The term cisgender, which is often abbreviated to simply “cis”, in its most simple definition is a person who identifies as the sex/gender they were assigned at birth. For example if your birth certificate reads “Female” and you continue to identify as a woman you would be cisgender, or more specifically you would be a cisfemale. Conversely if you were assigned male at birth and continue to identify as such you are also cisgender but a cismale. Cisgender individuals are those who do not identify with a gender variant experience or in other words are gender normative.
The word cisgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis, meaning “on this side of,” which is an antonym for the Latin-derived prefix trans meaning “across from” or “on the other side of”.
This term is commonly used by the queer community to differentiate someone from being trans or gender non-conforming. Some might ask why the term cisgender is used rather than “non-trans” but it is important to understand that some people that transition do not identify as transgender. In addition referring to cisgender people as “non-trans” implies that cisgender people are normal and being transgender is abnormal. It is also necessary for cisgendered people to understand that they too have a gender identity. Having a gender identity that matches the one you were assigned at birth does not rob you of one. All people have a gender identity. It is similar to the way we do not refer to people of color as “non-white”.
Gender identity is the way in which you express your gender to the world. The way you dress, talk, gesture, walk, the pastimes you have, the way you wear your hair, all of these are the ways we show people our gender. The ways we show gender are all sociologically constructed. For example, many years ago it was considered masculine for women to wear pants and clearly in our culture this is no longer the case.
Any talk of what it means to be cisgender would be incomplete without discussing cisnormativity. This is the assumption that everyone in our society is cisgendered and that our society is structured around this belief. It is in some ways similar to heteronormativity, which is the assumption that everyone is straight, but it is important to make the distinction that not all transgender people are gay or lesbian. Cisnormativey causes what is known as cisgender privilege. This essentially means that our society is structured in ways that make it easier for cisgendered people to move through the world. There are many examples of cisgender privilege such as being able to use a public restroom without fear of repercussions. You can find other examples of cisprivilege here.
As a trans person I have felt both side of cisnormativity. Before I started hormones when I was a visible transperson I was discriminated against on the basis of my gender identity because of cisnormativity and transphobia. Now that I pass as a cismale, the cisnormativity I see is different. As I mostly experience the world as a straight white cisman, even though I am not, I can feel both the benefits of cisnormatity while living as a transman. The ability to pass offers a unique view into both being a member of a marginalized group and that which society considers the norm. Even when one passes as cis on a daily basis there are still constant fears of being outed that rear their head in every restroom, doctor’s office, TSA screening, and public benefits offices (where incongruent names or gender markers on identity documents can give people away) because of cisnormativity.
It is important for each marginalized group to band together to fight all aspects of oppression. Issues of poverty, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are inextricably linked when there is one ruling center of power. It is important to understand how all these groups are sectioned out for discrimination. We cannot fight discrimination until we understand the stereotypes that live inside of us and the assumption that all people are cisgenderd is a very common belief that should be challenged as one way to combat all discrimination.
by Finn Brigham