Twitter CEO and noted transphobe Elon Musk has decreed that the words “cis” and “cisgender” will be “considered slurs” on the platform after two users complained and falsely linked the term to pedophilia.
“Repeated, targeted harassment against any account will cause the harassing accounts to receive, at minimum, temporary suspensions,” Musk wrote early Wednesday, months after declaring himself a “free speech absolutist.” Other paying Twitter users thanked him.
The term, of course, is not an insult, nor is it associated with crime. Rather, it is a way of describing people who are not transgender — the majority of people — first used by academics, legal and medical professionals who need to employ precise descriptive language. It refers to people whose gender identities are consistent with the broad societal expectations accompanying their sex assigned at birth.
As awareness of gender identity and expression has wound its way into the mainstream, so has the term “cisgender.” (And so have age-old attempts to smear the LGBTQ community as criminals who hurt children.)
The now-retired researcher credited with coining the term, Dana Defosse, explained how she came up with it in an essay for HuffPost back in February. She wrote: “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.” She used the word in a 1994 post on an early internet forum, which Oxford English Dictionary cited when it added the term to the dictionary in 2015.
Three decades after first writing the term, Defosse is well acquainted with the hateful reaction “cisgender” can inspire.
Defosse told HuffPost over the phone Wednesday that Musk’s Twitter announcement came as no surprise considering the billionaire tech entrepreneur’s “ghastly history of attacking trans people.”
“The post on Twitter has degenerated into a sort of free-for-all for antisemitic and racist tropes, so it sort of fits in with the direction that platform is going,” Defosse said, adding that this type of attack likely is not helping the company’s advertising revenue.
“The fact is, whether or not somebody identifies as cisgender doesn’t negate the fact that cisgender identity is a valid construct. It exists, and it has meaning in how we operate in the world,” Defosse said.
“Banning use of a word that’s part of our daily vocabulary around the world, that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a cowardly and futile attempt to censor an idea which is, in my opinion, way bigger and more enduring than anything Musk could hope to offer,” she added.
While she was loathe to pin a label on any person who is not comfortable with it, saying, “It’s always wrong to assign an identity to another person,” Defosse suggested people may actually be feeling threatened by “cis.”
“There is gender identity,” she stated. “Whether somebody like William Shatner argues, ’I’m not cis, I’m normal,” I think that is a very loaded idea, that’s really destructive and hateful.”
“The idea of somebody saying, ‘I’m not cisgender, please don’t call me that,’ that’s different from, say, the idea that the construct of ‘cisgender’ doesn’t exist.” She added: “If you ban the word ‘cisgender’ on Twitter, how’s somebody going to have an informed, rational discussion of gender identity in the world?”
Defosse was similarly unsurprised to see Musk spread a popular right-wing misconception about the term’s origin, although she found it upsetting. “I take it personally,” she said.
Replying to a tweet claiming “cisgender” was coined by “a German sexologist” accused of applauding pedophilia, Musk wrote: “Yup, the contemptible creep that manufactured the term ‘cis’ has serious problems. Ignore him.”
It is not clear whether Musk purposefully misgendered Defosse, was simply ignorant of her contribution, or wished to paint her with the same brush as the German.
She tied the attack on the term “cisgender” to the broader assault on trans people, which she likened to a “pogrom.”
“It kind of meets two of their goals: one is to equate cisgender with pedophilia, but it also is part of their agenda to reinforce the idea that gender and biological sex are the same thing, which is part of the underlying narrative that helps them maintain this sort of patriarchal construct,” Defosse said.
“Reactionaries always choose to believe that the world is polar, binary, because their power is vested in those kinds of constructs,” she continued. “So you can’t really maintain the illusion that some people deserve power over others unless, you know, you differentiate ‘other’ people.”