Last month, Hollywood actor William Shatner took offense to being called “CIS”, short for “cisgender”.
“Some people need labels and categories to separate people in order to harass or demean them… Do we need these labels to communicate? No. So those who use them to describe other people are doing it for negative reasons, ”Shatner tweeted.
In a battle on Twitter that lasted for days, many pointed out to him that cisgender wasn’t a derogatory thing at all, it was just a descriptor. But Shatner insisted, “It’s used as an insult and a term of harassment.” So is cisgender a term of insult and harassment? Or is it a harmless adjective? More importantly, what is cisgender?
- The term cisgender is used to define people whose gender identity matches the identity assigned to them at birth.
- When a boy is born, he is assigned a gender identity based on his physical characteristics.
- Many believe that sex is a social construct, and as children grow older they may or may not confirm identity at birth.
- Children assigned to male at birth may feel they identify more authentically as a female, for example.
- For transgender people, their sense of gender identity does not match what they were assigned at birth.
- The Latin prefix “cis” literally means “on the same side of”, while “trans” means on the other side.
Who used the word first?
- “Cisgender” entered the Oxford English Dictionary in Great Britain in 2015 and the Merriam Webster Dictionary in the United States in 2016.
- Both dictionaries document their first use around 1994.
- Dana Leland Defosse, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, appears to have used the word for the first time in a study of transphobia in May 1994.
- What is generally believed is that the word has been around in academic journals since the mid-1990s.
- It was popularized by gender theorist and activist Julia Serano in the 2007 book Whipping Girl; A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and gradually, especially with the advent of the Internet, it has become part of the popular language long enough to be included in dictionaries.
Why the word is important
- Simply put, if there are “transgender” people, there should be a word for those who are not.
- Labeling only one section of the population, especially when it is the minority section, implies that the others are by default, “normal”, and that only that section should be marked and labeled.
- According to gender activists and those who use the term, having different words for transgender and cisgender people means that both are equally valid and neutral experiences, neither of which is an aberration.
- Additionally, cis and trans are not the only gender identifiers used. There are many other terms, such as genderqueer, gender fluid, and gender variant. Some also choose not to use pronouns traditionally linked to their gender and opt for them / them.
Well, why do we have so many terms?
Having specific words helps people express who they are better and know that they are not alone in their gender confusions. Plus, having new terms is a recognition that the conversation about gender is changing. This can cause people who haven’t had to deal with gender struggles as part of their lived reality to pay more attention to their existence.
Some identity labels in use
As language evolves, a lot of new terms come in and out of use. Also, a lot of words overlap. Here’s a list of some common gender identifiers, though there are more in use.
- Agender: Someone who identifies as not belonging to any gender
- Androgynous: Someone who identifies as neither man nor woman
- Bigender: Someone who identifies as both man and woman
- Non-binary: Someone who rejects the binaries of male and female
- Genderfluid: Someone whose gender identity changes
- Genderquestioning: Someone who is exploring which gender they identify as
- Genderqueer: An umbrella term for people not subscribing to traditional genders
- AFAB, AMAB: Assigned Female At Birth, Assigned Male At Birth
- Intersex: Those who do not possess the physical characteristics of either males or females
- Third Gender: Those who have a gender identity beyond man or woman
Also, one can be cisgendered but their gender expression can be different from their gender. For example, a cisgendered man can dress up in a lehenga or a ball gown simply because he likes to.