Why use the word “cisgender”?

We recently received a question about the word cisgender in the blurb for the hot new movie Crash Pad Series Volume 5: The Revolving Door. Since I’m sure that lots of other people have similar questions, I thought I’d explain what the word means and why we used it.

Cisgender refers to people who experience and present their gender in a way that’s aligned with the sex of their body. It contrasts with transgender, which refers to people who experience their gender as different from the physical sex they were assigned at birth. Generally, transgender folks take various steps to bring them into closer alignment, such as wearing clothes of the gender they feel themselves to be, surgery, taking hormones, and having their legal name changed.

The word has been around for at least 16 years, although it has become more well-known since Julia Serrano’s book Whipping Girl came out. The prefix cis means “on the same side” while trans means “on the other side”. Cis and trans are used in chemistry to describe the structures of molecules and, of course, trans is used in a lot of words, such as transport (carry to the other side), transmit (send to the other side), and transcribe (to write in another place). My 10th grade Latin teacher would be glad to see that I remember such things.

The reason that the word cisgender is important to use is that it takes away the idea that being cisgender is “normal.” When we assume that man = cisgender man unless we use the term transgender, we reinforce the idea that cisgender people are normal and transgender people aren’t. Of course, being cisgender is more common but when we use language that reinforces the idea that more common equals normal, we marginalize people who are well within the range of diversity that exists in the world.

Cisgender is also a better term than bio-guy, which was in use for a while, because it shifts the focus from biology to gender. Similarly, the term genetic man isn’t really useful since most people haven’t been genetically tested and there’s no guarantee that someone who looks a certain way will necessarily have any particular genetics.

As far as the blurb for Crash Pad #5 goes, most of the people in the video series are various sorts of queer women and transgender men but this one includes a cisgender guy. That’s somewhat unusual for this series, so we wanted to make sure that customers would be able to make an informed decision. And since there are plenty of guys in the series, we needed to make sure to use language that clarified that, in this case, we’re talking about a cisgender guy.

I’d love to see the word cisgender become used more widely. It’s a really useful concept and it serves a valuable purpose. Use it, pass it on, and help it spread.

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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