Cisgendered: what people mean
I know too many people who keep quiet about politics and social justice because they’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing and offend somebody. I bet you know people like that too.
And I’m not an expert on this stuff. I don’t always have the right language to dive into the tough topics that dominate my news feed. But I do have Google, and the determination to find people with reliable and diverse voices who are already writing about issues that the rest of us need to understand so badly.
From an epistemological standpoint, the word is essentially a straightforward antonym of “transgender.” Both words share Latin roots, with “trans” meaning “across, beyond, or on the other side of” and “cis” meaning “on this side of.” Add the suffix “gender” onto either word, and both terms emerge as as strictly descriptive adjectives.
Cisgender/cis: term for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth. The term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life.
Whenever the word “cisgender” is used to describe a non-transgender person, there’s always someone who gins up outrage and claims that it is a derogatory word that’s only meant as an insult. It’s not, of course, but that’s never stopped a good case of the vapors.
This tongue-in-cheek infographic really puts the whole thing in perspective.
If you haven’t heard the term before, it quite probably applies to you. Congratulations! It’s the bonus identity you didn’t know you had. The adoption of a new word by a dictionary that contains about a half-million of them might not seem all that momentous at first blush. But in a recent article for the Atlantic, Peter Sokolowski, the editor at large of Merriam-Webster, explained that their rule of thumb for inclusion was “[i]f a word is likely to be encountered by an adult, it’s time for that word to go into the dictionary.” In other words, the dictionary isn’t the vanguard of English, rushing headlong into zany new linguistic territory; it’s strictly the cleanup crew, adding words only after they’re fairly established in the world.
Where might your average adult encounter cisgender? Perhaps in the 56 new flavors of gender available at their local Facebook or in Broadway casting discussions about what kinds of actors should play what types of roles. What’s remarkable about both of these examples is that they’re not cordoned-off debates among transgender people, or even among folks in the broad LGBTQ community; while they (obviously) have to do with trans folks, they also directly implicate non-trans people. These conversations are delineating the boundaries of what it means to not be transgender. They are the products of a new kind of thinking for most Americans, which begins with the phrase “If transgender folks are real people …” and ends with everything from “then maybe gender expression isn’t as limited as I thought,” to “then I might not be the best person to play that part.”
In a very real and measurable way, cisgender identity is no longer unmarked, universal, or assumed. It is denoted, limited, and in conversation with trans identities — or at least we’re moving in that direction.
Julia Serano has received credit for helping popularize the word in her groundbreaking 2007 trans feminist text Whipping Girl. Likewise, in recent years, as mainstream trans visibility and acceptance have increased, so has awareness of the companion term cis, at times to the dismay of those it describes.
The great virtue of the word cisgender, for trans folk and their allies, is that it helps alleviate the “other-izing” of trans people. Defined as they are in the OED, individuals who identify as cisgender, while they may be a majority group, are not the “default ” group, as they would be without such a term. More bluntly: “cisgender” is much preferable to “normal.”
Go read it all: The Word “Cisgender” Is Now in the Oxford English Dictionary by Leela Ginelle
So go read all of these! And let me know what has helped you understand what cisgendered means (links and powerful quotes also appreciated).
For more roundups, check out my main list of stories. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate a clap!