These terms have been in use in activist and academic communities since at least the mid-1990s, but have only recently entered the popular lexicon. When Facebook created multiple gender options in February this year (Weber, 2014), there was mass confusion and I (and probably many folks reading this blog) fielded panicky questions about gender identity. In particular, many cis folks seemed rather alarmed at being labeled “cis”, and we received a few requests to discuss this term here. Because identity terms are amorphous, change rapidly, and are generally chosen rather than bestowed, this blog won’t attempt to provide a rigid definition, but will instead offer some links for discussion and exploration.
Cis is a Latin preposition meaning “on this side” (Lewis & Short, 1879) or “this side of” (Bennett, 1918). In modern English, cis is a prefix mostly used to describe spatial relationships (cisalpine, cislunar, cismontane). A secondary definition comes from chemistry, where cis is used to describe an isomer with identical functional groups on the same side of the double bond; or two genes on the same chromosome (Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 2006).
All of these words and definitions involve some connotation of sameness: near, close, same, identical, homologous. In Latin, cis is the opposite of trans, and this is why activist communities began using cis, cisgender, or cissexual to describe people who are not transgender.
Julia Serano defines a cissexual person as “someone who lives and identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth” (2009). Newborn babies are typically labeled according to their genital configuration; those with vulvas are called girls and those with penises are called boys. When these girls and boys develop a sense of self-identity, gender is one part of that. People who have vulvas and are called girls or women who self-identify as girls or women are therefore cissexual.
Some people use the terms cissexual and cisgender interchangeably. However, other people use the term cissexual to explicitly denote a lack of gender dysphoria, a feeling of “rightness” with one’s sexed body; and use the term cisgender to denote an alignment between perceived gender and gender identity. For those who believe there is (or should be) no difference between the terms, sometimes the reasoning is that not all trans* folks experience dysphoria or wish to modify their bodies, and not all cis folks are comfortable in their sexed bodies.
Why Use Cis/Cissexual/Cisgender At All?
Just like most other marginalized identities, trans* people are generally seen as “other” while cis people are the default. Don’t believe me? Think about bathroom signs, assumptions about genitals while dating or going to the doctor, and how much buzz the new Facebook gender options created. Cisgender people are viewed as normal and regular. Trans* people are viewed as exceptional, abnormal, and other, harsher words. Creating a word to identify and discuss non-trans* people is a way of normalizing trans* identity, as well as helping people understand that everybody has a gender identity (tash, 2011).
In short: cis is neither a slur nor a word designed to make you feel guilty. It’s just an adjective that describes a part of your identity.
For a bit of history on when and where these terms first emerged, the Gender Wiki has a brief background on both Internet and scholarly usage.
Do you use the terms cis/cissexual/cisgender differently? Let us know in the comments!
Bennett, Charles E. (1918). New Latin Grammar. New York: Allyn and Bacon. Accessed from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15665/15665-h/15665-h.htm
Gender Wiki. (n.d.). “Cisgender.” Accessed March 16, 2014 from http://gender.wikia.com/wiki/Cisgender
Grant, Jaime M., Mottet, Lisa A., Tanis, Justin, Herman, Jody L., Harrison, Jack, & Keisling, Mara. (2010, October). “National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on Health and Health Care.” National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. http://transequality.org/PDFs/NTDSReportonHealth_final.pdf
Kailey, Matt. (n.d.). “Five Points for Non-Trans People About Public Restroom Use.” http://tranifesto.com/transgender-faqs-and-info/five-points-for-non-trans-people-about-public-restroom-use/
Lewis, Charlton T. & Short, Charles. (1879). A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Accessed from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu
Ophelia. (2012, August 1). “Guilty of Dating While Trans.” http://runningonempathy.blogspot.com/2012/08/guilty-of-dating-while-trans.html
Serano, Julia. (2009, May 14). “Whipping Girl FAQ on Cissexual, Cisgender, and Cis Privilege.” http://juliaserano.livejournal.com/14700.html
Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. (2006). Accessed from MediLexicon International Ltd. http://www.medilexicon.com/medicaldictionary.php
tash. (2011, October 9). “Trans 101: Cisgender.” Basic Rights Oregon. http://www.basicrights.org/uncategorized/trans-101-cisgender/
Weber, Peter. (2014, February 21). “Confused by All the New Facebook Genders? Here’s What They Mean.” http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/02/21/gender_facebook_now_has_56_categories_to_choose_from_including_cisgender.html