Sisgender Night’s Dream

Start with the sexual-identity terms cis(gender) and trans(gender), which I looked at on this blog yesterday, and they’ll lead you to various forms of language play. If there’s a Transylvania — actually, there are several —  where is its counterpart Cisylvania? Is there a (punning) gender-identity term sisgender for sissies and fems?  And a Sis(s)ylvania for them to live in — perhaps the fairies’ wooded land (as in Midsummer Night’s Dream)?

It’s the curse of the associative mind. We all have them, but some of us have really big ones.

(I do, however, draw the line at light-bulb identity jokes; no one should have their filaments mocked.)

In yesterday’s episode, “Extended cisgender”, I reflected dubiously on a non-standard use of cisgender, which standardly means ‘having the same (sense of) sexual identity as that assigned at birth; with a sexual identity that aligns with birth sex’ (so that cisgender is opposed to transgender).

Note 1: cisgender and transgender have the element gender in them for complex reasons of socioinguistic history, but they refer to sexual identity (as female or male), not gender identity (as feminine or masculine or whatever).

Note 2: the prefix cis– ‘on this side of’ is opposed to trans– ‘on the other side of’, as in cisalpine Gaul (from the Roman viewpoint, on the near, Italian, side of the Alps) vs. transalpine Gaul (bounded by the Alps, the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees, the Atlantic, and the Rhine, and settled in Roman times by Celtic tribes)

So: this side of and the other side of; here and there; hither and yon(der); come and go, same and different, us and them. There’s a lot of mileage in this opposition.

Transylvania. (Ok, I couldn’t help myself: just past the light bulbs on Aisle 4.) A region in what is now Romania that was, from the point of view of western and southern Europe (and the core of the Roman Empire), beyond the forests. The connection with vampires is through Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel Dracula, which was set in Transylvania.

In the US, Transylvania as a placename generally refers to locations on the other side of the (heavily forested) Appalachian Mountains from the East Coast — as in Transylvania University, in Lexington KY.

A Transylvania of the cross-dressing inclined. From Wikipedia:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a 1975 musical comedy horror film by 20th Century Fox … The film is based on the 1973 musical stage production The Rocky Horror Show … The production is a parody tribute to the science fiction and horror B movies of the 1930s through to the early 1960s.

… The story centres on a young engaged couple whose car breaks down in the rain near a castle where they seek a telephone to call for help. … They discover the head of the house is Dr. Frank N. Furter [hereafter, FNF], an apparently mad scientist who actually is an alien transvestite from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, who creates a living muscle man named Rocky in his laboratory.

So the film crosses the pop-culture themes of Dracula and Frankenstein, while deliberately mixing transgender, under the label transsexual, with transvestite (NOAD on the noun transvestite: ‘a person who dresses in clothes primarily associated with the opposite sex (typically used of a man)’).

FNF is aggressively bisexual in sexual orientation. Also aggressively male in sexual identity (while, in keeping with the Dracula subtheme, exhibiting great oral enthusiasm in his sexual practices). And aggressively transvestite in dress; here’s Tim Curry as FNF in a poster for the movie, in fabulous makeup (eye shadow, rouge, and lipstick), an elaborate bustier, a knockout garter belt, and extraordinarily high heels.

(#1) “Sweet Transvestite” (song by Richard O’Brien): Don’t get strung out by the way that I look / Don’t judge a book by its cover / I’m not much of a man by the light of day / But by night I’m one hell of a lover

The character has no doubt set back popular understanding of actual trans people by decades, but still I adore him.

Transylvania and Cisylvania. As far as I can tell, there are no actual places named Cisylvania (as opposed to Transylvania); this side of the forests and mountains is home base, the default, so there wouldn’t normally be a reason for encoding that fact in a name. (But that’s not out of the question; remember Cisalpine Gaul.)

You could, however, play with the vampiric associations of Transylvania, so that Cisylvania would be a vampire-free zone. Or with the Rocky-tranvestite associations, so that Cisylvania would be a land of clothing that’s sex-appropriate and normatively gendered.

Meanwhile, on the trans front, in a Reddit community devoted to trans people making fun of themselves, there’s this posting by u/colorblind-rainbow from 2 years ago, with a proportional analogy:

(#2) The solution in the lower right corner is Trans woods, and we get an image of a forest superimposed on the Transgender Pride Flag:


sisgender and Sis(s)ylvania. And then we can pun on cisgender and Cisylvania. Introducing some interesting gender identities, under (self-chosen) labels like sissy and fem and fairy that reclaim anti-gay slurs whose bite comes from an association with femininity. The world of gender identities is quite complex, and tends to be closely bound to very specific subcultures, in particular times and places; these three labels pick out subcultures that mix elements from the conventionally feminine and the conventionally masculine.

