Earlier Wednesday, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted on the platform he acquired last year that the terms “cis” and “cisgender” are considered slurs on Twitter.
The tweet came in response to user James Esses, who wrote: “Yesterday, after posting a Tweet saying that I reject the word ‘cis’ and don’t wish to be called it, I received a slew of messages from trans activists calling me ‘cissy’ and telling me that I am ‘cis’ ‘whether or not I like it.’ Just imagine if the roles were reversed.”
Musk followed up by writing: “Repeated, targeted harassment against any account will cause the harassing accounts to receive, at minimum, temporary suspensions. The words ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’ are considered slurs on this platform.”
Musk is no longer Twitter’s CEO — he stepped down after holding a poll on the platform where users voted he should vacate the top job — but he still owns the social media giant along with his investors. There’s been no word from Twitter’s CEO Linda Yaccarino if this is a real policy that Twitter is pursuing in its content moderation efforts.
Writer Katherine Brodsky asked Musk if the term ‘cisgender’ still counts as a slur if someone self-identifies as a cisgender person. He responded by tweeting, “Call yourself anything you want.”
Musk’s war on the term ‘cisgender’ comes at a time of increasing animosity towards transgender people, both in the U.S. and Canada, and the billionaire’s own turn towards far-right figures.
With few actual details about this cisgender policy at Twitter, there’s room to explore how the term ‘cisgender’ came to be, and why people are fighting over the word.
The history of the term ‘cisgender’
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Cisgender is an identity for those whose gender corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth. So, if your physical sex was deemed female at birth, and you identify as a woman, you’re cisgender, for example.
Transgender people do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, which can lead some to seek gender-affirming care. Non-binary people identify outside the male/female construct and can identify with having no gender or a fluctuating gender identity.
Earlier this year, retired researcher Dana Defosse wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post where she claims she coined the term cisgender in 1994.
“I was in graduate school and writing a paper on the health of trans adolescents. I put a post on alt.transgender to ask for views on transphobia and inclusion on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I was struggling because there did not seem to be a way to describe people who were not transgender without inescapably couching them in normalcy and making transgender identity automatically the ‘other,’” Defosse writes.
“I knew that in chemistry, molecules with atoms grouped on the same side are labeled with the Latin prefix “cis–,” while molecules with atoms grouped on opposite sides are referred to as “trans–.” So, cisgender. It seemed like a no-brainer.”
Defosse recounts that it took a while for the term to catch on, but in 2016, it was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “both attributed the origin of the word to my 1994 post,” she writes.
She thought the word might become a passing fad, until 2022 when the Supreme Court of India used the term in its legal definition of a woman.
“The word cisgender is now an influential force in culture, sexuality, law and medicine around the world,” she writes.
Marking International Transgender Day of Visibility
But when she coined the term, Defosse had no idea it would one day become the subject of such scrutiny.
“It saddens me to hear that people feel harmed by the word cisgender. Is the creation of the word to blame? No. Cisgender is just a straw man. It is easier to attack a word than to address the reasons people feel intimidated by discussions of gender identity,” she writes.
She believes the reason why some feel uncomfortable being called cisgender is because it necessarily implies that there are more gender identities outside of the normative binary of “man” and “woman.”
“It is not surprising that those who have garnered dominance and privilege from traditional gender roles feel threatened and compelled to lash out. These ideas are not new. But the word cisgender repackages them in a way that is more potent and visceral,” she argues.
For Defosse, the recent wave of anti-trans legislation in the U.S. and rising backlash against drag queen performers goes hand-in-hand with efforts like repealing Roe v. Wade.
“The people denying health care and bodily autonomy to trans people are the same people denying women those rights,” she warns.
In April, Musk removed rules in Twitter’s speech guidelines that banned deliberate “misgendering” and “deadnaming” of transgender users.
Earlier this month, Musk came into conflict with Twitter’s own safety and content moderation team when it flagged a documentary called What Is A Woman? for hateful conduct. The online film, produced by the right-wing Daily Wire and conservative commentator Matt Walsh, faced backlash for being transphobic and offensive.
Musk overruled his team’s decision to limit the reach of the documentary, and even explicitly advertised the film on his own Twitter feed, writing that every parent should watch it. In the aftermath of the debacle, a top Twitter executive in charge of content moderation resigned.
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