Wednesday , 29 January 2020

Cisgender: When New Definitions Matter


Cisgender (also cisgendered): adjective. Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.

It’s not often an article opens with a definition ripped directly from the pages of The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.), but this is an exception.  Why?  Because I realised that setting the context of this article from the get-go was paramount, as the O.E.D. has released its latest edition, and speaking of which, the above definition is one of its most significant new entries.

Yet you might ask, why does that inclusion in the dictionary matter so much?

Well, it is the word that finally addresses that white elephant has been sat, patiently, in the middle of room in regards to the most basic, wide spread element of the sexual politics, for such a very, very long time.

“So what”, you might say, “men and women are the norm, big deal”.
Unfortunately, that is a massive over simplification, even before you take the existence and experience of Transgender, Intersex, and non-binary people into account.

Many people who have known of the term Cisgender for some time recoil its usage, saying that it objectifies or labels non-transgender or non-intersex people – which it does, admittedly.

However, some of those people (- most infamously some members of radical feminists movement) don’t mind using terms relating to trans and intersex individuals in a pejoratively subjective manner, a few of them even misguidedly state the word Cisgender was coined by a trans people to demonise and discriminate the non-trans majority of people and gain themselves more legitimacy out of jealousy or pettiness.

The reality is far nuanced than that, as it’s usage in part stems from the work of noted German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch who used its sibling term Cissexual in a number of peer-reviewed articles in the 1990s, and Julia Serano’s 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity used the term, and probably did the most to popularise the term Cisgender in the public sphere, but the term has been used for around 20 years by organisations, activists and medical and mental health professionals.

However, the origins of the concepts behind the term probably stem from the work of Hungarian journalist and activist Karl Maria Kertbeny, and German Writer and pioneer of the modern gay rights movement Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and their correspondence with one another.

Cisgender identities can be problematic for people who are intersex or non-gendered, usually because of their inclusion under the umbrella of that term, but because the prejudice they still face within society because they are not seen as quite fitting within the social norm? In other words… not Cisgender enough. Some transgender people can also be Cisgender, too, but almost exclusively if they are cross dressers who otherwise identify as their assigned birth gender.

Very few of us actively choose or create names of self-identification, instead we tend to decide to use long established definitions of who and what we are to describe ourselves, to in effect tick boxes.

If any of us don’t like a descriptor aimed at us, we have the right to ignore it, embrace it, or invent our own terminology. The real trick is though, is purposefully trying not use any such words – whether pre-established by society, or not – in a damaging way, even if we aim it at ourselves.

Yes, Cisgender can be a loaded word, but here is a hint: ALL terminology is loaded.
The beauty of Cisgender is not that it is the opposite of being transgender. No, it’s that it elegantly describes in a single word the fact that the majority of people are content living in their assigned birth genders, even if those genders are not always binary.

Lucky you! Not all of us have that good fortune and have to endure being called all sorts far worse names.

About Cate Lauder

Cate Lauder
A graduate of Bournemouth University’s Scriptwriting for Film and Television course, a produced writer of 4 short films and a stage play. Edinbrugh based Cate is an all-rounder media lass, who has done just about everything in showbiz. She is also a transsexual woman, a lesbian, and notoriously cheeky.

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  1. The German term "cissexuell" = "cissexual" in English was a term in late 1980ies transsexual self help groups in Western Germany before Sigusch used it without giving reference; maybe he didn't know that. Since it is oral history not yet researched or written down, there is no stronger evidence. But many German persons know not only Latin language and chemistry, some German persons in 1980ies self help groups also had readen books like those by Hirschfeld. The German term "Cisvestit" = "cisvestite" in English was a term Hirschfeld wrote in a 1914 book; Hirschfeld gave reference a patient had coined that term.

  2. Hi. I appreciate your including intersex people- thank you! As I tweeted recently, homophobia and transphobia could not exist to the extent that they do (& may never have reached the extent they do), if western society had acknowledged and accepted the fact that ithere are not just two "opposite" sexes, male and female. however, Unfortunately, the term cisgender, while attempting to question gender norms and the gender binary, actually reinforces it, because it idoesn't take the existence of intersex people into account, and it's usage actually doesn't t work – in terms of the concept of cisgender privilege — unless you pretend we don't exist. This is true of butch lesbians too. They are cisgender as they identify as women, but they do not experience cisgender privilege. Intersex people, whether you define us as cisgender or not, also do not experience cisgender privilege. This is all b/c gender is diverse. It is not about two categories: "normal" or not, and as well intentioned as the term cisgender may be, its attempts to frame it as such are just reinforcing non-inclusive, binary visions of gender. This piece is now being taught by gender studies professions as it elaborates this issue:…. Please read so that we can create a world that is inclusive of people of,all genders and gender identities, rather than one which continues to exclude and limit folks. Tx!!!

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