The slur fairy (or fairy-boy) was the fag(got)-equivalent of my American childhood, where the term mixed uneasily in my mind with the mischievous, sometimes malicious, gender-bending, and (to me) literally awesome spirits of Midsummer Night’s Dream — especially Puck, who serves as maestro in the enchanted forest of the play.

The slur (and a sprite-boy, a farfalline amoroso), in a Keith Donelan cover for Gay Comix #7 (1986):


Then in my 4/20/22 posting “Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!”, a giant fruitcake of a posting that cycles around repeatedly to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (flagging “the threat in Puck’s allure, the deep seriousness just under the surface of his playfulness, … the real danger that lives there”); Purcell’s Fairy Queen (“just to note that these fairies might be playful, but  they’re also creatures of power”); artists’ renditions of Titania, Oberon, and Puck; Mendelssohn’s incidental music; film versions of the play (especially the 1937 version with Mickey Rooney as Puck); and the sweet gay musical movie Were the World Mine.

And then Peter Hennen’s  book Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine (2008).

Also from my childhood, the slur sissy, or sissy-boy. Which has been proudly reclaimed, by individuals and several different groups. One story, of a sisgender knight’s dream: in Jacob Tobia’s book Sissy: A Coming-Of-Gender Story (2019). From the publisher’s blurb on Amazon:


As a young child in North Carolina, Jacob Tobia wasn’t the wrong gender, they just had too much of the stuff. Barbies? Yes. Playing with bugs? Absolutely. Getting muddy? Please. Princess dresses? You betcha. Jacob wanted it all, but because they were “a boy,” they were told they could only have the masculine half. Acting feminine labelled them “a sissy” and brought social isolation.

It took Jacob years to discover that being “a sissy” isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s a source of pride. Following Jacob through bullying and beauty contests, from Duke University to the United Nations to the podiums of the Methodist church — not to mention the parlors of the White House — this unforgettable memoir contains multitudes. A deeply personal story of trauma and healing, a powerful reflection on gender and self-acceptance, and a hilarious guidebook for wearing tacky clip-on earrings in today’s world,Sissy  guarantees you’ll never think about gender — both other people’s and your own — the same way again.

Better together: facial scruff and the good pearls.

4 Responses to “Sisgender Night’s Dream”

  1. Danny Boy - London Derriere Says:

    I recall hearing about Trans-Caucasian languages and their study as Trans-Caucasian Linguistics. Locating Georgia and its neighbors as *across* the Caucasus mountain range ranges the question “across from where?”, but presumably the West and North.

    Recently I think I have only heard about Caucasian languages and linguistics. Does this still refer to the same region and people have just settled on shorter terms? Or has some focus changed to peoples actually within the mountain areas?

    I was going to say “This has nothing to do with ‘Caucasian’ as a racial identity term” but of course if you dig up that latter story it is not so much “nothing” but “nothing valid.”

    Still, the coincidence of terms invites a modern reinterpretation of Trans-Caucasian as a gender/racial niche.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The conventional terminology for the geography and languages is full of labels that are, alas, not semantically transparent. Some basic facts…

      The Caucasus Mountains lie between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, south of Russia, north of Iran. The languages of the region (that is, the languages of the Caucasus) are largely Indo-European (Slavic, Armenian) or Altaic (notably the Turkic language Azeri / Azerbaijani). But the technical term Caucasian languages is used to refer to a further set of languages, unrelated to IE or Altaic, in three families which also seem to be unrelated to one another; they are uniquely languages of the Caucasus (and nowhere else). Georgian is in one of these families.

      But it gets worse. Transcaucasus has come to be used as a technical term for the southern part of the (Caucasus) region (the part that’s trans from the Russian, or northern, point of view). Yes, this sounds loopy, but there it is. The Transcaucasus includes what are now three separate countries (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), with national languages from three unrelated language families.

      None of the above is about race / ethnicity, in particular about the widespread pseudo-scientific categorization White, Black, Yellow, Red (plus maybe Brown), in which Caucasian is a fancy technical-sounding synonym for White. (This pseudo-scientific racioethnic categorization is conventionally aligned with geography, so that White is from Europe, Black from Africa, Yellow from Asia, and Red from the Americas.)

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    There are also the fairies of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe; I expect there are still 12-year-olds somewhere snickering over the final chorus, with its tagline “Everyone is now a fairy.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I post every so often on Iolanthe, because I’m fond of it, but also because of all the stuff playing with fairy — Strephon being half fairy (down to the waist), half mortal (below that, so that Strephon can then sing notably human sexual metaphors to Phyllis: “I the tree and thou the flower”).

      But also relevant because the fairies in question are beings of great power.

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