What does cisgender mean?

The word 'cisgender' has been in circulation since 1994, but it’s still viewed as a relatively new term since it wasn’t added to the dictionary until 2013.

Because of this, the term has received a lot of pushback, mainly from the cisgender community. Many believe that the term was only introduced to be 'politically correct,' while others argue that the label seeks to divide people even more. Regardless of these people’s beliefs, the word has seen increased use in the past few years and can be found in countless pieces of media. Now, people are incorporating the word into daily conversations and destigmatizing discussions about gender identity.

What does 'cisgender' mean?

Cisgender, or cis, describes someone whose personal identity and gender correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. 'Cisgender' serves as the antonym of 'transgender.' To be clear, cisgender refers exclusively to a person’s gender identity, and does not refer to their sexual identity. For example, a cis woman can identify as bisexual, but this has no bearing on her cis-identity. Likewise, a trans person can be heterosexual and this does not affect their trans-identity.

When was 'cisgender' first used?

'Cisgender' started gaining traction in the 1990s, thanks to various academic journals at the time. It’s believed that the first publication of the word was in 1994, then again in an essay published by German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch in 1998, although the actual term he used was 'cissexual.' Sigusch explains that the word stems from 'transsexual,' which is now an outdated slur. Following that, many academics and scholars began to use the word in their gender diversity studies.

However, the word didn’t start garnering mainstream attention until the 2010s.

Where are we now?

Although its lifespan is on the shorter side, cisgender is a common phrase and identifier for many people now. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added cisgender to their dictionary, which helped solidify its validity for most English speakers. In 2014, Facebook started offering users more in-depth gender options, which included 'cisgender,' and plenty of other social platforms have followed suit.

Nowadays, cisgender allies are focusing their work on battling cisnormativity and privilege by being more transparent with their identities—whether this means letting people know they’re cis or adding their pronouns in their bio, every small step has a profound impact on the transgender community. While there is still criticism over the term, as it can have a negative connotation to some, it’s important to acknowledge that the use and popularization of this term has helped create more honest discussions about gender. In fact, giving language to a privilege that many people have, yet rarely acknowledge, has sparked plenty of frank, fruitful conversations around the subject matter.

Key figures

While the term is typically credited to biologist Dana Defosse, who used it first in 1994, trans-activist and author Julia Serano helped propel the term’s usage into more social circles with her book Whipping Girl. In the book, which was originally published in 2007, Serano goes into detail about her life as a transgender feminist and how transphobia is largely rooted in sexism, while also exploring a great list of previously overlooked terms related to gender studies. Before the book was published, cisgender was mostly used in academic settings and had little use in everyday conversation. Serano also coined the term 'cissexism,' which is used to describe the belief that transgender identities are 'inferior to, or less authentic than,' cisgender identities.

Thanks to Serano, gender identity discourse has been able to progress exponentially in the past two decades.

How can I be an ally as a cis-gendered person?

  1. Use your privilege. Cisgendered people have much more privilege than transgender people, and you must use this privilege to help educate and inform others. Whether this means stepping in when you hear something transphobic being said or correcting someone on what pronouns they use is up to you—all that matters is normalizing these different gender identities.
  2. Be supportive of other gender identities. Society has hardwired our brains to view 'cisgender' as 'normal,' which is extremely invalidating and harmful to people with different identities. Give trans people the space to freely express their concerns, thoughts, and emotions. Provide them with emotional, financial, and physical support when needed. Let them know their identity is valid and normal.

Normalize sharing your pronouns. Cisgender people often don’t find the need to reveal their pronouns to people in the way transgender people do, which can detract from the ultimate goal of normalizing pronouns. Add your pronouns in your Instagram or Twitter bios, ask people their pronouns before referring to them, and be sure not to judge people based solely on appearance.

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