Cisgender

The term “cisgender” (often shortened to “cis”) is used to refer to a person whose gender identity is consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth. To fully understand the concept of gender identity, it is important to recognize the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to a person’s biological and physical attributes, such as their internal and external reproductive organs, genitalia, hormones, sex chromosomes, and secondary sexual characteristics (such as facial hair for males and breasts for females). A person’s sex may be male, female, or intersex. Gender identity, or simply gender, refers to one’s perception of themselves as masculine, feminine, neither, or both. Although gender and sex have traditionally been used interchangeably, in recent years it has been recognized that sometimes a person’s biological sex and gender identity do not align. When one’s gender identity is congruent with their sex assigned at birth, they are considered to be cisgender.1


 

Origins

The term “cisgender” has its origins in the Latin prefix “cis-” meaning “on the same side of.”2,3 It was created in response to the word “transgender” (referring to someone whose gender identity differs from their biological sex), to allow for differentiation and equalization between the two gender identities.3 The term cisgender was first coined in 1994 by the biologist Dana Leland Defosse when she was discussing her research on gender identity.2 Since then, it has become a more widely used term, even being added to the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary in June of 2015.1

It is estimated that 99% of people identify as cisgender (often shortened to “cis”).2 The other 1% of the population identifies as transgender (“trans”) or some gender non-conforming/nonbinary identity. Examples of nonbinary identities include genderqueer, bigender, and agender.
 

Controversy

Some scholars and activists criticize the term cisgender, arguing that it serves to perpetuate the gender binary, creating a division between men and women. Others argue that it is used by the LGBTQ community to express contempt, implying that a cis person could never possibly understand trans issues.1

On the other hand, some find that it is a necessary term for the discussion of transgender people and their rights.1 It defines an identity that most people take for granted.1 Proponents of the term compare it to the term heterosexual, which is not a slur, but is used to identify a certain sexual orientation without implying that it is more normal or right than a less common identity.1,3 These people believe that not acknowledging cisgender as an identity alienates trans and nonbinary people.1,4 Recognizing the cisgender identity enables the acknowledgement of social privileges granted to those who identify as such, and can hopefully help incite change in legal and social equality.1,4
 

Cisgender Privilege

Similar to the privileges granted to those who are heterosexual, cisgender people experience a type of privilege not extended to trans and nonbinary people. Many of these privileges are taken for granted, and cisgender people may be surprised to hear that such privileges even exist. The following is a list of common privileges granted to cisgender people, including the most pressing issues surrounding them:5

  • Using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity without being questioned, harassed, or faced with potential legal consequences
  • Not being questioned about their identity, genitals, or how sex “works” for them
  • Not having to experience invalidation of their identity, misgendering, or being called a name other than their preferred name
  • Not facing discrimination in the workplace, or the risk of being fired for their gender identity
  • If incarcerated, not having to worry about being housed in a unit that does not match their gender identity
  • Not having to deal with negative reactions related to them being unable to “pass” for the gender that they identify with
  • Not having to fear violence based on their gender or gender identity
  • Being accurately and frequently represented in the media
  • Not being banned from participating in athletic competitions because they were born the wrong sex
  • Not being forced by law to live as a gender that does not reflect their identity, and not having to go through a legal process to rectify this
  • Not having to face discrimination by medical personnel, or being given inadequate or incompetent medical care
     

Cissexism and Cisnormativity

When one thinks of transphobia, discrimination against trans or nonbinary people, one might think of slurs, hate crimes, and bullying.6 However, discrimination is not always overt. Cissexism and cisnormativity are forms of discrimination that take place without cisgender people even noticing them.7 The exact definition of cissexism varies, but it generally includes the normalization of cisgender people/the cisgender identity and the belief that there are only two genders (and that gender is determined by the genitals one is born with).6,7,8 Cissexism and cisnormativity assume that all people are cisgender—that being cisgender is normal or natural—which erases trans and nonbinary identifying people and paints those who are not cisgender as weird, different, or abnormal in some way.6,7,8

