Vocabulary Lesson: Cisgender

There’s a really useful word that’s been floating around in certain communities and I want to take a moment to help it spread.

Cisgender refers to people who experience and present their gender in a way that’s aligned with the sex of their body. It contrasts with transgender, which refers to people who experience their gender as different from the physical sex they were assigned at birth. Generally, transgender folks take various steps to bring them into closer alignment, such as wearing clothes of the gender they feel themselves to be, surgery, taking hormones, and having their legal name changed.

The word has been since at least 1994, although it has become more well-known since Julia Serrano’s book Whipping Girl came out. The prefix cis means “on the same side” while trans means “on the other side”. Cis and trans are used in chemistry to describe the structures of molecules and, of course, trans is used in a lot of words, such as transport (carry to the other side), transmit (send to the other side), and transcribe (to write in another place). My 10th grade Latin teacher would be glad to see that I remember such things.

The reason that the word cisgender is important to use is that it takes away the idea that being cisgender is “normal.” When we assume that man = cisgender man unless we use the term transgender, we reinforce the idea that cisgender people are normal and transgender people aren’t. Of course, being cisgender is more common but when we use language that reinforces the idea that more common equals normal, we marginalize people who are well within the range of diversity that exists in the world.

Cisgender is also a better term than bio-guy or bio-girl, which was in use for a while, because it shifts the focus from biology to gender. Similarly, the term genetic man isn’t really useful since most people haven’t been genetically tested and there’s no guarantee that someone who looks a certain way will necessarily have any particular genetics.

I’d love to see the word cisgender become used more widely. It’s a really useful concept and it serves a valuable purpose. Use it, pass it on, and help it spread.

9 Responses so far.

  1. Mary Kay says:

    I agree that it’s a useful term but I think there also needs to be a note… there is some controversy over the word cisgender being used because it was invented by the transgender community (one group) to describe non-trans folks. And when one group decides to label another group of folks w/o their consent or input, well, we’ve seen this happen plenty of times in the past with disastrous and offensive and prejudicial results. So some trans people are hoping/waiting for non-trans folks to come up with their own name for themselves.

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  2. Charlie says:

    I get that many cisgender folks resent and resist being labeled without their consent. And yet, I would argue that many (certainly not all) cisgender folks already have a label that they use to describe themselves: normal.

    One of the ways that privilege works is by rendering itself invisible in order to become the norm. Some examples of that: people of color have ethnicities while white people don’t. People are assumed to be heterosexual until an adjective like gay, dyke or queer is used. Most of us assume that someone is able-bodied or cisgender unless we hear otherwise. And let’s not forget that men are still considered the default by many people. (Not that I am advocating any of these positions. I’m simply pointing out that these are common attitudes in US society and elsewhere.)

    One of the strategies for responding to this is to create language that describes the “normal” group and that language often comes from the outsiders, especially when the dominant group isn’t doing the work to come up with its own terminology. If cisgender people want to challenge that by creating new language, that’d be great. And so far, I haven’t seen or heard of any progress on that. I’ll continue to use the one word that exists to describe cisgender people until something better comes along.

    And let’s bear in mind that the term “transgender” was imposed on people without their consent, as well. Not that I ever argue that two wrongs make a right, but if trans people can claim that term, then I see no reason that cis people can’t do the same.

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  3. Jack says:

    This was informative and I will include cisgender into my vocabulary.  I think the most profound point in the article was the notion between what is normal and what is common, and the impact of the language in regards to those who possess uncommon values or characteristics.  I am guilty myself of using the term normal when I mean common and I see now that normal can bring with it a potentially unintended connotation.

    In general, it is difficult to constantly modify my language and the way I express myself, but having a valid reason to do so motivates me to make those changes.

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  4. Christine says:

    How is cis pronounced? 
    siss
    siz
    kiss
    kiz
    ?
    Thanks.

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  5. Christine, it’s pronounced “sis” :-)

     

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  6. Ericka says:

    I would like to think I have a fairly good grasp on gender topics, however I must confess the Cisgender term still confused me. Even with having it explained to me once before, I’m sorry to say I still didn’t get it fully. The Latin part makes perfect sense, but no one is telling me why this term is applied, what type of people have to display “what” exactly in order to classify. Because I mostly see it referred to people who are still biologically male (again hate to use that term, but I’m just trying to show where some of the misconceptions may lay). I’m a naturally born female, and even though my relationships with men have always seem strained, I’m still attracted to men (but often I find myself pulled more to androgynous men). I really don’t fully understand why or where it came from.
    I wish I could say media was solely to blame, but I don’t think it is. But, some of my earliest memories were of musicians who were androgynous or different in some way (I do feel this did color my attraction to certain individuals). So, anyway maybe you could understand my difficulty in understanding certain things about gender and sexuality (would the issue I have be concerned with gender or sexuality, because those are two different topics right?). I’m not sure exactly, but I do think this issue affects how I few other terminology as well. And is cisgender not in reference to females at all? Forgive my lack of knowledge on the subject. Gender and sexuality is a complex issue. I’m not only asking to better myself, but I have a feeling I might run into someone at some point, which…I may need to understand these things, so I don’t come off sounding impolite or inconsiderate.
    Also, why would a person want to label themselves cisgender, if their body and “mind” match what they want, why is there really a need to state this? Again, I know this sounds like a stupid question, but I’d really like to come to grips with it, it is a confusing topic, but I’d like to learn more.

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  7. Ericka, the term applies to both men and women, just as “transgender” can apply to transgender men and transgender women. The reason it’s important for cisgender people to use the word is because it levels the playing field.

    As long as we talk about “men” and “transgender men,” we reinforce the idea that the first is normal and the second is not. Similar things happen when people use language like “people” and “gay people” or “people” and “people of color” or “people” and “women.” These patterns reinforce the idea that straight or white or male is the default and everyone else needs a qualifier.

    As a cisgender man, I use the word because I believe in gender equity across the gender spectrum.

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  8. David says:

    Re: “Of course, being cisgender is more common but when we use language that reinforces the idea that more common equals normal, we marginalize people who are well within the range of diversity that exists in the world.”

    You use so many words that relate to the mathematical field of statistics.  Statistics are not judgmental, they just identify and clarify patterns of how things are.  “Common”, “normal”, “marginalise” (marginal), “range”, “diversity”.  It brings to mind that most basic concept of statistics, the “normal distribution curve” with which so many physical and biological systems conform.  The distribution is “normal” if its diversity falls along the classical bell curve.  A “standard deviation” of, let’s call it “diversity”, encompasses 68% of the total… the range of two standard deviations encompass 95%, and three standard deviations encompass 99.7% (pretty close to all of that measured).  The entire curve is “normal”, but where one is on the curve is measured by deviation from the mean (that which most common).  “Deviation” and “deviant” are closely related words.  That which deviates greatly in commonness from the mean DOES sit on the margins (horizontal extremes) of the curve.  Playing with words to downplay this marginalisation and deviation just denies the plain but sometimes uncomfortable facts which mathematics (statistics) crystalises.  “Cisgender” is the most common, therefore sits at the very center of the “normal distribution curve” (at its mean) and so it’s quite understandable that people (in a shorthand way) consider it “normal”.  Using the clear language of the pure science of mathematics seems to me to be a fine thing to do.

    I haven’t done statistics for a few decades, since high school, but there’s a simple explanation at:
    http://www.mathsisfun.com/data/standard-normal-distribution.html

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  9. David, you’re ignoring the moral judgement that has become attached to words like normal and deviant. Given the shame that many people feel when they are outside of the statistical norm, talking about using the “clear language of the pure science of mathematics” seems disingenuous to me.

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