Hi, I’m cisgender

24 Sep

I learned about my identity this summer, reading Dan Savage’s book American Savage. I’m cisgender.

I had to look up the term, having never heard it before. According to Basic Rights Oregon:

Cisgender is a term used to describe people who, for the most part, identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.  For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender. In other words, ‘cisgender’ is used to describe people who are not transgender (http://www.basicrights.org/uncategorized/trans-101-cisgender/).

And right there I understood why I hadn’t heard this term. When it comes to identity and diversity, we have two sometimes asynchronous habits about what we name. We tend to give words to:

  • what we think is obvious, fundamental and safe (ex. “female” and “male”–while these identities aren’t always obvious, a general unspoken assumption that they are leads us to assume it’s totally safe to refer to others as “she” or “he” without asking how that person identifies)
  • whatever we think is different or other (ex. “transgender” as opposed to “cisgender”)

These sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging rules of the diversity-speak road leave more than a few gaps in our vocabularies. Including, at least for me (and I suspect I’m not alone): cisgender. Here’s my thinking: while cisgender is perhaps so normative and safe that it’s a no-duh to name, it’s also so normative and safe to say… that we don’t.

And yet not having a word for identifying with our birth gender is a real problem. For everyone, for our culture, and ultimately for social justice. In its definition of cisgender, Basic Rights Oregon argues:

So why do we say ‘cisgender’ instead of ‘non-transgender’? Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal.  Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people’, but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.

Using the word ‘cisgender’ is also an educational tool.  To simply define people as ‘non-trans’ implies that only transgender people have a gender identity.  But that’s not true.  Like sexual orientation, race, class, and many other identities, all of us have a gender identity.

Language is important; it defines human relationships.  That is why it’s important use language of equality and inclusion.

In short, not having a word for cisgender or other normative and majority identities strips the majority of a way to name a vital part of who we are, to understand our commonalities and differences with people who may not identify like us but who identify nonetheless, and to recognize that any struggle for equity is ours, too.

**Note: Spellcheck on wordpress didn’t recognize “cisgender” as a word. But mine does now.

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