AI: When Is It Okay to Label Someone Else?


Upon further reflection on debates about the use of words like “cisgender” or “neurotypical” I have been thinking about times in which it is appropriate to put a label or term on another person without them choosing that term themselves. I was already thinking about this, and then this past week’s Skeptics Guide to the Universe touched on this debate too. I think they handled it badly, actually, siding with those who consider such language to PC. Mind you, I generally like SGU a lot, I just think they were wrong this time.

I also generally support people being able to use whatever language to identify themselves that they want to. I have been learning a lot about this lately (some of you may remember my big mistake awhile back, which really put me on the path of thinking about these things more) and I do generally want to support people using the language they prefer to define themselves.

However, those who object to language like the term “cisgender” don’t seem to be doing so out of a desire to define their own identity. Instead it seems to come from a place of objecting to the idea that they are not “normal” or better than those of us who’s identities are less common. A word like “cisgender” requires people to acknowledge that both cis* and trans* identities are valid, worthy, and equal in value – a difficult thing for many to deal with.

So it is okay for me to label someone with a term they may not have chosen for themselves? When is it okay for me to do this? Should I stop using it if they object, if I don’t think their reasons are okay? My impulse is to say that I have a right to point out the privilege of people who have it, and the use of this kind of language is essential to that, but I’m not sure that’s right.

What do you think? Do you use words like cisgender, neurotypical, or similar language that labels more common identities instead of calling them “normal?” Should I stop using them if someone is offended by them?

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  1. It depends (doesn’t it always?). I think we cannot overlook the power relations involved. For example, labeling a berdache as “transgender” (or even as “berdache”) is highly problematic because those are not identity labels they themselves used. I take seriously the complaint that assigning labels to people can disempower them and strip them of their identities.

    But when it comes to labeling cisgender people (of which I am one), I think you hit the nail on the head in your second to last paragraph before the question. I agree with you that it is about resisting the troubling deeply ingrained naturalization of cisgenderism in our society. Cisgender disturbs the “normal/trans” dichotomy that many people adhere to because it creates a spectrum or explodes a binary that people invest a lot of meaning in. So, when I’ve seen resistance to being labeled as “cisgender” it’s been the argument that a label isn’t necessary because it’s the “natural/normal” way to be.

    Labeling people as cisgender destabilizes the illusion of a natural gender binary just as transgender does.

    I also think people in positions of social power/privilege should have little to complain about when being labeled by people in positions of social oppression.

    • Everything Will said.

      I’d just add that I don’t know of any heterosexuals objecting to the label “straight,” and I think that’s because straight ~ normal. For that very reason, I try to avoid using the word “straight” and use “heterosexual” instead. This has the added advantage of labeling hets with a term that includes sex.

  2. I’m not one to deny an identity that someone has taken, that said, it’s also useful to have additional words that describe people purely by behaviors.

    For instance, “gay” and “lesbian” are identities, but “MSM” and “WSW”* are descriptions of behaviors. One can identify as straight, but fall into the MSM or WSW categories. Identification doesn’t enter into it.

    While cisgender isn’t as clear cut, it always felt to me more like a MSM/WSW type category. And frankly, for many trans people, “trans” is that kind of description too– it’s not an important part of their identity, it’s just a description of their experiences.

    * MSM = Men who have sex with men, WSW = Women who have sex with women

  3. I’m sure that it’s probably a good idea to stop using a term to describe someone if they find it objectionable after explanation. It seems as though terms like ‘cisgender’ and ‘neurotypical’ have no reason to be offended by.

    They’re terms that we need only because an alternative exists. We wouldn’t need the word ‘atheist’ except that believers exist. Similarly, people who are neuroatypical exist, and thus we need a term to define those who are not neuroatypical.

    Objecting to the term ‘cisgender’ is, to me, like objecting to the use of the color brown to describe one’s eye color. If your gender identity and sex don’t align, then you aren’t cisgender. Otherwise, it’s just a statement of fact about how your identity matches with your assigned sex. Using a word like ‘normal’ is alienating to anyone who doesn’t fall into the ‘cisgender’ category. There really isn’t another word to describe that state of being, and objecting to it seems pointless.

