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What is cisgender? Here’s what cis means and why it definitely isn’t a slur

Patrick Kelleher April 16, 2020
Bathroom symbols for male and female

Cisgender is a word that's helpful in describing gender identities. (Pexels)

What is cisgender? It’s is a simple word that’s helpful in describing gender identity, but some people, mostly those outside of the trans and non-binary community, don’t know what it means.

The word cisgender – or cis, for short – is being used more widely in recent years as the world begins to have more open discussions about gender and identity.

For many cis men and women it is a relatively new term, and some are still trying to get to grips with what cisgender means and how they should use it.

But the importance of respecting and understanding the language of gender identity cannot be downplayed, says Kirrin Medcalf, head of trans inclusion at Stonewall.

“If you’ve never heard or come across the term cis before, it’s OK to be a bit confused at first,” Medcalf tells PinkNews.

“Nobody is expecting someone to know everything right away, but it’s important to take the time to learn about why using language like cis helps make a more inclusive, accepting world for everyone.”

Cis people have a duty to educate themselves about the spectrum of gender identities and the language we use to describe those identities. By understanding the definition of cis, you can better understand both your own and other people’s identities.

So, what is cisgender?

What does cisgender mean?

We are all assigned a gender at birth, but for some people, this doesn’t express who they really are.

Many people come to realise that their true gender is different to the one they were assigned at birth. These people might describe themselves using terms such as (but not limited to) trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming.

This brings us on to the question of what is cisgender. Put simply, it’s a word used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with the one they were assigned at birth.

One of the best definitions comes from sociologists Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook. They define cis as referring to people who “have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity”.

For example, a person who is assigned male at birth and identifies as male throughout his life would be considered a cisgender man. A person who is assigned female at birth and identifies as female throughout her life is a cisgender woman.

What is cisgender’s origin?

Much of the way we speak about gender derives from Latin. Both “cis” and “trans” are Latin prefixes, with cis meaning “on this side of” and trans meaning “across from” or “on the other side of”.

In a 1991 essay, German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch coined the word “cissexual” to describe people whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. Over the following years, the word morphed into “cisgender”.

Within 15 years of Sigusch coining the term, the word had gained traction among academics. By 2010, scholars were discussing issues such as “cisgender privilege” and “cissexism” in their work.

Some medical academics have been using the word since the 1990s. Were you to ask one of these scholars ‘what is cisgender?’ they would tell you it is commonly accepted as an important word that helps to express gender identity.

Since then, the word has become even more commonly used. In 2015, it had a landmark moment when it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was defined as “designating a person whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth.” Today, it appears in dictionaries across the world as a commonly used adjective.

Is cis a slur?

While the word cisgender has now entered the English language as an accepted descriptor of gender identity, there are certain groups who have tried to claim that it is a slur. This is not true.

Emma Underwood, trans programme officer with the LGBT Foundation, tells PinkNews it serves “exactly the same purpose as any other adjective — it simply tells us that you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth”.

Underwood adds: “It acts to normalise trans existences by becoming a descriptor for those who don’t identify as trans, who may previously have used othering or stigmatising words like ‘normal’.

Ultimately, it’s just another adjective, but for trans and non-binary people, it can be the difference between being welcomed in society, and being ostracised.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a slur is “an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo” that has “a shaming or degrading effect”.

Cisgender is not insulting or disparaging. So another answer to ‘what is cisgender?’ is that it is an accepted and important way to explain gender identities that align with the sex assigned at birth.

Sometimes, a cis person might have their gender identity brought up in an effort to remind them that they hold significant privileges in society as a cis person — but this does not make it a slur.

If referring to a person as “cis” is a slur, then we would also have to claim that calling someone “straight” is a slur.

These words are adjectives that help us to describe the spectrum of gender and sexual identity — while some people might not like them, that doesn’t mean they are offensive.

More: cisgender, non-binary, Trans

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