.
Like many of the capricious and trollish decisions Musk makes about Twitter, this caused an online uproar, even while it remained unclear how serious he was or whether the site’s gutted moderation team would be able to enforce the arbitrary rule.
Dana Defosse, the retired researcher and physician educator who coined the term in 1994, even wrote an op-ed explaining how backwards Musk’s thinking was, and told HuffPost in an interview that it was a clear example of his ongoing transphobia. “The fact is, whether or not somebody identifies as cisgender doesn’t negate the fact that cisgender identity is a valid construct,” she said. “It exists, and it has meaning in how we operate in the world.”
Nevertheless, Musk breathed life into a conservative talking point, one that attempts to erase the existence of trans people by claiming there is no need for a descriptor for non-trans individuals. The objection to “cisgender” is based in the belief that “cis” is the “normal” or “default” mode of humanity, while anyone identifying as transgender is an aberration.
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, one of the hardest-working transphobes online, almost immediately joined Musk in condemning the adjective as “ideological language” and “jargon.” Days later, psychologist Jordan Peterson was even more forceful, implying harm to anyone who dared call him “cis” to his face. (Weeks before, he, too, had tweeted that “cis” was a “slur,” condemning it as a “woke neologism produced by the most manipulative of progressive propagandists.”)
It could appear that the anti-trans right has whipped up a fake new controversy (and victimization routine) overnight. Just as they latched onto the idea of boycotting Bud Light or Target for LGBTQ pride campaigns, “anti-woke” groups quickly coalesced around the narrative that it is somehow the privileged majority — in this the case, the cisgender population — who are oppressed by cultural norms. Yet, as with so many of these internet-fueled outrages, the “cis” freakout has deep roots in our gender politics.
We can start by looking at who Musk was replying to in the first place (the same man wrote the column that Peterson was sharing). James Esses is a blogger in the U.K. who says he was expelled from a university’s therapy training program in 2021 for holding “gender critical” views and has been raising money for a legal challenge to the school; he also lost a volunteer job at the children’s phone counseling service Childline, allegedly for the same reasons.
Since then, he’s spent a lot of time on Twitter trying to amplify the notion that “cis” is a slur. In fact, over the past few years, he has several times announced that he rejects the term and finds it offensive — claiming that rather than abusing trans people by denying their identities, they are the ones persecuting him. He was doing it back in 2021, complete with the hashtag #CisIsASlur.
The year before, as some might recall, Star Trek actor William Shatner spent more than a month fighting with Twitter users while claiming that “cis” — which he insisted on typing in all capital letters — could be a slur, one inflicted upon him as a “word of hate.” Tellingly, in all this back-and-forth, he also denied that he was “having a conversation about trans people.” Of course, the entire reason for the word is to acknowledge cisgender identity as it stands in relation to transgender identity, neither being innately “ordinary” or superior. To talk about one is to invoke the other. But Shatner argued, unconvincingly, that being called “cis” was an insult that had nothing to do with the demographic from which the term differentiates him.
This bad-faith rhetoric goes back even further, and was often entwined with the claim that “TERF,” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” — used to describe cis women who wish to keep trans women out of their private spaces and public movements — is a misogynist slur. “Cis” broadens out this resentment to reactionary men, so that the likes of Shatner, Esses, Musk and Peterson can get in on the action. As objections to trans women competing in women’s sports have grown especially heated, organizations have begun to cave to the pressure. In May, the World Athletics Council, international track and field’s governing body, barred transgender women athletes from competing in women’s events. In tandem, “gender critical” activists and “TERF pride” groups have consistently shared memes designed to gin up backlash to “cis.”
The term “cis” appears to make the leap from academia to the popular lexicon around 2013-2014, making it into the Oxford English Dictionary by 2015. And, sure enough, a full decade ago, users on Tumblr — a platform with historically strong LGBTQ representation — were pushing back on those who claimed that “cis” could be interpreted as a slur. At the same time, we were seeing thinkpieces such as the Atlantic‘s “Can ‘Cisgender’ Survive?,” which noted that some feminist groups and cis segments of the queer community were rankling at the label. (A handful of transphobic tweets from the era confirm as much.)
What we’re seeing today, then, is the culmination of a sustained, cynical effort to derail a conversation about affirming trans rights by turning the focus back to cisgender people’s hurt feelings. While billionaire Musk can claim foul play when someone accurately points out that he’s cisgender, the real harm done is to the efforts of the trans community fighting to be recognized. As ever, his latest Twitter tweak is just intended to make it a safer space for hateful extremists — by protecting them from a danger that’s entirely in their heads.