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

By Leah Groth
August 28, 2020
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We all know the most commonly used gender pronouns: she/her and he/him—they refer to a person assigned either male or female at birth, and who continues to identify that way later in life. But there's another term that's used to refer to those who continue to identify with the gender they were assigned at birth: cisgender. Here's what you need to know about that term, including how it compares to sexual orientation, and when (or if) you should use it.

What does cisgender mean?

Cisgender—technically pronounced "sis-gender"—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, tells Health. The prefix "cis" is actually Latin for "on this side," according to Merriam-Webster. "Trans," on the other hand—as in transgender—technically means "on the other side of." 

A person assigned female at birth, for example—meaning doctors saw female sex organs or genitalia—and who still identifies as a woman today, is cisgender. The same goes for a person assigned male at birth who currently identifies as a man.

According to Transgender Studies Quarterly, the term was initially created by transgender activists in the 1990s in order to differentiate between cisgender and transgender individuals, without further adding to the marginalization of trans people. "The terms man and woman, left unmarked, tend to normalize cisness—reinforcing the unstated 'naturalness' of being cisgender," the text says, suggesting rather to use 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 says. However, “some folx would argue that we should not identify anyone using these, and should instead just identify folx as men, women or non-binary/gender expansive or agender.”

What's the difference between cisgender and straight?

It's important to know that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. Plainly speaking, gender identity is how someone identifies, and 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 says.

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, and how can you work against it?

In an article published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Julia R. Johnson, PhD, explains that "cisgender privilege is given to persons whose morphology aligns with socially-sanctioned gender categories." It has been well established that those 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: "Some forms of cisgender privilege include: Having a government-issued identification that accurately represents one’s identity; not being ‘‘asked . . . what my genitals look like, or whether or not my breasts are real, what medical procedures I have had’’; not being forced ‘‘to adopt a different gender presentation’’ or denied medical care; or being refused ‘‘access to, and fair treatment within, sex segregated facilities’’ such as bathrooms, homeless shelters, prisons, and domestic violence shelters."

In order to confront our own cisgender privileges—and therefore become a transgender ally, or cisgender person working to fight for the rights of the transgender community—Johnson argues that we have to examine not only our own interactions and relationships, but also structural dynamics used to continue the oppression of transgender individuals.

It's also essential to educate yourself regarding issues that those in the transgender community face, to speak up against comments or actions that marginalize trans people, and to always remember to use someone's appropriate pronouns, since trans people are often either misgendered or deadnamed (if you're not sure how to do this, the easiest way is to share your own pronouns and ask for theirs).

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