    • I agree with you completely, and that is the way I describe the term cisgender as well, but lately there have been several people who have expressed offense about it. A few have been extremely public and gotten attention for that objection, with MANY other non-transgender people saying they find the term offensive because there should be no word for being normal.

      I wish they were as sensible as you. πŸ™‚

      • Ah, the world would be a much different place if everyone were as sensible as us. πŸ˜€

        I did listen to the latest SGU podcast today, and I see what you’re saying about them missing the point. I got the distinct impression that that group of cissexual, presumably neurotypical men didn’t understand the sense of otherment involved with being lumped as ‘abnormal’.

        Privilege to the max. The podcasters and the other people you mentioned sound like they’ve never been exposed to marginalization based on minority status. To be constantly called ‘abnormal’ or even being implicitly excluded from the ‘normal’ is really really shitty. There’s nothing ‘too PC’ about it when you’re telling a whole group of people that there’s something wrong with them.

        • Yeah, the SGU seems to almost always go somewhere problematic when Rebecca Watson isn’t on to rein them in. =/

          I have to admit, I find the idea that calling someone “cisgender” or “neurotypical” is politically correct, baffling. *Not* using those terms because some person of privilege has decided that they’re offended seems much more “politically correct” to me.

  4. I can’t really speak for those who feel offended by it, but for me “cisgender” does feel a bit… strange? I did not grew up with that word or find it within me myself. I just one morning read somewhere that this is part of who I am. It doesn’t offend me at all and I have no problems with someone describing me as cisgendered to prove a point or highlight variety or something, but it does seem a little out-of-place coming from my own mouth. At least right now, maybe this will pass.

  5. I would agree that hanging a label on another person, or on a group one is not a member of, can be risky. That said, it’s good to minimize ambiguity, and “normal” doesn’t do that, partly because we don’t all agree on what what’s normal. I can’t for the life of me understand why “cisgender” would offend anybody. We know that transgender people exist, and cisgender is the obvious complementary term for people who are not transgender (and who do not fall into an ambiguous category that isn’t described well in a word). I don’t know any straight person who objects to being considered “heterosexual”, which has the same relationship to homosexual that cisgender does to transgender. The word “cisgender” seems to have been coined in 1994, long enough ago to make it part of the language, and to me seems to be a useful descriptor.
    There are legitimate questions as to whether we’re sayng “gender” when we should be saying “sex”, but that seems to me to be a separate discussion, and in any event “cissexual/transsexual” is not likely to be less offensive than “transgender/cisgender”.

  6. Good question! I generally agree with the principle that it’s good to be careful about assigning labels to others. However, I would propose that there is a very simple criterion for whether someone is cisgender. Have they said they do not identify as transgender? They have? Then they are cisgender.

    • I mostly agree with you, but if they don’t buy into a cis/trans binary at all, then I could see an argument for not labeling them either one.

      But if they recognize “transgender” as a category of person, I don’t see the problem of having a word that means “the opposite of transgender” being ascribed to them. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to use it to refer to themselves. But the word itself does not disempower someone who identifies as non-transgender but dislikes the word cisgender. It could disempower someone who identifies as something else completely, though.

  7. Here’s the thing – nobody asked us if we wanted our labels/diagnoses. Nobody questions using ‘autistic’ or ‘transgendered’ or ‘disabled’ or ‘gay’. Those specific terms may change, but nobody seems to wonder if we need a label beyond ‘weirdos’.
    So, fuck them. That’s bullshit. It’s like white people complaining about being called ‘white people’ instead of ‘regular people’.
    Are they really serious with that? I’m having trouble taking it seriously.
    And if they are serious, they just want, what, ‘normal’? We get a label and they don’t?
    I should always reference myself as different from them, but they should never be referenced as the one who is different from me?
    Fie on their houses! πŸ˜›

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