Cisgender Allies and Gallia Cisalpina

by Patrick Brennan

As Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon recounts, Media Matters research fellow Oliver Willis has come in for some abuse from the left for suggesting that activists should give ordinary people a break for not knowing exactly the right terms to describe transgender people. (See his Twitter feed for a sampling of the criticism.)

“I’m someone who lives and works on the left and I had to Google the term ‘cisgendered’ lately because I had no clue what the hell it is,” he writes. Indeed, the prefixes “trans-” and “cis-” are confusing, because the former is often used as a prefix to indicate change, and the latter is almost never used at all. But in LGBT contexts, as Willis is learning, the former basically applies to anyone for whom there is a disconnect between his biological sex at birth and his gender identity, and the latter means someone for whom the two are on the same side of that darn gender binary. How to remember this? It’s simple: Learn your ancient Roman provinces.

Geographically, trans in Latin is a preposition that meant “on the other side” (Caesar refers to the Germans, who dwell “trans Rhenum,” on the other side of the Rhine) and cis meant “on the same side” (Livy describes how in early Rome a certain banished ethnic group, if caught “cis Tiberim,” on this side of the Tiber, had the price of their liberty set at a thousand units of bronze, which sounds like a good deal more than the Gang of Eight would ask for).

Where we now like to apply these to galling (for some) concepts about gender and sex, the Romans used them as prefixes to refer to the province of Gaul that was on the same side of the Alps as the city of Rome — Cisalpine Gaul — and the part that was on just the other side — Transalpine Gaul.

Since Transalpine Gaul was renamed Gallia Narbonensis when it was made into an actual Roman province, I can’t find a nice map that shows the two, but if you want to get Italo-centric, the prefixes were also applied to the parts of Cisalpine Gaul that were on different sides of the Po: Transpadane Gaul and Cispadane Gaul.