What Does It Mean to Be Cisgender?

Medically reviewed by Janet Brito, PhD, LCSW, CST on October 24, 2017Written by KC Clements

What does cisgender mean?

The prefix “cis” means “on the same side as.” So while people who are transgender move “across” genders, people who are cisgender remain on the same side of the gender they were initially identified as at birth.

According to an article in Transgender Studies Quarterly, the term cisgender was coined by transgender activists in the 90s to create a better way to describe people who aren’t transgender.

You’ll often see the terms assigned male at birth (AMAB) or assigned female at birth (AFAB) as an alternative to saying things like a person was “born a man” or is “biologically male.” To give an example, if a person was declared at birth to be male (AMAB) and they identify as a man, then that means they’re a cisgender man.

What is sex?

Most of us have grown up with the idea that there are two sexes, male and female.

We typically associate males with things like having a penis, XY chromosomes, and testosterone as their primary sex hormone. We tend to think of females as having a vagina, XX chromosomes, and estrogen as their primary sex hormone.

But what about someone who falls outside of these categories? This is what’s known as intersex. People who are intersex are sometimes referred to as people with differences of sexual development. They may have genitals, chromosomes, or variations in sex hormones that don’t neatly line up with popular ideas about male or female categories.

People who are transgender may also have differences in genitals, chromosomes, or sex hormones compared with their cisgender counterparts. However, people who are transgender may still identify as male, female, or as something else entirely.

For example, a trans woman who hasn’t undergone gender confirmation surgery, or doesn’t wish to, may have a penis, XY chromosomes, and estrogen as her predominant hormone. She may identify as female.

What is gender, and how does it relate to sex?

We also live in a society that operates under the assumption that there are only two genders, male and female, and that the sex that you were assigned at birth determines what your gender will be.

In the last several decades scholars and activists have come to understand gender to be a “social construct.” This means that gender is a socially agreed upon set of rules and behaviors. Because these rules vary between different cultures and change over time, many have argued that gender doesn’t have the biological basis that people have traditionally thought.

This doesn’t mean that gender isn’t real. It has very real impacts on our lives and how we experience the world. It just means that it doesn’t have a strong demonstrable basis in human nature.

Gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body. Our genders can change and shift and evolve over time. While a person might identify as cisgender now, that doesn’t mean that this always has to be the case.

There’s also a long and rich history of cultures where people have identified as something other than men or women. Examples include Two Spirit people in Indigenous North American cultures, Hijras in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and the sworn virgins of the Balkans.

Recently, terms have come into popular use as ways to describe identifying outside the gender binary system. These include:

How is gender identity different from gender expression?

When it comes to gender, there are actually two components at play. The first is gender identity, which is how we identify ourselves as men, women, nonbinary, or any other identity.

The second component to gender is what’s known as gender expression. Our gender expressions fall along the spectrum of masculinity and femininity, and don’t necessarily need to align with our gender identities. This means that not all people who identify as men have a masculine gender expression, and not all people who identify as women have a feminine gender expression. Because masculinity and femininity exist along a spectrum, people can fall further toward masculinity, further toward femininity, or anywhere in between.

For instance, someone might be a cisgender woman, meaning they were assigned female at birth and identify as a woman, but have a masculine gender expression.

What does it mean to have cisgender privilege?

People who are cisgender typically have rights, advantages, and access to resources and opportunities that aren’t granted to people who are transgender.

There are many different examples of situations in which cisgender people are privileged over transgender people, a few of which include:

Healthcare access

Many insurance companies don’t cover transgender healthcare. This includes hormone replacement therapy and medically necessary surgeries that cisgender people can have covered. Of the respondents to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, 55 percent had been denied coverage for transition-related surgery and 25 percent had been denied coverage for hormones.

And if a person who’s transgender is able to receive care, it may still be marred by complications. Many healthcare providers aren’t knowledgeable about providing services and sensitivity to people who are transgender. One-third of the respondents had a negative experience with a doctor in the year prior to the survey. About 8 percent of respondents were denied care entirely for being transgender.

Discrimination in employment and housing

According to the U.S. Trans Survey 30 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination in employment, including being fired, denied a promotion, or mistreated, in the year prior to the survey.

Additionally, 30 percent had experienced homelessness. Only 16 percent of respondents were homeowners compared with 63 percent of the general population.

Legal protections

At this time, there isn’t a federal law in place to protect people who are transgender against discrimination. In a report by the Transgender Law Center, 23 states received the lowest possible score based on state laws protecting transgender people against discrimination, offering health and safety protections, providing protections for LGBTQIA youth, and allowing transgender people to change state-issued IDs. Only 12 states and the District of Columbia met the highest standards.

Over the last two years, 200 bills that would allow for discrimination against LGBTQIA people have been introduced in 20 states. This includes laws that would prevent people from using the bathroom that best suits their gender.

Microaggressions

People who are transgender also experience small, everyday actions that can be hurtful or make people feel like they’re being treated differently because they’re transgender. These are known as microaggressions.

A few examples include being:

  • misgendered or treated like they belong to a gender that they don’t
  • told how well they do or do not meet up to the societal standards of their gender
  • harassed or mistreated when someone figures out that they’re transgender
  • asked invasive questions about their bodies and their medical history
  • stared at or having people avoid eye contact with them

Remember that privilege is complex, and we have privilege based on numerous different identity categories. For example, while a white transgender man may experience discrimination and microaggressions for being transgender, he still has certain advantages over people of color and women because he’s both white and a man.

How can cisgender people treat transgender people respectfully?

There are a number of things people who are cisgender can do to support the transgender people in their lives.

One of the most important ways to show respect for trans people is to use the correct language.

You should

  • Never make assumptions about a person’s identity. You may think you know how someone identifies based on how they look or present themselves, but you can never know for sure unless you ask.
  • Ask a person’s name and pronouns or ask people close to them if you’re uncertain. Be sure to offer up your own pronouns when you do. As people can change their names and pronouns over time, be prepared for the possibility that the first answer you get might change.
  • Avoid using gendered language, such as referring to a group of people as “ladies” or “guys,” or using “sir” or “ma’am” to refer to an individual. Try using “folks” to refer to a group or “friend” to politely speak to an individual.
  • Recognize that you’re cisgender and that you have privilege because of that. Some people seem to think that “cisgender” is a bad word, but just know that it’s simply a way to describe someone that identifies as the gender they were labeled at birth.

How can you use your privilege to advocate for trans people?

It’s important that people who are cisgender use their privilege in order to advocate on behalf of people who are transgender whenever they can. This may mean having difficult and challenging conversations with the cisgender people in your life.

Take action

  • If you hear someone misgendering or otherwise discriminating against people who are transgender, step in and talk to them. Explain the language they should be using and why it’s hurtful to do otherwise.
  • If you have access to resources or opportunities, such as a job opening or stable housing situation, think of ways you can help people who are transgender get access to these things as well.
  • Donate time or money to transgender-led political organizations.
  • Offer to go with a trans person if they’re facing a situation that might lead to discrimination. Whether it’s going with them to get their name or gender marker changed on their IDs, or something as simple as going with them to the bathroom, having your support and knowing you’ll back them up if anything goes wrong can be a big help.

The bottom line

One of the best ways you can start being an ally to the transgender community is by recognizing your identity as a cisgender person and the privileges that come along with that. From there, you can begin to work on ways to use your privilege to support the transgender people in your life.


KC Clements

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 by finding them on Instagram and Twitter.

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