One of the sticking points in the debates between transgender activists and certain feminists is the term cisgender. Cisgender is a term that describes someone whose gender identity is aligned with their assigned sex. If you were assigned the sex female at birth (it’s a girl!) and continue to identify as a woman, cisgender is the term meant to speak to your experience.
Some people reject this term because they feel it is derogatory and claim that it is used by trans activists to shout down trans critical feminists. Others think that it affirms gender stereotypes and a rigid gender binary.
I have a lot to say about these objections, but rather than explain why I think cisgender is conceptually sound and acceptable, I want to discuss two reasons I think the word cisgender is incredibly useful.
I spend most of my day running LGBT cultural competency workshops, often for people who are totally unfamiliar with LGBT people, our cultures, and the political issues that impact our lives. I’ve seen first hand the increase in acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and even people I can tell are harboring some anti-LGB bias typically treat me with respect and participate willingly in the training.
It’s a different story when I get to trans issues and explain the concept of gender identity. People are much more willing to openly express negative feelings about transgender people and identities, and often push back when I start to outline best practices for working with transgender people in both medical and social service settings. From my perspective as an on-the-ground educator working in rural, suburban, and urban settings, there’s a lot of education that needs to happen to make sure the increasing acceptance of LGBT people includes the transgender community, and the term cisgender is an important part of the education.
Explaining the term cisgender to my participants allows me to do two things:
First, it helps non-LGBT identified people to realize that they too have a gender identity. This, in turn, helps them to understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked the question, “So if I’m not transgender, that means I’m straight, right?” — to which I always respond, “You tell me!” The difference between sexual orientation and gender identity is something very unfamiliar to most people, and helping participants think through the term cisgender is a great way to help them understand this important distinction.
Second, the term cisgender helps to break down the idea that transgender people are abnormal or mentally ill. It replaces the harmful binary Normal/Transgender with the much more neutral Cisgender/Transgender. I don’t mean to imply that these are the only two gender identities out there. However, helping people who have never thought about their gender identity think through the term cisgender is an important step toward helping them understand later discussions where we approach how to respect the diversity of gender identities and expressions.
Ultimately the terms you use to describe yourself are yours to choose, and we must always respect one individual preferences when it comes to language. You should never force the term cisgender on anyone, but I hope people will continue to adopt and explain this important term.