“Cishet” or “cis-het,” pronounced “SIS-het,” is a combination of the “cis” in “cisgender” and the “het” in “heterosexual.” It has been used as an adjective and as a noun.
So what does it mean?
Let’s break down those words. “Cisgender,” as explained in a previous post, is an adjective to refer to anyone whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. “Heterosexual,” used interchangeably with “straight,” has been defined by GLAAD as “An adjective used to describe people whose enduring physical, romantic, and/ or emotional attraction is to people of the opposite sex.”
So, at its most basic level, “cishet” is a word to refer to anyone who is straight and cisgender, meaning a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth and whose whose enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction is to people of the opposite sex.
“At its most basic level”? Does that mean there are other meanings?
That can depend on a few things: the context of how the word is used, the intent of the person using it, and what meanings the listener might associate with “cishet.” In a 2016 blog post for Patheos, Jeana Jorgensen explained “cishet” in a way that went beyond just “straight and cisgender”:
When you put cisgender and heterosexual together, you get cis-het: someone whose life experience has been dominated by partaking in two normative identities when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation. You get someone who’s lived their life with those two settings on default mode… which isn’t a bad thing, just a thing that means you have a bunch in common with the cultural majority, and that you probably haven’t faced oppression for your gender identity or sexuality alone…
…As a descriptor, I think cis-het can be useful shorthand for denoting what someone’s life experience has been in these areas. It doesn’t tell you much else about them, though, like how their religious views impact their gender and sexuality, or their economic and social class, or ethnicity, and so on.
So is it’s not just a word that means “straight” and “cisgender”?
Again, that will depend on the usage. Some will use it in a way to imply cultural and sociological experiences in the way Jorgensen used it above, and others will use it just as a way to say “cisgender and heterosexual” with fewer syllables.
So is it an identity?
Some people will refer to themselves as “cishet” or “cis-het,” whereas there are people who will use it to refer to other people, not themselves.
Is it OK to use it to refer to someone else?
Like many terms, there’s no agreed-upon rule on it, because different people have different associations with the word. To explain that, we can look at the definitions for it on Urban Dictionary, a site that explains slang terms and colloquial phrases. The user-submitted definitions include “ad hominem attack” and “an insult.” Of course, this is not how everyone views the word.
Who thinks of it as an attack or insult?
There are people who are cisgender and heterosexual themselves who find it offensive, as it’s a label they themselves would not use for themselves. The common response to that is that if someone is both cisgender and heterosexual, calling them “cishet” is not a slur, but just a statement of fact.
So what is the intent?
That will depend, of course. In many message board threads, it seems to be a shorthand to refer to “people who are cisgender and straight” without having to retype “people who are cisgender and straight” over and over again. Many of the people who use it seem cognizant of the word’s potential to be misconstrued, as demonstrated by the Reddit thread for the question, “What is a “cishet” and why is it bad?” A person asked, “What is a cishet and why do people want to kill them?” A user responded by saying that the goal is not to harm or antagonize people who are cisgender and heterosexual, but rather get them to appreciate what life must be like for other people who are not cisgender and/or not transgender:
In some circles, however, there is a certain animosity present towards “cishets” because the world is ruled by cishets. Cishets are the ones who created, are acknowledged in, and are protected by our laws, social norms, and media, while the existence of non-cishet people is largely ignored (and in particular, non-white-cishet people, at least in the US). But only a very few fringe activists actually believe that cishet people should die. Most just want them to recognize their privilege and work to make life better for those without privilege, or at least not actively make their lives worse.
In her blog post, Jorgensen made a similar point when explaining why some LGBTQ+ people want to have their own spaces:
There are times when I’m sick of educating on a Feminism 101 level and really want to dig into the deep stuff with my peers who already “get it.” Since so much of mainstream culture is already dominated by the viewpoints of, and comfortable for, cis-het folks, it makes sense to carve out alternative spaces where cis-het people either have to take a back seat and listen to the experiences of others, or be excluded entirely (I think there should still be some events where they’re welcome, in the spirit of building an inclusive sex-positive movement, though). I don’t believe that people should be put down on account of their gender identity or sexual orientation, so using cis-het as a slur doesn’t sit well with me. At the same time, I understand feeling like they’ve dominated so much social space, thus wanting to have your own space free of their voices.
So when people get defensive about the word, are they getting defensive about the word, or the context in which it is used?
That is a good question. The words “cisgender” and “heterosexual” appear in so many contexts that it’s hard to associate any one set of emotions or feelings with the words. They appear in news stories and all sorts of other contexts where they are used as neutral descriptor terms, so there’s no one connotation for each of those words. People who see the word “cishet” or “cis-het,” on the other hand, might only see that word in the context of people calling out the privileges that they feel cisgender and heterosexual people have. If they only see the word in the context of serious discussions about serious topics, then “cishet” might not seem normalized for them as a basic descriptor that only means “cisgender” and “heterosexual.” Instead, they might see the word as loaded with specific feelings and connotations. As one Reddit user explained:
It shouldn’t be used as an insult, you’re right. At the same time, if it comes across as an insult, it’s probably because the cishet isn’t being agreed with and someone pointed out that they are CisHet and don’t actually have any idea what they are talking about in this hypothetical situation. People don’t respond well to being told “hey, you’re wrong… like… completely” while hearing a term they’ve never considered before.
Similarly, a user on a Susan’s Place message board said this about labels:
I think if more people used these terms in everyday language, rather than using them to express bitterness, they would become more accepted by the general public. No cis person identifies as “cis,” though. It’s just a term we use because it’s easier than saying “non-trans non-intersex.” People don’t like being labeled by other people, even if there is no bitterness attached.
So, how do I know when to use it? How can I use it in a way that’s as a descriptor, not as a slur?
There’s no agreed-upon rule, and in her blog post, Jorgensen said even she struggles with that question:
What’s the line between wanting a space for folks who aren’t cis-het to be truly front and center for once, and being outright discriminatory against cis-het folks? …Words are useful to describe our experiences, but also risk being over-generalizations. I think “cis-het” has its useful moments, but I’m wary of its potential to be used against people…
On most LGBTQ+ Experiment posts, the rule of thumb is that it’s safest not to apply a word to someone if they wouldn’t use that word as a self-descriptor. In the case of “cishet” or “cis-het,” many people would think it’s just a statement of fact, condensing the neutral truths that a person is both “cisgender” and “heterosexual.” “Cishet” is not a commonly used word outside of online forums, so be prepared to explain it when using it, just in case the term is not understood by everyone. And be prepared for the fact that some folks might push back against it.
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