Activist and scholar Julia Serano defines cissexism as “the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people.”
It may be easier to break this concept down if you understand the pieces that make it up. The word cissexism is composed of two parts: the prefix “cis-” and the word “sexism.”
“Cis” is derived from the term “cisgender.” Cisgender is used to describe someone who identifies with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth.
Sexism is typically used to describe a system of oppression that results in disadvantages, especially for women. In this case, cissexism refers to a system that results in disadvantages for transgender and nonbinary individuals.
Cissexism operates as a subtle web of ideas that many people hold based on the assumption that all people are cisgender. Because this assumption is so deeply ingrained in our society, many people say and do things that are cissexist without realizing it.
Acknowledging and dismantling cissexist systems is an important step toward equality and helps transgender and nonbinary people feel safe and included.
In this article, we’re going to break down what cissexism really is, provide examples, and offer solutions for cisgender people who’re interested in working on their own cissexism and becoming better allies to the transgender community.
Cissexism and transphobia are certainly related to one another, but they’re two slightly different things.
Transphobia is often expressed as outward bias, disgust, or hatred against trans people. Cissexism is a much subtler, and perhaps more pervasive, form of discrimination against trans and nonbinary people.
Cissexist assumptions often come across in the form of microaggressions.
Sonny Nordmarken, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, defines microaggressions as “commonplace, interpersonally communicated, ‘othering’ messages related to a person’s perceived marginalized status.”
For example, assuming that everyone is cisgender or that being transgender isn’t normal is a type of microaggression.
As this subject is fairly complex, it may be easier to make sense of it through examples. Here are a few to help clarify what we mean when talk about cissexism:
In everyday language:
- using greetings like “ladies and gentlemen,” which can alienate nonbinary folks
- describing cisgender people as “normal”
- supporting or being kind to a trans person, but still using the wrong pronouns or name to refer to them
- making statements that presume all men have penises and all women have vaginas
- asking for someone’s “real” name or “preferred” pronouns: trans people’s names are their real names and their pronouns are not preferred, but simply their pronouns
In appearance policing:
- believing that a person’s secondary sex characteristics — such as facial hair, breast tissue, and vocal range — are indicative of their gender
- having ideas about how trans people should look based on cisgender beauty standards
- assuming that all trans people want to, or should, “pass” as cisgender
- asking invasive questions about a person’s gender or body based on their appearance
In products and facilities:
- only having tampons and pads available in the women’s restroom, despite the fact that some trans men and those assigned female at birth may use the men’s restroom
- manufacturing and stocking clothing and shoes that are only available in sizes generally designed for cis people
- creating women’s spaces that exclude transgender women, such as women’s colleges
- having forms and applications that require a person to identify their gender, often only offering a “male” or “female” option
- housing trans and nonbinary people in prison facilities that don’t align with their gender, or housing them in solitary confinement
In legislation and healthcare access:
- insurance companies covering hormone replacement therapy for cisgender people but not for transgender people
- states attempting to pass “bathroom bills” that would prevent trans people from using the restroom that aligns with their gender
- abortion resources and facilities that exclude transgender men and nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth
- excluding trans people from military service based on the misconception that associated medical expenses are too high
Every day, whether we’re conscious of it or not, the categories of man and woman are being subtly — and sometimes not so subtly — reinforced.
It’s in the products we buy, the way restrooms are designated, and so much more. And, at a very basic level, it’s in the way that we communicate with one another based on how we perceive each other’s genders.
Because the gender binary is such a massive, deeply ingrained system, it isn’t simple for any one individual to simply stop reinforcing it.
However, in order to support people’s ability to safely and comfortably express their gender identities, it’s important that we not enforce gender norms and expectations on one another.
Where do I begin? It all starts by recognizing when we’re categorizing people by gender unnecessarily or making assumptions about a person’s behavior, presentation, or interests based on how we perceive their gender.
That means avoiding things like referring to new people as “sir” or “ma’am,” and opting for something gender neutral like “friend” instead.
It means not making broad generalizations about gendered behavior, like that only women can wear dresses or that only men like sports.
It means not separating people by gender, particularly in situations where it’s unnecessary.
And it means taking the time to ask each individual you meet how they like to be addressed and what type of language feels most comfortable for them.
It’s important to remember that your gender is personal to you and no one else’s identity invalidates how you understand yourself.
You might identify with a binary gender, and that’s great! But, in order to stop reinforcing the gender binary, we need to recognize that not all people do, and that we’ll all be freer to express our gender identities when the gender binary isn’t assumed.
Listen to and elevate trans voices
It’s important that cisgender people listen to trans peoples’ experiences instead of other cisgender folks’ versions of those experiences. In fact, you’re doing just that right now!
Call out cissexism
Calling out cissexism is often exhausting for trans folks, so if you can take on some of that work, you’ll be doing a lot to help.
For instance, if you see someone mistakenly misgender another person based on their appearance, say something. Try mentioning to them that maybe the person they’ve misgendered doesn’t identify the way they assume that they do.
Acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake
Even trans people like myself make cissexist assumptions about people from time to time. The best thing you can do is to apologize and move on.
Modeling accountability is a great way to show others that making mistakes is OK, so long as you’re willing to take steps to do better next time.
Work to make safer spaces
There are tons of things you can do to make spaces safer for trans people. You can:
- Ask everyone — not just people you perceive as gender non-conforming in some way — to provide their pronouns during introductions. However, it’s important to recognize that some trans people may not be comfortable doing this. In this case, simply share yours and move on.
- Allow people to self-identify when entering binary gendered spaces. As long as a person isn’t doing you or others harm in a space, it’s best to just assume that they belong there and leave it at that.
- Provide gender-neutral or single-stall bathrooms. This may mean opening up bathrooms that are typically gendered to everyone.
Cissexism isn’t as blatant as transphobia. This can make it much harder to detect and harder still to overcome.
With the knowledge we’ve provided here and an investment in breaking down cissexism in your own life, you can challenge cissexist ideologies and make the world a little bit safer, happier, and healthier for the trans and nonbinary people in your life.
KC Clements is a queer, nonbinary writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Their work deals with queer and trans identity, sex and sexuality, health and wellness from a body positive standpoint, and much more. You can keep up with them by visiting their website, or finding them on Instagram and Twitter.