Living as a trans person for the last two and a half years, I sometimes forget that much of society does not have any clue about the definitions I take for granted. I’ve been assuming that most regular readers of this blog understand that “cisgender” is a term that simply means “non-transgender.” It comes from the Latin prefix cis, meaning “on this side of,” as opposed to trans, meaning “on the other side of.” Cis people agree with the gender identification they were assigned at birth; trans people do not.
Cis is not a slur, though some trans people have used it as such, just as some people of color have used “whitey” as a slur. When an oppressed person uses such language, it is “punching up,” not “punching down,” and use of such language should be policed within the community, not by outsiders.
Some cis people have pushed back that they are simply “normal,” and that the term cisgender is politically correct. Some ask how we can expect our own identities to be respected when we force a label on them.
Here’s the thing: Cisgender is not a gender. When I say that someone is cisgender, I am not defining or labeling their gender identity. I am simply stating that they agree with the gender identity they were assigned at birth. They might not consider being a man/boy/male or being a woman/girl/female to be an identity because they’ve always lived with one of those labels without question, but cis people “self-identify” just as much as trans people do. They just aren’t questioned, mocked, or attacked for it. The same is true of preferred pronouns.
As far as cisgender people who consider themselves to be simply “normal” while transgender people are “abnormal,” the hope is that being trans will come to be considered just another human variation. More people are coming to accept varieties in sexual orientation, and you don’t hear a lot of pushback from folks being labeled “straight” or “heterosexual” nowadays (though I’m sure there are some who reject those terms). Acceptance of variation in gender identity is the next step.
There are, of course, other complications. Some people that Westerners often label as “third gender” do not use either transgender or cisgender as terms in their societies. Some non-binary people consider themselves to be neither cis nor trans. Some people are cissexual but transgender, or vice versa. Many trans people do not openly identify as trans, either for personal or safety reasons, or may reject the trans/cis dichotomy for other reasons. And some intersex people may also reject the cis label; activist Cary Gabriel Costello has suggested adopting the term “ipso gender” for certain cases.*
Regardless, I hope that the term “cisgender” (which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year) will come to be widely understood and part of everyday usage. Acknowledging gender diversity shouldn’t be seen as political correctness or oppressive. It’s simply treating people with respect.
* In the article Dr. Costello also writes, “I urge people to define someone as cis gender if they have a binary gender identity that matches the one expected for people born with the primary sex characteristics they had at birth (genitals, gonads, chromosomes).” I agree that this definition is more complete and accurate than the summary version I presented in this article (agreeing with the gender identification one was assigned at birth), but it needs to be understood in the context Costello was writing about (intersex discrimination and erasure).