In order to understand what the term ”cisgender” means, you have to be familiar with the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity.
Maybe you just caught the latest episode of “I Am Cait” or “Pose.” Maybe you had a friend or family member come out as trans or nonbinary. Or maybe you’re questioning your own gender.
Whatever the reason, if you’re here it’s because you’ve got questions like: What does it mean to be cisgender? What does it mean to be transgender? And how is gender different from sex?
Ahead, your answers to these questions and more.
Good old Merriam Webster defines someone cisgender as a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.
And that’s spot on, according to Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
But to really understand what that definition is saying, you need to understand what gender identity is, as well as what sex assigned at birth is. So, let’s get into it.
Before reading an article like this one, most people think that the terms sex and gender are synonymous — but sex is different from gender.
Sex — often demarcated as male or female — is a category that is designed to name the cluster of characters (like hormones, chromosomes, and genitals) a person has.
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.
When an infant is first born, doctors eye their genitals and then figure out whether or not to demarcate “male” or “female” on the birth certificate. After this initial sex assessment, if a baby has a penis, they’ll put M, and if a baby has a vulva and vagina, they’ll put an F.
The sex put on the birth certificate is also known as a person’s natal sex or sex assigned at birth.
Understanding sex as a spectrum
Many people think there are only two sexes — male and female — but this isn’t true.
Intersex people have genitals, chromosomes, or variations in sex hormones that don’t neatly line up with popular ideas about male or female categories.
About 2 percent of the global population is born with intersex traits.
While a person’s sex is primarily based on external, visible markers, gender is based on the internal understanding one has of themselves. Gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body.
“Gender can be a tool to better understand yourself, your behaviors, your feelings, your thoughts, and your desires,” says Zachary Zane, sex expert, journalist, and BoySlut founder.
“But if you’re feeling limited by it — say you identify as a cis man and because of that, don’t feel comfortable embracing your femininity — then screw gender,” says Zane. “Be who you want to be without feeling obliged to define your gender.”
Understanding gender as a spectrum
Although this is slowly starting to change, most people are taught that there are only two genders: man and woman.
But there are way more than two genders!
There’s 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.
Several terms have become popular as ways to describe identifying outside the man-woman binary. To name just a few:
Let’s get really clear on the cisgender definition. Ready? A person is cisgender if the sex they’re assigned at birth aligns with their gender.
“Someone is cisgender if they were assigned male at birth (AMAB) and now identity as a man, or if they were assigned female at birth (AFAB) and now identify as a woman,” explains Stephen Quaderer, CEO of ThotExperiment and creator of hookup app Headero.
So, if you’re wondering if you’re cisgender you need to know your sex assigned at birth and your gender.
To start, take a peek at the sex listed on your passport, birth certificate, or driver’s license.
Then, begin to explore your own gender through some or all of the following:
- Read memoirs written by people all across the gender spectrum.
- Learn more about the different gender terms out there.
- Experiment with different types of gender presentations.
- Interrogate how different gendered or non-gendered words, pronouns, and labels make you feel.
- Work with a gender-affirming and/or trans-inclusive therapist.
- Unpack when you first learned about gender and gender roles.
Can your gender change over time?
Your gender can change over time. Sometimes this is because your gender itself has evolved, and sometimes this is because you learn new words or word-combos that more accurately describe your lived experience.
Linguistically speaking, pronouns are short-hand stand-ins for someone’s name.
For instance, instead of saying “Emily got the pen” you might say, “she got the pen.” In this example, “she” is the pronoun.
There are a number of pronoun options. For example:
Sometimes pronouns are called gender pronouns because they can be used to signal someone’s gender. For instance, someone who is a man could use the “male” pronoun he/him, while someone who is a woman could use the “female” pronoun she/her.
As such, using the correct pronouns for someone is a great way to affirm their identity (and also just show basic human respect).
That said, it’s also important to recognize that someone’s pronouns do not always indicate a person’s gender. Certain pronouns are not reserved for certain identities.
In summary: If you know the pronouns someone uses for themselves, use them. If you don’t, ask. And once you do know? Don’t make assumptions about what their pronouns mean about their gender.
Great question! Let’s compare and contrast what cisgender means to a few other gender identities.
Cisgender and transgender
The prefix ‘cis’ means on the same side. So, someone who is cisgender has a gender that is on the same side as the sex they were assigned at birth.
