by Grace Manger and Austen Hartke
Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series,
where we unpack various terms and identities.
This week, we are defining two related terms back to back: "transgender" and "cisgender." Keep your eyes open for our next piece which will tackle non-binary identities, too!
Defining: Cisgender by Grace M.
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.
Defining: Transgender by Austen Hartke
The word transgender is an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
I know that’s kind of a mouthful, so let’s break it down! Someone’s gender identity is their internal sense of being male, female, both, or neither, and it has to do with how people perceive themselves. Someone’s assigned sex at birth is the male or female label they were given by the doctor when they were born, based on their external genitalia.
Transgender is an adjective, which means it’s used to describe someone. Therefore, you wouldn’t refer to someone as “a transgender.” Instead you would say “a transgender person.” Similarly, you wouldn’t say that someone is “transgendered”—that would be like saying that someone from Germany is “Germaned.”
There are many ways of being transgender, so, for example, a transgender person might be someone who was assigned female at birth and later came to understand themselves as male, or someone who was assigned male at birth who later came to understand themselves as female. There are also transgender people who were assigned a sex at birth and don’t have a strictly male or female gender identity. Let’s take a look at a few of the labels underneath the transgender umbrella:
Male-to-Female (MTF): A MTF transgender person, or trans woman, is someone who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female. Trans women are also sometimes referred to as DMAB—short for “designated male at birth.”
Female-to-Male (FTM): A FTM transgender person, or trans man, is someone who was assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is male. Trans men are also sometimes referred to as DFAB—“designated female at birth.”
Nonbinary: A nonbinary trans person is someone who doesn’t identify strictly as either male or female—they fall outside the two common gender boxes. A nonbinary person may identify themselves with words such as androgynous, agender, intergender, neutrois, or genderqueer.
Genderfluid: A genderfluid trans person has a gender identity that changes over time. For example, they may identify as more male for a period of time, and then as predominantly female for a while, and then later on may find that a nonbinary identity most accurately describes them.
Third Gender: Long before Western society began the process, many different cultures around the world recognized and respected trans identities. Among some Native American tribes, trans people are known as Two-Spirit, to signify the duality they hold. In India, a group of people called hijra have existed as a third gender for hundreds of years. In Samoa, those with unconventional gender identities are called fa’afafine. Traditionally, only people who belong to these cultures use ethnically specific terms like these to describe themselves.
NOTE: Some transgender people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” “them,” and “their,” rather than the traditional “he/she,” “him/her,” “his/hers.” Over time people have suggested many different gender neutral pronouns, including ze, hir, per, xe, eir, and others. The best thing you can do, if you’re not sure what pronoun to use, is to ask the person what pronouns they prefer.
One final label to keep in mind is cisgender, which refers to anyone whose gender identity and assigned sex match. The Latin prefix “cis-“ means “on the same side,” referring to the fact that cisgender people’s assigned sex and gender identity are aligned. The Latin prefix “trans-” on the other hand, means “to cross over,” and signifies a gender identity and assigned sex that don’t match.
But having an assigned sex and a gender identity that don’t match isn’t a bad thing! For a long time the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which mental health professionals use to diagnose people, stated that transgender people had “Gender Identity Disorder,” and categorized it as an illness. Only in recent years, and in the most recent version of the manual--the DSM-V--has this been changed. Psychologists and psychiatrists now agree that diverse gender identities are not the problem—the problem is the distress transgender people can experience because of the tension between their gender identity and their assigned sex. This distress, agitation, and unease is called gender dysphoria.
Not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria, but many do. Imagine if, for instance, you woke up one morning to find that in the night you had somehow grown an extra arm, but nobody around you could see it! You’d walk around all day with this new arm getting in the way of both your morning cup of coffee and your usual train of thought, but everyone you met told you that you looked completely normal. This dissonance is something like what transgender people experience, though it can be more of a mental sensation than a physical one. Transgender folks understand their own internal and external landscape to look one way, but the rest of the world is telling them that it looks completely different. It’s a confusing thing to experience, and it can take many years for someone to finally understand what’s going on. Some transgender people figure it out early, and can remember telling their parents about really being a boy or a girl at age five, while others may not fully understand it until they’re 50 or 60.
In order to bring their body, mind, heart, and soul into alignment, some transgender people choose to medically transition. Medical transition looks different for each person, but may include things like hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender confirmation surgery (also known as sex reassignment surgery). Those who wish to present as more stereotypically masculine may begin taking testosterone, either by injection or topically, while those who wish to present as more stereotypically feminine may begin taking estrogen and progesterone orally. These hormones can be prescribed by a general practitioner with experience counseling transgender patients, or may be prescribed by an endocrinologist. Gender confirmation surgeries may also help a trans person feel at home in their body, and can include surgical changes to both primary and secondary sex characteristics. It’s important to note that for trans people there is no such thing as “the surgery”—there are many different kinds of surgical procedures, and none are required to identify as transgender. Sometimes our curiosity can be piqued, but we should always remember that it’s not appropriate to ask a transgender person--or anyone, for that matter--about their genitals, or about how more private parts of their body look. Keep the Golden Rule in mind--if you’d feel uncomfortable being asked about something, don’t ask that question of someone else.
While transgender people do experience an inordinate amount of discrimination, from inequality in the workplace to intolerance in bathrooms, it’s important to know that many trans people live happy and joyful lives. As much as we experience gender dysphoria, we also get to feel gender euphoria every time someone correctly calls us “sir” or “ma’am;” every time somebody makes the effort to use our personal pronouns; every time we’re validated and reminded that we are valued just the way we are. Being transgender means that it takes a bit more time and work to figure out how to become yourself, but once you get there, you find a kind of authentic honesty that not many people get to experience.
“Transgender people are just gay people in denial.” – Some folks seem to think that trans people go through all the hassle of socially and/or medically transitioning because they don’t want to be seen as gay, or that being transgender is a sort of Gay 2.0. The truth is that gender identity and sexuality are two different things, and a transgender person of any gender can be straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, or have any other sexuality. Think of sexuality like ice cream flavors, and gender identity like the toppings—you can mix and match them in dozens of different ways, but they’re not the same thing.
“Transgender people always feel like they’re stuck in the wrong body.” – As much as we’ve heard the “I’m a girl stuck in a boy’s body” or “a boy stuck in a girl’s body” narrative, it’s just not true for everyone. Some young children do explain their gender identity this way because it’s the only way they can think of to express what they’re feeling, but most trans adults find this kind of thinking problematic. Trans people aren’t stuck in someone else’s body—their body is their own. It just may not look the way they know it should, and so they may go about changing it.
“Transgender people try to trick you into thinking they’re a real man/woman.” – Transgender people aren’t trying to “trick” anyone. In fact, many trans people risk being verbally and physically assaulted just to express themselves in the most honest, authentic way they possibly can. There’s more to sex and gender than meets the eye, and transgender women and men are, in fact, real women and men, and nonbinary trans folks have identities that are just as real. Coming out as transgender is not something we do to mask who we really are—it’s something we do to remove the masks society has handed us.
For more information on transgender identities, check out Gender Spectrum for families of trans children and teens, and PFLAG’s booklet “Our Trans Loved Ones: Questions and Answers for Parents, Families, and Friends of People Who Are Transgender and Gender Expansive.” You can also find more pieces related to Gender on My Kid Is Gay here, or pick up a copy of This Is A Book for Parents of Gay Kids, which has an entire chapter exclusively about gender identities!