Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.
In simplest terms, cisgender means that a person’s gender matches the sex that their doctors assigned them when they were born. This decision is typically based on the baby’s genitalia. The prefix “cis-” is Latin for “on this side of,” referring to the fact that a person’s gender and assigned sex are aligned together, as opposed to “transgender,” whose prefix “trans” is Latin for “on the other side of.” Some cisgender people call themselves “cis” for short. For example, my name is Grace and I identify as a cis lesbian.
The term “cisgender” is fairly new, credited to a biologist in 1994, but more and more people have begun to identify themselves as cisgender to contribute to the conversation of how we think about gender.
We live in a society that assumes everyone is cisgender until proven otherwise. When a baby is born, a doctor looks at their genitals and checks a box: boy or girl. From there, the parents take that baby home and raises that baby as the gender that corresponds with that doctor’s determination. If the baby has a penis, the parents raise him “as a boy,” which often means things like trucks and blue clothes and calling the baby “him.” If the baby has a vaginal opening, the parents raise her “as a girl,” which often means dolls and pink clothes and calling the baby “her.” From the moment that gender assignment is made, that person’s future is clear: they must grow up to be the gender they are “supposed” to be.
And sometimes, that is exactly what happens! Some babies are assigned male at birth and then grow up to feel like a boy or man. Other babies are assigned female at birth and grow up to identify as women. However, this isn’t the case for everyone; and here lies the problem with making this assumption. When someone does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, then they may identify as transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, agender, genderfluid, or many others. All of them are just as valid and real as a cisgender identity.
It is also really important to realize that because our society assumes everyone is cisgender, those who do identify as cisgender have privilege in being cis. There’s never a question what bathroom cisgender people use, or what sports team they play on, or what box to check on medical or school forms. The same is not true for non-cis people, who risk their safety and wellbeing by being who they really are.
Being cisgender is not:
The “norm” or the “right” way to be: One of the main reasons why many people have started to identify as cisgender is actually to push back against the idea that some people are transgender and everyone else is just normal. We are taught that being cisgender is “default,” and that anyone who is transgender is “abnormal.”In reality, every single one of us has a gender identity. Transgender is one. Cisgender is another. When we say that being cisgender is the “norm,” we are really saying that someone who is transgender is strange and less than a human being who deserves respect.
Something determined by outer appearance: It is impossible to tell if someone you see walking down the street is transgender, cisgender, or any other gender! Gender is complicated. Gender presentation—the way we dress, walk, speak, and otherwise carry ourselves—is even more complicated, and these are not things you can presume to know about someone.
Grace is the Senior Managing Editor here at My Kid Is Gay. A graduate of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, she now lives in Portland, Oregon. In her spare time, she can be found reading feminist theory, writing letters, and doing handstands around the world. Follow her on Twitter @gracemanger
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