Elon Musk has announced that the words “cis” and “cisgender” are now considered slurs on Twitter, triggering widespread confusion over the social platform's ever-evolving publishing guidelines.
In a tweet posted early this morning (21 June), Musk said, “The words “cis” or “cisgender” are considered slurs on this platform,” in response to a user who claimed he was being harassed by “trans activists.”
So what does “cisgender” mean? And is it – as Elon Musk supposes – a slur? Let's get into it.
“Cisgender” is a term that is often interchanged with “straight,” but they’re not a one-to-one exchange (more on that later). You may also hear “cishet” instead of cisgender, as well as “comphet” used in the same conversation. We’re here to save you some research and shed some light on all of these terms.
What does cis stand for?
This one is simple, so let’s get it out of the way first: “cis” (pronounced sis) is short for “cisgender.”
What does cisgender mean?
The gender identity conversation falls under the “T” in LGBT. Yes, it stands for trans, but while L (lesbian), G (gay), and B (bisexual) are tied to sexual identities, T (trans) refers to gender identity.
To break it down further, transgender refers to someone who identifies as a sex they were not assigned at birth, cisgender describes someone who choses to identify as the sex they were assigned at birth. Instead of thinking of these two identities as opposites, consider them complements. And don’t confuse them with gender identities—that’s a completely different realm.
If you’re looking for a specific definition, the Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) sets up a great answer to “what does cisgender mean?” “[Cis is a] term for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth. The term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life.”
Where did the term cisgender come from?
According to research from McGill University, specifically Science Communicator Jonathan Jarry, the prefix “cis” has roots that date back far earlier than the past couple of years. “The prefix “cis-” has thus made its way from Latin to geography—“cisalpine” meaning “on our side of the Alps”—from chemistry to chemotherapy—cisplatin being an anticancer drug whose ammine groups are on the same side of its platinum atom—from molecular biology to how we understand the complex reality of sex and gender,” the article, titled “The Word ‘Cisgender’ Has Scientific Roots,” shares.
The shortest of Latin lessons will have your light bulb going off. In Latin, cis means “on the same side as.” Trans, on the other hand, means “on the opposite side as” in Latin. It all comes down to the sex you were assigned at birth—which is often a split second decision based on obvious genitalia or sexual organs. Grammatically, make sure to leave a space between “cis” and the person it's describing. It’s a descriptor and should not be added to the subject.
The term “cisgender” may seem unnecessary, but let’s take a moment to explore alternatives. “Normal,” “regular,” and “status quo” all insinuate that anything that strays can be considered abnormal or irregular. We all know that’s certainly untrue, as there are many different identities a person can embody.
What does “cishet” mean and how is it different than being straight?
Here’s where we start walking away from gender identities and over to sexual identities. Someone who identifies as straight, or heterosexual, finds themself attracted to members of the opposite sex. Many people in the LGBTQ+ community fall into this category—for example, a trans woman who dates men may identify as straight. But those in the LGBTQ+ community can’t identify as cishet. This term refers to someone who is both cisgender and heterosexual, meaning they identify as the same sex they were assigned at birth and they are attracted to members of the opposite sex.
To keep it simple, anyone can identify as straight no matter which sex they were assigned at birth. But to be cishet, you have to identify as the same sex you were assigned at birth and be attracted to members of the opposite sex.
What’s the difference between cishet and comphet?
So, we’ve defined cishet: someone who identifies as the same sex they were assigned at birth and is attracted to members of the opposite sex. Comphet, on the other hand, is more of a mindset than an identity. Short for “compulsory heterosexuality,” the term was first coined by poet and essayist Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" that basically says heterosexuality is a learned behavior from being socialized in a patriarchal society.
This theory helps explain the oppression of other sexual and personal identities, attributing the popularity of heterosexuality to the fear of acting outside of societal norms. You won’t hear “cishet” and “comphet” used interchangeably, necessarily, but more so as elements of a larger conversation.
So why is being cishet a privilege?
Continuing on Rich’s theory of comphet behaviour, to be cishet is still considered the “norm” in a world that prioritises traditional family roles and structures and commercials featuring queer couples still make headlines. Those who identify as cishet will often face fewer societal obstacles than those in the queer community, such as legislation aimed at personal liberties, hate crimes, and other public ridicule. Research from Riders University titled “Privilege and Intersectionality” defines cisgender privilege as “the unearned benefits you receive when your gender identity matches your sex assigned at birth. For example, you are not questioned about what restroom you should be using, denied access to healthcare, misgendered when addressed or spoken about, asked what your "real" name is, or fearful of violence because of your gender presentation.”
It’s more important than ever for the cisgender community to support queer communities through public actions (like attending marches and queer-led events, supporting queer-owned businesses, and showing up for your trans and queer friends when they need it) and fundraising.
A version of this story originally appeared on Teen Vogue.