Hello. I’m Lena, I identify as female, and I prefer the pronouns “she” and “her.” I’m a cisgender woman. This means that I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth.
The majority of people you meet are cisgender, though many of them don’t know the word. Though we’re not exactly sure who first used the term, it’s been around since the mid 1990s. (That’s around twenty years, for those of you who keep thinking of the 90s as a couple years ago.) The word comes from the prefix “cis” which is Latin for “on this side of,” and is often contrasted with the prefix “trans” meaning “on the other side of.”
In this case, “on this side of” means that my gender is aligned with the gender I have been raised with and am recognized as. Everyone has treated me as a girl throughout my whole life, and I feel so comfortable with it, I barely need to think about it most days. When someone’s gender is not the gender they were raised with, they are transgender. These can also be said as just “cis” and “trans.” (Some people under the trans umbrella also identify as genderqueer, bigender, pangender, agender, genderfluid, or other terms which best reflect their identity relating to non-binary gender.)
Sometimes “cisgender” is referred to as “when sex and gender match.” Culturally we think of sex in very basic terms, (man versus woman) but it’s actually a combination of various traits that often group together, but don’t always. Sex is the biological stuff— the chromosomes, the anatomy, and the hormones. However, sometimes people have XY chromosomes and female anatomy and hormones. Or sometimes people have chromosomes that are neither XX or XY or bodies that are declared intersex or have ambiguous anatomy. Gender, too, is difficult to pin down at times. Sometimes a person’s gender identity (man, masculine) doesn’t match their gender role (stay at home parent, feminine) or gender expression (androgynous). So, when we say that “cisgender” means sex and gender match, what we mean is that the cisgender person has chromosomes, hormones, and body parts that are most often grouped together and matched with that gender identity.
When we say that “trans” means “sex and gender don’t match,” this usually refers to a situation where who they are doesn’t match the body, hormones, and chromosomes that are most often matched with that identity. This causes dysphoria because their body doesn’t feel right to them.
But this being the only understanding and definition of the word “trans” is sometimes problematic because puts pressure on trans identified people to feel they should hate their bodies in order to have people take their identity seriously, or puts pressure on them to make their sex and gender match in the form of hormone therapy or surgery, even though some of them don’t want to pursue those options, and some of them don’t want to “pass” as cisgender.
- (I want to note here that it’s rude to refer to someone as anything other than their identity if you’re aware of that identity. This applies in all sorts of situations, really. If someone tells you about themselves, it’s generally unkind to counter with “no you’re not, you’re this.” In line with that, telling a trans woman that she’s a man because of her biological sex is not only rude, but incorrect. It’s like people excluding various body types by saying “real women have ___.” Obviously real women have all sorts of qualities, because there is near infinite diversity in the shapes, colors, and sizes of bodies, and what makes a woman is in the brain. A woman’s body is a body belonging to a woman. A woman with a beard, a woman with her breasts removed, or a woman without curves are all real women. If that body belongs to a trans lady, no matter the appearance, that is a lady’s body, not a lady in a man’s body.)
An important aspect of the trans identity is that their assigned/recognized gender and actual gender identity don’t match, which causes a lot of distress. What this means is that, for example, a trans boy not only had typical female sex, but was also raised and recognized as a girl, and was misgendered through his whole childhood. Even if he decides not to go through a million medical hoops in adulthood, he may still be uncomfortable being misgendered and treated like a woman.
To give a particularly rare example, David Reimer was born biologically male with all the traits we associate with being of male sex. He then was then sexually reassigned after a botched circumcision and assigned female gender. Reimer did not feel his gender identity matched that assigned to him at birth and transitioned to male at age fifteen. He later committed suicide, which is unfortunately common among transgender people. In this case, at birth his sex and gender matched but he still experienced much of the struggle of being transgender because he was assigned/raised/recognized as a different gender than that with which he identified.