The prefix ‘trans’ means on the other side. So, someone who is transgender has a gender that is on a different side from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Or as Kahn explains, “While a cisgender person is someone whose gender identity is the same as their gender assumed at birth, a transgender person is someone whose gender identity or expression differs from their gender assigned/assumed at birth.”
Typically, cisgender and transgender are considered binary categories. There’s often an assumption that someone must be either one or the other. But not all people feel affirmed by either term.
Cisgender and nonbinary
“A nonbinary person is someone whose gender doesn’t fit within the binary of ‘man’ and ‘woman’,” says Kahn.
Some nonbinary people see their gender as existing between the two binary genders, while other nonbinary people see their gender as existing totally outside of the binary genders.
Most people who are nonbinary, however, do not identify with the term “cisgender.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean nonbinary people are transgender.
“Some people who are nonbinary are also trans, and some people who are trans are nonbinary, but some people who are nonbinary don’t use the word transgender, and so on,” Kahn says.
Cisgender and agender
Someone who is agender doesn’t identify with being a man or woman, says Quaderer. Someone who is agender also isn’t nonbinary or any other gender.
An agender person has no gender.
Some agender people feel affirmed by other labels like transgender or nonbinary, and some do not. To know how an agender individual relates to the cisgender-transgender binary, you’d have to ask!
No. Cisgender is word that describes gender. Straight is a word that describes sexual orientation.
Said differently: Cisgender names who you are, while straight names who you might be attracted to.
That said, someone could be cisgender and straight! For instance, a person who was assigned female and is a girl (cisgender) and is attracted to men (straight) is both!
People who are cisgender typically have rights, advantages, and access to resources and opportunities that aren’t granted to people who aren’t cisgender.
There are many situations in which cisgender people are privileged over transgender, nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming people, a few of which include:
Many insurance companies don’t cover things considered “transgender healthcare.” For instance: Hormone replacement therapy and medically necessary surgeries that cisgender people can have covered.
Further, many healthcare professionals aren’t knowledgeable about providing services to people who aren’t cisgender — worse, some providers are downright transphobic.
Discrimination in employment and housing
Prepare yourself for some disturbing statistics.
More than 25 percent of trans people have lost a job due to gender discrimination, and more than 75 percent have experienced some form of workplace discrimination.
(And no, at this time, there are no federal laws in place to protect people who are transgender against discrimination).
Additionally, 20 percent of trans people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
People who are transgender, nonbinary, or otherwise gender nonconforming also experience small, everyday actions that can be hurtful or make people feel like they’re being treated differently because of their identity.
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 don’t meet the societal standards of their gender
- harassed or mistreated when someone figures out that they’re not cisgender
- 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.
There are a number of things people who are cisgender can do to support the non-cis people in their lives.
Recognizing your own gender biases and calling yourself in anytime you make assumptions, use gendered lingo, and assume someone’s pronouns are great places to start.
You should also:
- Never make assumptions about a person’s identity. You can never know someone’s gender until they tell you.
- Exchange pronouns with everyone. Just met someone? Introduce yourself with your name and your pronouns. (Yes, even if you think you know the other person’s gender!) This indicates to other people that you’re a safe person to reveal their pronouns to. 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. Time to rid your vocab of gendered phrases like “ladies” or “guys,” or using “sir” or “ma’am.” 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.
Here’s the thing, real advocacy goes wayyy beyond the above. Real advocacy means using your privilege to fight for the rights of gender minorities, even when it means having difficult and challenging conversations with the cisgender people in your life.
Some ways you can take action:
- If you hear someone misgendering or otherwise discriminating against people who aren’t cisgender, step in and talk with 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 aren’t cisgender get access to these things as well.
- Donate time or money to transgender-led political organizations.
- Offer to go with someone 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.
To learn even more about gender, gender disparities, and gender advocacy, check out the following audio and written resources:
- Gender Reveal, a podcast with Tuck Woodstock
- Queery, a podcast with Cameron Esposito
- “Beyond the Gender Binary” written by Alok Vaid-Menon and illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky
- “Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us” by Kate Bornstein
- “Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution” by Susan Stryker
- “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth and foreword by Kai Cheng Thom
- The Trevor Project Resource Center, featuring articles on sexual orientation, mental health, gender identity, and more
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.