Last month, the Merriam-Webster dictionary adopted a cavalcade of words related to gender, including the gender-neutral honorific Mx., the noun transphobia, and the adjectives gender-fluid and cisgender. Always an avid observer of the gender-zeitgeist, I was drawn to this last one in particular. Much has been made over the last few years about the growing visibility of transgender people in mainstream media, from Janet Mock to Caitlyn Jenner. Comparatively little has been written about a necessary corollary, however: As society begins to acknowledge the basic humanity of trans people—as opposed to seeing them as some sectioned-off group of alien freaks—a reciprocal deepening of understanding around non-transgender folks is inevitable. Just as we need light to understand dark (or homosexuality to understand heterosexuality), so too do we need trans to really understand cis.
Quoth Merriam-Webster, cisgender means “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”
If you haven’t heard the term before, it quite probably applies to you. Congratulations! It’s the bonus identity you didn’t know you had. The adoption of a new word by a dictionary that contains about a half-million of them might not seem all that momentous at first blush. But in a recent article for the Atlantic, Peter Sokolowski, the editor at large of Merriam-Webster, explained that their rule of thumb for inclusion was “[i]f a word is likely to be encountered by an adult, it’s time for that word to go into the dictionary.” In other words, the dictionary isn’t the vanguard of English, rushing headlong into zany new linguistic territory; it’s strictly the cleanup crew, adding words only after they’re fairly established in the world.
Where might your average adult encounter cisgender? Perhaps in the 56 new flavors of gender available at their local Facebook or in Broadway casting discussions about what kinds of actors should play what types of roles. What’s remarkable about both of these examples is that they’re not cordoned-off debates among transgender people, or even among folks in the broad LGBTQ community; while they (obviously) have to do with trans folks, they also directly implicate non-trans people. These conversations are delineating the boundaries of what it means to not be transgender. They are the products of a new kind of thinking for most Americans, which begins with the phrase “If transgender folks are real people …” and ends with everything from “then maybe gender expression isn’t as limited as I thought,” to “then I might not be the best person to play that part.”
In a very real and measurable way, cisgender identity is no longer unmarked, universal, or assumed. It is denoted, limited, and in conversation with trans identities—or at least we’re moving in that direction.
“Historically we haven’t acknowledged cis people as a category,” said Julia Serano, public intellectual and author of Whipping Girl, one of the most brilliant and exacting explorations of gender on the shelves today. “So it was basically ‘trans people are abnormal and everybody else is normal.’ ”
Now, however, “we are in a moment where things are changing … more and more people are aware of the word and are acknowledging the fact that they are cisgender.” This acknowledgment, Serano said, allows cis people to see the advantages they get because of their gender identity, and—hopefully, theoretically—sets the stage for greater legal and social equality for the trans community.
To be clear: This shift in thinking is not a magnanimous gesture on the part of cisgender people, the natural evolution of human freedom, or a miracle (though it may feel that way at times). It is the result of hard work done by transgender people for decades upon decades, built on the work of some feminists (who explored the socially constructed aspects of gender) and some lesbian/gay/bisexual activists and scholars (who showed the political and cultural power of coming out)
In a way, we can see the vicious bathroom bills in North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and beyond as attempts to deny this new reality, to insist that there is only one kind of man or woman, and that we all know exactly who is what from the moment a person is born. These bills aren’t so much about policing actual behavior—because many trans people have used and will continue to use the bathroom that corresponds to their lived gender without anyone ever noticing—as they are about policing how we think about gender. The poisonous heart of this legislation is not what it forbids, but what it promotes: the idea that we can tell trans people from cis people and that regardless of how you identify, how you look, or what your driver’s license might say, the determining factor in regards to your gender is what a doctor said 2.5 seconds after you entered this world.
Sadly, resistance to the idea of being cisgender isn’t coming just from social conservatives who want to roll back the clock on gender to 1951 (the year before Christine Jorgensen became the first person in America to gain fame for gender reassignment). Some self-identified feminists and socially progressive gay men also abhor the term.
What do these two groups have in common? They tend to live in highly gender-segregated worlds (meaning most of their close relationships are with other cis men or women), while simultaneously not falling neatly within the standard behavioral boundaries of those genders. Though they might dress or behave in ways that aren’t traditionally masculine or feminine, they still identify with the gender they were born into. Thus they live in a double bind: not transgender, but often the victims of gender-based oppression (a nasty mélange of transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny).
“I can understand why some of those people would feel that splitting everything into cis versus trans can invisibilize their experiences,” said Serano. That said, not everyone who is punished for transgressing gender norms is punished equally, and transgender people (especially feminine ones) are particularly singled out. Already this year, nine trans women have been murdered in the U.S.—that we know of.
In his book Gay New York, historian George Chauncey showed that, as homosexuality and heterosexuality became clearly delineated in the public mind in the early 1900s, something analogous to the cis situation happened with men who did not identify as gay but still participated in same-sex sexual acts. As gayness became something you were, not something you did, these men were left without any conceptual space to inhabit. The way the Western world thought about sexual identity shifted, and they were left behind (though as Jane Ward explores in her brilliant book Not Gay, that doesn’t mean they disappeared).
Right now, as the emergence of cis identity in popular culture shows, we are undergoing another seismic shift in our conceptualization of gender and sexuality. Indeed, people who are today identified as cis by the broader trans community might not have been even just 20 years ago. As an example, although drag queens who do not specifically identify as trans are these days generally considered cisgender, the original subtitle to Leslie Feinberg’s groundbreaking 1997 book Transgender Warriors was “Making History From Joan of Arc to RuPaul.”
Chances are, both the concept of being trans- or cisgender and the words we use to describe those conditions are likely to change again—and again and again. For this reason, it’s important to always keep in mind the bigger goal: expanded gender freedom for everyone, regardless of how we identify, behave, or appear to others. And in the meantime, if someone calls you cisgender—and it’s true—don’t take it as an insult; wear it with cissy pride.