Wednesday, May 13, 2009

cis as an academic term

A central question that I have as I delve into theory is the concept of “academic language.” As I mentioned in my previous two posts, academic language is divisive and convoluted. But I think there is another piece of the puzzle into which I really want to dig deeper—what does it mean to write a theorist, a branch of theory, or a whole community off as being too academic?

A few weeks ago, queenemily over at Questioning Transphobia wrote two great posts about how “cisgender” is dismissed as an academic term, rendering the calling out of cisgender privilege easily deflectable. queenemily noted that “cis” comes from internet listservs and discussion boards from the 90s. The folks in my community who I talked about it with have said that it comes out of a chemistry term, cis-trans isomerism which I can’t verify but is a neat connection. Here’s the wikipedia article on cisgender as well.

I think it’s important to note that cisgender didn’t necessarily come straight from the academy, or from the pages of Judith Butler. I don’t think that doesn’t mean there isn’t some sort of academic connection to it, though—internet access in the 90s was still scarce, so the folks who may have been actively creating cis might have been academics after all, or at least folks privileged enough to have consistent enough internet access to create online communities. I wish there was a clear citation or link back or path to the origins of cisgender!

queenemily also brings up probably the most important point to me that seems to be forgotten particularly in feminist discussions of trans issues—words that start with cis may seem esoteric, but how many times are words like “sexism” and “heterosexism” thrown back at groups who work to end oppression as too academic? queenemily puts it as the following:
Now obviously, cissexual isn’t a common, everyday term. But neither are other terms commonly used in feminist discussions online, like essentialism and heteronormativity. None of these are very difficult to make sense of, to read around, or to just fucking google it.
queenemily defines this up as the power/privilege to be ignorant about an issue. I agree wholeheartedly. I also feel like there is something about calling something “academic” that makes it seem like it is less true, less everyday, less important, more theoretical. What does it mean for something to be theoretical? What does it mean to say something isn’t real because it’s theoretical? Reading over at Womanist Musing’s comment thread at her post about Radical Feminism, one commenter repeatedly discussed how trans people are not able to change their sex, though they can change their gender all they want, and by not being able to change their sex many radical feminists won’t respect both their gender and their sex. What the commenter seemed to be getting at was that sex is NOT socially constructed and gender is, and because it’s socially constructed—read THEORETICAL—it is not what the conversation is truly about.

What does it mean to have a theoretical body? I think it means a lot of different things. Speaking from my experience, I see my body as theoretical, my sex as well as my gender, because I am intimately aware, as many people are, of how power that is not usually mine constructs my body, and how that construction doesn’t match what I think of my body to be.

What does it mean to be academic? Does that mean theoretical? Or does it mean esoteric? Hard to understand? If words that start with cis are hard to understand, what is it that makes them that way? It could be that not many folks use words that start with cis. Or it could be that by saying something is hard to understand, you can ignore what is being said.

Sara Shalil, as I talked about earlier, says that’s the argument often leveled at Judith Butler’s work—it’s too hard to understand, so I’m not going to read it or try to understand it. Are trans people’s lives, experiences, critiques, bodies, and needs expendable because cis people think they are theories too hard to comprehend?


  1. I don't want to be pissed off today, so I'm avoiding reading the comments at Feministing. But I like your post!

  2. I did read the comments at feministing and wish I hadn't. Erin has the right idea.

    excellent post.

  3. I just found this blog and I'm excited about where it'll go! I graduate high school this month, and next year I'll be majoring in gender studies.

    In my opinion, there's a balance to be struck between the exclusionary world of the academe and the so-called "real" world. I think queenemily oversimplifies it when she says "none of these [uncommon terms] are very difficult to make sense of, to read around, or to just fucking google it." The ivory tower can be intimidating and unapproachable; this doesn't mean that what comes from it is unimportant nor that practical applications can't be made.

  4. Ugh, I read all the posts on feministing and hoped that my response didn't get lost.

    Basically thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!


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About Me

I'm a young trans person living between two states, trying to make ends meet, both intellectually and monetarily.