In the past couple of weeks, two different people have asked me about the words cisgender, cisman, ciswoman, or just cis for short. These are new words for a lot of people, and I think those of us who use them have skipped a step in helping folks understand why we use them, and why they’re important parts of our ever-changing vocabulary. (For curmudgeons who say that we’ve got all kinds of new words coming out, and they can’t keep track, may I remind you that languages evolve over time, and even different groups of people who speak the same language use diferent words, or the same words that mean radically diferent things depending on the context or where the person saying them is from.) Regarding cisgender, there are, in general, the people who use the term on a regular basis, and people who have no idea what the hell it means.
Cis is a Latin prefix, meaning “of the same side.” It’s been brought into everyday language to expand the way we talk about gender.
A cisgender person, or a cisman or ciswoman, is someone who feels themselves to be, and lives as, the same gender they were identified as having at birth. So, a ciswoman would have been identified as a girl at birth, raised as a girl, thought of herself as a girl, and thinks of herself as a woman, or lady, or whatever is her preference, in adulthood.
We’ve been using the Latin prefix trans, meaning through, across, other, and so on, for a while, to talk about people who are transgender, or a person who is a transman, or a transwoman, et cetera, et cetera.
A transgender person is someone whose experience of their own gender, their gender identity, doesn’t line up with the gender they were assigned when they were born.
Complex? In many ways, yes, in many ways no. . This business of there being two clearly defined genders, and that whichever gender you are, that gender remains static your whole life, feels more unnatural to me the more I learn.
Kate Bornstein In her pivotal book Gender
Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us points out that babies are given a gender identity via a quick glance at their genitals to determine their sex. I don’t know about you, but that seems awfully simple for an identity that’s with us our whole lives. Other identities we’re given come and go as we grow, change, and establish (then sometimes reinvent) our place in the world. People don’t insist that our occupation remain the same, that our fashion sense never change, that our bodies and how we deal with them remain static our whole lives. There’s even—most of the time—minimal resistance to people changing their names (the most common examples of this are people ditching a diminutive like Sammy or Becky, or taking their partner’s name after marriage). Why shouldn’t gender identity be more flexible.
I’m getting ahead of myself though.
Having the words cisgender, cisman, ciswoman, in our collective vocabulary is important, even if we don’t always use those terms. Folks who are cisgender aren’t any more normal or regular (and really not that much more common) than people who are transgender. (Yes, the stats might tell us that there are many more cispeople than trans folks, but consider that people aren’t generally asked what their gender identity is; the numbers of people who don’t conform to the gender binary, who aren’t cis (on the same side of are likely much higher than any of us would expect.)
So, the cispeople (I belong to this group) aren’t the norm, and they need a name—hence, cis.
It was once explained to me that there’s no such thing as something being cold—bear with me, please–there are just things that have heat and things that don’t. I have no idea whether this is a common way of understanding temperature, but what I do know is that, at least in English, we have words for hot, cold, and everything in between. We don’t simply say hot, and not-hot. Or, we don’t simply say cold when we mean something not hot, and nothing when we mean something hot.
I was asked if it was offensive to not call oneself a ciswoman, and simply refer to oneself as a girl or woman. Not at all! Cis (and trans for that matter) is a category that helps make things clearer in many contexts, though for some, certainly, it can be an identity. When talking about gender, it can be useful for people to know what your personal experience with gender has been, but none of us should ever have to share things we’re not comfortable sharing, or use words to describe ourselves we’re not comfortable using. That goes for transpeople (though too often their autonomy is not respected) so it needs to go for cispeople too. There is no obligation to identify one’s gender identity to anyone unless they need to know things about your body, or you want to be sure they address you by the pronouns you’re most likely to respond to.
I was also asked if cis is an insult. Cisgender is not an insult. Certainly, some people use it that way. Some people will always use any identity—any word, really–as an insult. Quite often when people talk about cisgender though, they’re talking about a specific group of people, and the biases or beliefs members of that group hold, or the experiences they have or haven’t had. When someone says “ciswomen do…” or “ a lot of cismen say…” they’re generally not insulting, but reporting.
What we want to do our best to avoid, no matter what our gender identity, is doing things like talking about “men, women, and trans” (transmen and transwomen are just as much men and women as those of us who are cisgender) or “transpeople and the rest of us.” It may not be intentional, but having a special word for one group, and not one for another, is belittling and makes an assumption about normalcy that just isn’t accurate. I think it’s automatic for many of us to slot other people into categories, but neglect to categorize ourselves. Talking with a couple of friends about this, I used the example of blindness, a characteristic those friends and I share. I pointed out that we don’t talk about “people” and “blind people,” but rather “sighted people” and “blind people.” One friend correctly pointed out that it’s likely that many people who can see, who are part of the “regular” group, would indeed be likely to just refer to themselves as “people.”
Many people would use the word labels here, but I think there’s too much baggage around that term, too many assumptions that the labels are just words that don’t mean much.
Naming something, giving words to it, describes that thing, it tells you where that thing (person, object, place, etc) exists in space, time, culture, and in relation to other things.
We also don’t generally just grab words out of the ether for no good reason. Cis and trans, as I said, come from Latin, as much of the English language does. They’ve also been in common usage among scientists, not even brought back to life from some dusty thesaurus; they’ve been here all along.
I could say a lot more about language, and about gender, but as someone who hasn’t done much contemplation of her own gender until lately, and hasn’t been put in a position where her gender has been called into question, I’m not actually the most qualified to talk about this. I turn you over to several writers who explain cisgender much better than I can.
One thing before I do that: For any of you using a screen reader, cis is pronounced sis, as in the first syllable of sister. Sometimes I catch myself starting to talk about c.i.s. (saying each letter) women. Occupational hazard!