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Mind your language

How we ended up ‘cisgender’

The history of a tendentious word

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

‘That’s not how you spell “system”,’ said my husband triumphantly, pointing with his whisky glass at a placard inveighing against the ‘Cistem’, held up by a transgender protester on television. ‘No, darling,’ I said, not even assuming a patient tone. ‘It’s a play on words.’

Among people who like using the word gender outside its grammatical homeland, cis- as a prefix is tacked on, to make cisgender: ‘someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth’, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it carefully. Note that it is not held to be a question of being the same sex as you were born, but the sex and gender assigned to you.

I confess to having fallen in with my late parents’ blinkered decision to assign the female gender to me, a decision perhaps reinforced by my daughter Veronica’s habit of calling me Mummy. That make me cisgender, or cisgendered as some express it.

In any case, we dull cisgender types have only had this label since 1999. Transgender people have enjoyed theirs since 1974. Transsexual, or transexual, came into use about 1957, but with at least four meanings: ‘having physical sexual characteristics different from psychological ones’; ‘being intersexual, neither male nor female’; ‘being both heterosexual and homosexual’; ‘having had surgery in pursuit of a sexual identity’.

So cisgender was coined in distinction from transgender as cisalpine was differentiated from transalpine. It depends on viewpoint. Just as ultramontane originally meant ‘on the far side of the Alps from Rome’, and later the opposite, so did ‘transalpine’, as first viewed from Rome and later from England. Thus transpontine means (in London) the parts south of the river (as though everyone’s viewpoint is from north of the river). In 1662, dear old Thomas Fuller wrote of Henry Stafford, something of a turncoat under Henry VIII and Queen Mary: ‘I place him confidently not a trans-, but Cis-reformation-man.’

I feel that transgender campaigners have become silly, violent and intolerant. They will say that as a cis I have no right to speak on the matter.

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