What Does It Mean To Be Cisgender?

Plus how to check your cisgender privilege and be a transgender ally.

Being cisgender means when your gender identity (how you identify) is the same as your sex (your physical form)⁠. In contrast, people who are transgender or nonbinary have genders different from their sexes. Learn more about being cisgender, including how it compares to sexual orientation, and how to be a transgender ally.

What Does Cisgender Mean?

Cisgender refers to "individuals whose assigned sex at birth is congruent with their gender identity," Christy L. Olezeski, PhD, director of Yale Medicine's Gender Program, told Health. The prefix "cis" is actually Latin for "on this side;" on the other hand, the "trans" in transgender means "on the other side of."

An example of someone who is cisgender is someone born with stereotypically female sex organs and who identifies as a woman. The same goes for a person born with stereotypically male genitalia who identifies as a man. In both cases, they were assigned sexes at birth based on their sex organs, and this sex is the same as their gender.

According to the May 2014 issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly, the term "cisgender" was initially created by transgender activists in the 1990s to differentiate between cisgender and transgender individuals without further marginalizing transgender people.

"The terms man and woman, left unmarked, tend to normalize cisness—reinforcing the unstated 'naturalness' of being cisgender," the text says. Instead, the magazine suggests using identifications like "cis man or "cis woman" alongside "transman" and "transwoman."

It's important to know, however, that there is a bit of controversy around the term. "Some folx would argue that we should use the term cis- or trans- any time we are identifying people," Olezeski said. "[However], some folx would argue that we should not identify anyone using these, and should instead just identify folx as men, women, non-binary/gender-expansive or agender."

The Difference Between Cisgender and Straight (Heterosexual)

It's important to know that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. Gender identity is how someone identifies; sexual orientation refers to who someone is attracted to. "As someone once said, gender identity is who you go to bed as, while sexual orientation is who you want to go to bed with," Olezeski said.

That means those who identify as cisgender can fall anywhere on the sexuality spectrum—gay, straight, bisexual, etc.—just as anyone who is transgender, too, can identify with any sexual orientation.

What Is Cisgender Privilege?

In a 2014 article published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Julia R. Johnson, PhD, explained that "cisgender privilege is given to persons whose morphology aligns with socially-sanctioned gender categories." People who do not identify as cisgender—namely transgender people—experience discrimination on many levels.

Johnson's article outlines a few different examples of what cisgender privilege can look like. Here's what they are:

  • You have a government-issued identification that accurately represents your identity.
  • You're not being asked what your genitals look like, whether or not your breasts are real, or what medical procedures you've had.
  • You're not being forced "to adopt a different gender presentation" or and you're not denied medical care.
  • You're not being refused "access to, and fair treatment within, sex segregated facilities" such as bathrooms, homeless shelters, prisons, and domestic violence shelters.

These inequalities translate into worse health. The barriers to medical care can prevent transgender people from getting routine screenings. Meanwhile, the stress of discrimination can also make LGBTQ+ people more at risk of having mental health conditions—a risk worsened by being unable to get gender-affirming care.

How Can You Work Against Cisgender Privilege?

To become a transgender ally (a cisgender person working to fight for the rights of the transgender community), cisgender people must confront their own privileges. You must examine not only your own relationships but also societal structures that oppress transgender people. Avoid asking questions like those listed above. Support transgender people in their fights against oppressive systems like bans on gender-affirming care.

Also make sure to educate yourself on issues that people in the transgender community face, speak up against comments or actions that marginalize transgender people, and always remember to use someone's appropriate pronouns to avoid misgendering them (if you are not sure how to do this, the easiest way is to share your own pronouns and ask for theirs).

A Quick Review

Cisgender refers to people who identify with the sex they are assigned at birth, whereas transgender or nonbinary refers to people who identify as a different gender than the sex they are assigned at birth. It's important for cisgender people to become transgender allies by confronting their privileges, educating themselves on issues affecting other genders, and so much more, ultimately helping to work toward a world where people who are transgender are not oppressed.

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