The Nomenclature Wars: Conflict In The LGBTQ Trenches

We have far more important battles ahead, comrades.
07/09/2017 08:20 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2017
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Two weeks ago, I mentioned some of the infighting that has been going on in the LGBT community since Election Day. One of those instances occurred in late June on the Facebook wall of an activist friend of mine, in multiple threads. They were all deleted two weeks ago.

However, the content of the debate raised a number of issues I consider important, so I’d like to go into some detail in this column. The root of the conflict was my friend’s perception that the word “cisgender,” or, more specifically, its contraction, “cis,” was offensive to him as a gay man. His original complaint centered on the fact that “cis” triggered him, bringing back memories of being called a “sissy” during childhood. He also claimed to not have heard of the word “cis” until recently, so the trauma was quite fresh.

As I explained to him, I coined the word in 2003 when the commercial internet was taking off and the LGBT community was increasing its participation. I learned, subsequently to 2003, that I wasn’t the only one to have coined the term during the same window during the early aughts, and several years ago I learned that the earliest reference to the word was a century earlier, in the writing of a German sexologist. A good short review of the history of the word and the current conflicts recently appeared in the Advocate.

It turns out that a number of us activists, driven by the desire to improve upon the word “non-trans” with the connotation of being “not something,” which we felt was insulting, fell upon the Latin cognate of “trans” used routinely in organic chemistry. My neologician colleagues were also chemists, so it seems we did the natural thing – we appropriated a word from our educational and professional experience which was a perfect match for filling in the linguistic gap.

While I, too, had been called a “sissy” as a child, it never entered my mind that word had any association with the word, “cis.” As a result, I never wondered if it would offend anyone who had been called a sissy, nor had I heard from anyone, gay or trans, who had been so insulted as a child, that the word insulted them.

To the contrary – the most common critique came from radical lesbians and a rather diverse cross-section of non-trans people who simply didn’t like being described as cisgender. For the most part, I inferred that their discomfort was in being told, and later reminded, that there is nothing normal (in anything other than a statistical sense) in their gender identity being congruous with their genitalia. They – 99.4 percent of the population – had always taken it for granted they were who they were, and didn’t need or want to be told that they had another classification to which they belonged. They never experienced those characteristics as part of their identity, so the challenge was initially seen as fundamentally absurd. To me, this experience is analogous to straight people never thinking of themselves as heterosexual, or white people never thinking of themselves as white. Those are just the default categories, and, therefore, needn’t be spelled out. That there is power and privilege in being in the majority default category had never been an issue to them, which is not surprising since no one had ever before raised the issue.

What I found striking was that a gay man, and a white one at that, would be so uncomfortable with having this defining characteristic being pointed out to him when he, too, had spent his life being a minority. Mind you, neither I or anyone else on the thread directly identified him as a cis man; all people did was point out that he was part of that category. I would never introduce him to anyone as, “my friend, the cis gay man.” I would use “gay” because that is how he identifies, and I would leave out “cis” because it goes without saying. No one else on the thread demanded that he identify that way, or use that word, but simply to accept it as a medical and academic term that is in common use to distinguish his class of persons from trans persons.

No matter what I said I couldn’t make any inroads, and I couldn’t, and still can’t understand, why a homophone of the syllable “sis” would suddenly trigger his discomfort. After all, the words are “cis” and “cisgender,” not “cissy” nor “cissygender.”

He asked me to respect his feelings and come up with a new term, which I declined to do – I don’t have the power to drive linguistic evolution. I was fortunate to coin a term (with others) that was badly needed and then quickly accepted. Had it had no broad usefulness, or had it seriously offended a large swath of people, it simply would have died. An example of that would be the rise and fall of the word “trans*,” which was created to be more expansive than just “trans.” Being unintelligible, unpronounceable, and unnecessary, it just disappeared from common usage.

Many others joined in, some supporting my friend but most opposing. Some of the language became heated, and I soon understood that what may have been a subconscious motivation of his to call for the suppression of the word was that some had used it as a slur against him. That didn’t surprise me, since I know too many trans persons have weaponized it and used it against gay and straight persons alike. In this time when identity often is all that matters to some people, it isn’t shocking that some angry trans persons would use it as a slur, just as some gay men used “breeder” and “tranny” as a slur in the past. I hope we get past this phase quickly, because it is not helping our community.

I don’t believe it will find much use outside of academia or scientific studies, where comparing and contrasting cisgender and transgender persons is the point of the study. For me, I see no purpose in demanding that non-trans persons use it to routinely identify themselves, simply to make some trans persons feel more comfortable. I feel the same about pronouns. Just as I don’t believe someone’s feelings are primary when my rights are being violated (privacy rights vs. public accommodations protections) – I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but that isn’t of the utmost importance - similarly I’m not interested in forcing the vast majority of people to go out of their way to make a tiny minority feel welcome. I believe there is only so much we should demand of people, or we’ll end up with much less than we have now. Politeness and civility go both ways.

This was his last comment, on the main thread, to a trans colleague:

I’m not sure what your goal is here, but throwing a term that I find offensive in my face doesn’t help your cause. It only shuts down the conversation. I made a decision last night not add any new posts on this topic, as it sends your community over the fragile edge of mental balance. The sad part is that I never intended to hurt your community. But just letting you know that I find a term that your community (yes, your community as Dana Beyer takes credit) adopted for me, without my consent, to be offensive ― and since all your community has done is throw it in my face and call me names, has turned me off so badly as far as your community’s lack of compassion for anyone but yourselves. And that’s no community I care to associate with ― including legislatively and politically. Your loss.

In his final post he decided that he would simply use “gay” to refer to the entire alphabet soup of the community, since that was the acceptable term in 1969. Fair enough, though I doubt he will find much acceptance outside of his subgroup. Right now I don’t think he cares.

Similar debates are still occurring with the word, “queer,” which has been reclaimed but offends some older gay men who dealt with it as young person when it was hurled as a slur. Comparable debates roiled the African-American community in the 1950-1960s, with a commission developed to settle on a term but which never finished its mission. Some things are better left to the crowd to resolve, and those of us on the hurting side need to find a way to move forward. We have far more important battles ahead, comrades, than to get bogged down in fights and lost friendships because of the narcissism of small differences.

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