In a small milestone of transgender progress, the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary have added the word “cisgender” to its pages. The venerable reference tool, generally considered the dictionary of record, now defines the word as “designating a person whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth.”
As a word, cisgender has travelled a familiar course: first it was dismissed, then mocked, and now it’s finally accepted. The prefix “cis-“—Latin for “on the side of”—is thought first to have been used by German psychologist Volkmar Sigusch in reference to “cissexuals” in his 1991 paper, “Transsexuals and our Nosomorphic View.” In 1994, biologist Dana Leland Defosse made the first recorded use of the word “cisgendered” (the suffix “-ed,” while now considered incorrect, was standard in trans usage at the time) in a University newsgroup, starting the word on its bumpy path toward mainstream acceptance.
Julia Serano has received credit for helping popularize the word in her groundbreaking 2007 trans feminist text Whipping Girl. Likewise, in recent years, as mainstream trans visibility and acceptance have increased, so has awareness of the companion term cis, at times to the dismay of those it describes.
The great virtue of the word cisgender, for trans folk and their allies, is that it helps alleviate the “other-izing” of trans people. Defined as they are in the OED, individuals who identify as cisgender, while they may be a majority group, are not the “default ” group, as they would be without such a term. More bluntly: “cisgender” is much preferable to “normal.”
Many chafe at this concept. Just last year in a column titled “Cis-Ridiculous,” National Review writer Christine Sisto, amid a flood of “aren't trans people weird” style sarcasm, asked, “Why is the transgender community creating words for what I should call myself? So that the trans community will feel better about themselves?” Sisto's question nicely summarizes what might be called the “Libertarian Complaint” about the word cisgender.
“You don't get to label me,” this argument goes. Such reasoning is inherently transphobic, since—to use Sisto as an example—it implies that cisgender have no gender identity. Both Sisto and transgender people are united in having an internal sense of their own gender. She's benefited immensely in presumably not having had to struggle with her sense of it, or needing to navigate a social or medical transition around it.
To make an analogy: Very few people, I assume, would take umbrage at being asked to identify as “able bodied,” if that term accurately described them. Most people are aware that life for those with disabilities can be more difficult than it is for those without, and that recognizing one's able-bodiedness can be a way of remaining conscious of their privilege, and conscientious of the barriers that may exist for who don't possess those advantages. Perhaps because trans issues are newer, though, and politicized by conservative and religious forces, that same level of sensitivity is not always present in discussions of cis terminology.
A second complaint about the word “cisgender” involves the notion that the word erases cis people's lived experience of their gender identities. This argument is made most often, in my observation, within the LGBTQ community by gay men whose gender expression is not stereotypically masculine, or lesbian women whose gender expression is not normatively feminine.
People making these complaints have every right to be pissed, because, as trans folk well know, being bullied due to your gender presentation is horrible. That said, the source of their pain is decidedly not the word “cisgender.” Cisgender refers solely to a person's gender identity, which is wholly different than one's gender expression. An effeminate male, who was assigned male at birth, is cisgender because he identifies with his birth gender assignment. If that man wishes to dismantle the stigma against male-assigned people expressing femininity, I'll have his back. But if he wants to reject the term cisgender, he's picking the wrong fight.
While some trans activists felt that “cisgender” should be confined to academic and activist circles, because it could confuse or irk potential allies, I've always felt strongly it should be used at any chance, until its appearance becomes as common as that of “heterosexual” or “white.” A majority group that does not even know the term for itself is, by definition, dangerous, and unlikely, it would seem, to view itself as equal to others.
For the past while, cisgender has appeared to be in a sort of limbo. Just last year, Dan Savage asked if it would survive. Some publications throw “cis” around casually, as if its existence is common knowledge, while other define it with academic gravity, as though it's a new form of cancer readers are only now being introduced to.
The OED's announcement comes happily then, suggesting the word has survived the laughs and attacks that have been thrown at it, and won. Transgender equality is one step closer, and we have “cisgender” to thank for it.
Leela Ginelle is a trans woman playwright and journalist whose work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch, and the Advocate.