Cissexism and cisnormativity contribute to the alienation of other non-cisgender identities, such as transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary.8 Many people would be surprised to realize that they encounter cissexism and cisnormativity on a daily basis:9

  • Gendered products, such as toys designed specifically for boys or girls
  • Websites, forms, and surveys that only include “Male” and “Female” as gender options
  • Gender specific bathrooms
  • Assuming someone’s gender identity before they tell you
  • Asking if a baby is a boy or a girl
     
 
 

Being an Ally to Non-Cisgender People

Cisgender people experience many privileges not allowed to those whose gender identity does not align with their biological sex. Additionally, it is cisgender people who are often the perpetuators of transphobia, cissexism, and cisnormativity. However, there are many cisgender people who are allies to the trans and nonbinary community. Being an ally to trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people involves being respectful, being mindful and being conscious of one’s speech, and being willing to stand up for what is right. The following are some easy ways to be a better ally to non-cisgender people:10

  • Use the correct name, gender, and pronouns when talking to/about someone. Note that the correct name/gender/pronouns may not be legally (or grammatically) correct; call a person by the name/gender/pronouns that they prefer
  • Do not ask about someone’s plans to transition – they do not owe anyone an explanation. Additionally, not every trans or nonbinary person has the desire to transition
  • Do not “out” someone without their prior explicit consent (by telling someone else about the fact that they are trans)
  • Do not question people whose gender identity looks ambiguous with comments such as, “What are you?” Some people may find this invasive. Instead, ask questions such as, “What pronouns would you like me to use for you?”
  • Do not use transphobic words like “tranny,” “she-male,” or “he-she”
  • Do not fetishize or exoticize trans people
  • When speaking, refer to “all genders” or “any gender” rather than “both genders” (which implies that there are only two genders and reinforces a gender binary)
  • Do not stare at someone whose gender appears ambiguous in an attempt to figure out their gender identity, and do not interrogate them about their identity
     
 

Conclusion

Just like the word “heterosexual” is important to the discussion on sexual orientation, the term “cisgender” is vital to the discussion on gender identity. In a world where the vast majority identifies with the gender associated with the sex assigned to them at birth, discussing alternative gender identities can be complex and sometimes confusing. However, every day, more and more people are becoming aware of and accepting of gender identities other than their own. To enable a conversation on gender identity, a term describing the traditionally “normal” identity become essential. The word “cisgender” accomplishes that task, giving a name to an identity that most people take for granted on a daily basis.

References

  1. Brydum, Sunnivie. “The True Meaning of the Word ‘Cisgender.’” Advocate, 31 July 2015. Accessed 28 February 2017.

  2. Steinmetz, Katy. “This is What ‘Cisgender’ Means.” Time, 22 December 2014. Accessed 28 February 2017.

  3. “LGBTQ+ Definitions.” Trans Student Educational Resources, n.d. Accessed 28 February 2017.

  4. Ryan, Hugh. “It’s Time to Take Cisgender Seriously.” Slate, 2 May 2016. Accessed 28 February 2017.

  5. Killermann, Sam. “30+ Examples of Cisgender Privilege.” It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, 26 August 2014. Accessed 28 February 2017.

  6. Grollman, Dr. Eric Anthony. “What is transphobia? And, What is Cissexism?” Kinsey Confidential, 24 January 2012. Accessed 20 April 2017.

  7. Tennison, Chrissonna. “Feminism 101: What is Cissexism?” Fem Magazine, 29 May 2016. Accessed 20 April 2017.

  8. Huante, David. “Terms and Definitions.” Amherst College Queer Resource Center, n.d. Accessed 20 April 2017

  9. Stone, Sophie. “6 Ways Hetero/Cis-Normativity Is Engrained in Our Society.” Tearaway, 19 August 2016. Accessed 20 April 2017.

  10. “Allyship: First Steps.” Transwhat? A Guide Towards Allyship, n.d. Accessed 20 April 2017.

Last Updated: 10 June 2017