The squiggly red line of social erasure.
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International educators may be particularly aware of the importance of language, seeing as so many of us toggle between multiple languages in our everyday lives, and teach children who do the same. We’re privy to the delight of discovering a useful word with no translation to our first language/s. I still use yella (Arabic for let’s go/come on/hurry up!), though I left Kuwait years ago. Or, we’ve experienced the profound feeling that language, when mastered, can shape even the way that we think, such as when the grammatical gender of nouns, according to different languages, changes how people personify them. Language can also lend validity to our experiences; I remember the unexpected sensation of relief when I acquired the term TCK (Third Culture Kid or Trans-Cultural Kid), and could then put words to an identity I strongly related to, but hadn’t previously been able to articulate. Language, and the ability to use it to reflect our lived experience, matters.
How do words get past the gatekeepers of our cultural lexicon? In a 2017 interview, Merriam-Webster editor, Kory Stamper, explained that, in order to enter the dictionary, new words must meet three criteria:
- Widespread use
- Sustained use
- Meaningful use
This post is a supplement to my submission to Merriam-Webster: I’d like to get the word ‘cisnormative’ added to the dictionary. My definition of cisnormative, based upon Merriam-Webster’s definition of heteronormative is:
Cisnormative (adjective): of, relating to, or based on the attitude that a cisgender identity is the only normal and natural experience of gender
The word cisnormative meets all three of Merriam-Webster’s criteria for entry. It is…
- Widespread – Below you’ll see the word used in peer-reviewed, academic texts published across fields as varied as health, parenting, education, religion, law, business, public recreation, and architecture.
- Sustained – At least one detailed explanation of the term (with visual diagram, below) dates back to a peer-reviewed journal article from 2009, almost a decade ago.
- Meaningful – Discrimination based upon gender identity is deadly and serious; recognizing it by name is meaningful.
From the same interview, Stamper provides an example of a word she chose to add to the dictionary: bodice ripper (it’s a type of romance novel, for those unfamiliar). Other words you can find in Merriam-Webster’s tome: dumpster fire, f-bomb, ginormous, weak sauce, glamping, anyways, and literally (when used in exaggerated emphasis, not actually meaning, well… literally). I’d argue any day that cisnormative is at least as credible a word as these.
A quick search turns up long lists of peer-reviewed academic references to cisnormativity. Here’s a sample:
- “Cisnormative assumptions are so prevalent that they are difficult at first to even recognize.”
From the same text, a diagram:
- “Cisnormative assumptions can have the effect of rendering the transgender population invisible.”
- “‘Cisnormativity’ is the assumption that it is ‘normal’ to be cisgender”
- “As with heteronormativity, what is in place with cisnormativity is the powerful categorization of people in opposition to an assumed norm, and the discrimination that is enacted through that power.”
- “Systemic discrimination can be challenged by reviewing policies, procedures, protocols and processes to remove conventions and assumptions of cisnormativity.”
- “As with heteronormativity, families are among the primary contexts in which cisnormativity is enforced and reproduced.”
- “This section will highlight how problematization of (trans)gender identity is an effect of cisnormative power and privilege.”
- “The participants oriented to a hetero/cisnormative social context by drawing on normalizing discourses to present their families as ‘just like’ other families and to downplay the significance of their parents’ sexuality/gender identity.”
- “Although these studies reveal the existence of transgender religious people, they offer little understanding of transgender religious experience or the construction of religious cisnormativity.”
- “What is our expectation of architecture when our cities, buildings – their programs, connections and interfaces – reinforce essentialist and cisnormative notions of gender?”
- “Research that has been conducted has been done primarily through a heteronormative and cisnormative lens ignoring the transition to adulthood for those who are LGBTQ.”
- “Queer theory is applied to the focus of this paper to investigate how heteronormativity and cisnormativity put GSM [gender and sexual minority] youth at a disadvantage to their peers, specifically with regards to accessing relevant sexual health and relationship information at school.”
- “Heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions are predominant in the language (including images) in mainstream breastfeeding literature and the language used by providers.”
I also asked around for some professional and familiar usages from my peers, and was supplied with these examples:
- “The dearth of unisex restrooms in public spaces is reflective of the cisnormativity of architects and civil engineers, who provide no option for people with gender fluid or ambiguous appearances to meet a very basic human need without potential harassment.”
-Jessica Holland, MA, MLS
- “Queer playwright Kate Bornstein uses empathic characters to confront their audience’s cisnormative assumptions of selfhood in ‘Hidden: A Gender.’”
-Brendon Votipka, Playwright, MFA, Assistant Teaching Professor, Rutgers University
I will be asking Merriam Webster dictionary to consider adding to their tome the word cisnormative (and related word, cisnormativity). I don’t want to see the squiggly red line throughout my Word documents anymore, invalidating the lived experience of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming children who are marginalized by widespread, sustained, and meaningful cisnormative social norms.
Readers, I invite you to add a sentence using the word cisnormativity in the comments of this post, to include in my submission to Merriam-Webster.
 Segel, E. & Borodistsky, L. (2011). Grammar in art. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, Article 244.
 Bauer, G. R., Hammond, R., Travers, R., Kaay, M., Hohenadel, K. M., & Boyce, M. (2009). “I don’t think this is theoretical; this is our lives”: How erasure impacts health care for transgender people. Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, 29(5), 348-361.
 Oakleaf, L. & Richmond, L. P. (2017). Dreaming about access: The experiences of transgender individuals in public recreation. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 35(2), 108-119.
 Worthen, M. G. F. (2016). Hetero-cis-normativity and the gendering of transphobia. International Journal of Transgenderism, 17(1), 31-57.
 Rhodes, C. (2017). Ethical praxis and the business case for LGBT diversity: Political insights from Judith Butler and Emmanuel Levinas. Gender, Work and Organization, 24(5), 533-546.
 Jones, S. M. & Willis, P. (2016). Are you delivering trans positive care? Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, 17(1), 50-59.
 McGuire, J. K., Kuvalanka, K. A., Catalpa, J. M., & Toomey, R. B. (2016). Transfamily theory: How the presence of trans* family members informs gender development in families. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8, 60-73.
 Sharpe, A. The ethicality of the demand for (trans)parency in sexual relations. Australian Feminist Law Journal, 43(2), 161-183.
 Clarke, V. & Demetriou, E. (2016). ‘Not a big deal’?: Exploring the accounts of adult children of lesbian, gay and trans parents. Psychology & Sexuality, 7(2), 131-148.
 Sumerau, J. E., Cragun, R. T., & Mathers, L. A. B. (2016). Contemporary religion and the cisgendering of reality. Social Currents, 3(3), 293-311.
 Castricum, S. (2017). When program is the enemy of function… Gender-nonconforming experiences of architectural space. Architecture and Culture, 3, 371-381.
 Wagaman, M. A., Keller, M. F., & Cavaliere, S. J. (2014). What does it mean to be a successful adult? Exploring perceptions of the transition into adulthood among LGBTQ emerging adults in a community-based service context. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 28(2), 140-158.
 Meadows, E. (2018). Sexual health equity in schools: Inclusive sexuality and relationship education for gender and sexual minority students. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 13(3), 356-370.
 Farrow, A. (2015). Lactation support and the LGBTQI community. Journal of Human Lactation, 31(1), 26-28.