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Elon Musk’s promise to treat ‘cis’ as a slur will provoke more extremism

As a trans person, Rowling’s and Musk’s tweets make me angry. But I also feel immense sadness and compassion for them. 
Elon Musk speaks at the VivaTech fair in Paris
Elon Musk speaks at the VivaTech fair in Paris, on June 16.Alain Jocard / AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, anti-trans darlings Elon Musk and J.K. Rowling posted deeply troubled and misinformed tweets in which they both argued the term “cisgender” is essentially an ideologically radical and unfounded term, which, well, hurts their feelings. Therefore, according to Rowling, she shouldn’t have to use it, and Musk decreed the word would be categorized as a “slur” by Twitter and that Twitter users who use it will be penalized. 

For transphobes, “cisgender” is deeply threatening because it implicitly acknowledges the existence of “transgender.”

The adjective “cisgender” describes people whose gender identity matches their sex, and for transphobes — that is, people who want to deny the existence of trans people or oppress them — deploying the term “cisgender” is deeply threatening because it implicitly acknowledges the existence of “transgender.” While Rowling claims in her tweet that gender identity is an “unfalsifiable concept,” she is wrong. 

Dr. Simón(e) Dow-Kuang Sun, a neurologist with a Ph.D. from the New York University Neuroscience Institute, where she studied neuroplasticity, beautifully debunked such arguments in the Scientific American in 2019. 

People who make such claims, Sun wrote, “espouse unscientific claims that have infected our politics and culture. Especially alarming is that these ‘intellectual’ assertions are used by nonscientists to claim a scientific basis for the dehumanization of trans people. The real world consequences are stacking up: the trans military ban, bathroom bills, and removal of workplace and medical discrimination protections, a 41-51 percent suicide attempt rate and targeted fatal violence. It’s not just internet trolling anymore.” 

Sun added: “Contrary to popular belief, scientific research helps us better understand the unique and real transgender experience. Specifically, through three subjects: (1) genetics, (2) neurobiology, and (3) endocrinology.”

But biology, I argue, is almost beside the point. The tweets from Rowling and Musk make me believe that they, like so many in our society, feel some amount of pain around their own relationship to gender. So many of our relationships to gender are constructed around trauma. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism and toxic masculinity, which Rowling and Musk respectively promote, are perfect examples of this trauma-informed connection to and understanding of gender. 

Furthermore, Twitter’s increasing hostility toward free speech, and its trend toward favoring and privileging misinformation, has made it a dangerous breeding ground for extremism. Rowling’s and Musk’s tweets make me angry, of course. As a trans person, living in this climate can feel frightening and suffocating. But I also feel immense sadness and compassion for them. 

Twitter’s increasing hostility toward free speech, and its trend toward favoring and privileging misinformation, has made it a dangerous breeding ground for extremism.

Rowling’s long history of saying trans people don’t exist, rhetoric that becomes particularly rabid when she talks about trans women, is, in my view, actually her rage at and anxieties about cisgender men that she's misdirected. This rage and anxiety can be multidimensional. The first of these dimensions has to do with a lack of personal safety many women feel around men.

Philosopher Judith Butler, whose work has helped define gender studies, artfully discussed this in an interview with the New Statesman in 2020 when she spoke of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), such as Rowling, who argue that protections for trans people would result in men infiltrating bathrooms and changing rooms. 

Butler said, “The feminist who holds such a view presumes that the penis does define the person, and that anyone with a penis would identify as a woman for the purposes of entering such changing rooms and posing a threat to the women inside. It assumes that the penis is the threat, or that any person who has a penis who identifies as a woman is engaging in a base, deceitful, and harmful form of disguise. This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality.”

This fantasy is the product of a pervasive social sickness that has everything to do with how we understand gender and, crucially, masculinity. In “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love,” bell hooks explained, “When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent, but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.” It is no surprise, then, that discourse around transgenderism is so often infused with themes of violence and mistrust, and the movement is seen to challenge a zero-sum construction of social dynamics.

This rage against the cis-, heteropatriarchy, that becomes misplaced and projected onto trans people, also stems from the process we all undergo of deeply suppressing parts of ourselves to conform to this confining, limiting and oppressive system. I perceive Rowling as someone in immense pain around her own gender. How, then, could she tolerate either a trans woman, who threatens the role she’s had to work so hard to survive in, or a trans man, who, to someone who has a painful relationship to gender, may be seen as flaunting a certain kind of freedom that others crave?

The same can be said for Musk. He’s devoted a curious amount of his time, energy and resources to peddling anti-trans content, as I’ve written about before. On June 1, he said he “will be actively lobbying to criminalize” gender-affirming health care for children. He helped right-wing extremist, and obsessive transphobe, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, kick off his presidential campaign on Twitter. And now he’s banning the use of the word “cisgender.”

Musk’s reactionary, anti-trans ideology comes across as an expression of his own anxieties about his masculinity, which at times veers into farce. On Thursday, he literally challenged Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to cage-fight him (an offer Zuckerberg accepted). Toxic masculinity requires men to exile or deeply suppress parts of themselves in order to conform to rigid and dehumanizing paradigms of what it means to be a man.

“Patriarchy is destroying the well-being of men, taking their lives daily,” hooks wrote.

She added: 

“In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.” 

What better way to justify the painful act of performing and conforming to masculinity than by targeting those who challenge it? Transgenderism, in multitudinous ways, deeply challenges the foundation of cis-, heteropatriarchy — a system which must be tenuously constructed and deeply fragile if my existence induces such fear. 

Lastly, Rowling implicitly deploying science and biology to defend her views is both factually incorrect, as I mentioned, and beside the point: “It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women,” Butler said. “Their abiding and very real sense of gender ought to be recognized socially and publicly as a relatively simple matter of according another human dignity.”

To be clear, the rhetoric from Musk and Rowling is reprehensible and dangerous.

To be clear, the rhetoric from Musk and Rowling is reprehensible and dangerous. They epitomize privilege and use their resources to marginalize and attack vulnerable minorities, fomenting hate along the way. As distasteful as their rhetoric may be, it also speaks to something much larger at work, which we must address — that of our deeply troubled relationship to gender.

In her 2000 book “Feminism Is for Everybody,” hooks said this of men: “I believe that if they knew more about feminism they would no longer fear it, for they would find in feminist movement the hope of their own release from the bondage of patriarchy.” This sentiment is equally applicable to the transgender movement — or any movement which demands basic human rights and dignity for the marginalized, from civil rights to Stonewall.

The state apparatus — predicated on cis-, white supremacist, heteropatriarchy — and those who benefit from it work so hard to suppress these movements precisely because they offer us a taste of life beyond the bondage of the system. 

Using the word “cisgender” legitimizes a worldview that departs from the status quo of domination, which Rowling and Musk have both benefited from enormously. So, in a sense, if Musk and Rowling cannot or do not want to imagine a world outside of the system we live in, then it’s no surprise the word frightens them so.