Why am I explaining what “transgender” means in a post about the word “cisgender”? Well this often happens because trans people are a minority group and cis people are a privileged group, so when we talk about the differences of our experiences at all, most of us only talk about and examine the minority group. It’s assumed that because cisgender people are the majority, we don’t need to think about what being cisgender means, or ask all sorts of personal questions about how they feel about their hormone balance, underwear, and genitalia.
Some cisgender people even get upset that the word “cisgender” exists at all. I’ve heard things like:
“I don’t see why we need that word. I’m the way I’m SUPPOSED to be. I’m normal.”
“Do we really need to know words like this? I’m not going to introduce myself as cisgender all the time. That’s pointless”
“This is ridiculous.”
The saying goes “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” It seems for many people, this word gets caught on the first two steps. People try to say it’s pointless as a word, or to laugh at it. Or they get angry that it exists.
I find this interesting, because the word only exists because there is a need for it. Regardless of how uncommon something is, we don’t pair it with “normal” when we’re trying to be respectful, because the binary implies the opposite is abnormal, and abnormal has a terribly stinging connotation in our culture. We don’t say “Left handed people and normal people” or “gay people and normal people,” we say “left-handed and right handed” and “gay and straight.”
“Cisgender” has been around for two decades, and the reason why is obvious for anyone who researches, discusses, or thinks about gender identity. Maybe the first time we talk about our assigned gender and gender identity matching, we go through a whole blog-post length discussion, but the following fifty times, it’s great to just use a three-syllable word. Cisgender sounds nice on the tongue, and its connotation is neither negative nor positive. It’s nicely neutral.
I also find it interesting that this reaction of mockery or outrage is much more rare with the word “transgender.” There are fewer people asking why that word needs to exist or declaring it pointless and ridiculous.
One of the reasons why, I think, comes from the fact that the majority of the time those in a position of greater privilege have the power to assign labels to those in positions of lesser privilege. It’s easier to know which place you’re in when you’re the one without power, because all the questions and studying and labeling is placed on you. There’s the rest of history, then there’s your history. There’s the dominant culture (often invisible and not even thought of as a culture) and then there’s your subculture. The majority speculates and writes books about what it’s like to be in the minority so the majority can think about it if they choose to. But the minority must always simultaneously balance both worlds, knowing what it is to be in each group by virtue of being the “other.” Those in a position of lesser privilege are often defined by what separates them from the majority.
It’s no shock that when the minority labels the majority and defines them by what separates the majority group from themselves, the majority group is unsettled. “How dare they label me? That’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t need to think about this aspect of myself, or God forbid have it questioned and studied! I’m the dominant group! I’m normal!” The world is turned upside-down in a small way.
In a sense, the word “cisgender” is a way for transgender people to take a small amount of power back in our society. It allows for them to discuss what gender identity means without needing to look at it through the lens of a culture that views their experience and life as abnormal at best and wrong at worst (with all the negative connotations of those words soaked in). It gives them the power to express differences in gender and sex from a place where there is no ‘standard’ starting point, but only a wide expanse in three dimensions to explore. It’s both freeing and empowering.
For me personally, I only truly understood how strongly I felt my own gender identity when trying to present as a man for a single day. I dressed myself in masculine clothes and mimicked the way many men move their bodies, position themselves in a room, take up space, and look at other people. I felt very uncomfortable after only a couple hours. People looked at me less, women gave me too much space and glanced sideways at me in the restroom, and absolutely no one complimented me or said something nice in passing until I switched back to presenting female. I missed the weight of my rings and I had the urge to cross my legs all day.
I do have a couple traits that some people might view as stereotypically masculine, in both my behavior and appearance, but I realized just how strongly I identify as a woman. It is so comfortable for me to present as female and so uncomfortable to present as male, and I only caught a tiny glimpse of those feelings (I’m certain I didn’t fully pass as male) for a single day. My gender is important to me, and that is as a cisgender woman.
I appreciate the word “cisgender” for giving me a way to approach discussing this sense of identity. It allows me to appreciate the privileges I have in being comfortable with the gender with which everyone assumes I identify.