What does it mean to be cisgender?

In article on Feminist Current, a Canadian Web site, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the Univ. of Texas Austin, questions his assignment into the category of cisgender:

“…Sex is a question of biologically determined male and female, gender of socially determined masculinity and femininity. The dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture asserts that men are naturally competitive and aggressive, and that being a ‘real man’ means struggling for control, conquest, and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants, and takes it. This is sometimes labeled ‘toxic masculinity,’ which implies it is an aberration from some ‘normal’ masculinity. But this understanding of masculinity-as-seeking-dominance is the default setting for most males growing up in patriarchy, especially through the glorification of aggression in the military, sports, and business.

“All that definitional work [Jensen continues] is necessary to explain why I am not cisgender. As a male human, this patriarchal conception of masculinity is not my ‘chosen’ identity, nor do I believe it is my fate. As a short, skinny, effeminate child … I never felt very masculine. As an adult with feminist politics, I reject and struggle to overcome the masculinity norms in patriarchy. If we were someday to transcend patriarchy, would I feel more ‘like a man’? That would depend on how the term was defined, but in the world in which I live, I refuse to embrace the patriarchal gender identity handed to me….

“So [Jensen concludes], I’m not cisgender and I’m not transgender. I am not gender fluid, non-binary, or multi-gender. I self-identify as an adult biological XY male who rejects patriarchal gender norms and works from a radical feminist perspective to eliminate patriarchy….”

While it has some problematic moments, I think Jensen’s essay offers a small but useful addition to the ongoing debate about the term “cisgender.” If you haven’t been following that debate, some have argued that “cisgender” is analogous to the introduction of “heterosexual” as the opposite of “homosexual”; similarly, “cisgender” can help non-trans people realize the extent to which they have the privilege of not having to articulate their gender; therefore it is a necessary term. Arguments against the term include the possibility that setting up such a strong distinction between transgender and cisgender may actually work against a widespread acceptance of transgender as normal; others claim that transgender and cisgender are Western cultural concepts that don’t apply cross-culturally (e.g., Native Americans who reject the identification of the Two-Spirit tradition with transgender).

What Jensen offers to this debate is his personal experience of gender. He does not see himself as typically masculine; therefore, he does not see that his biological sex matches society’s expectations about the gender role he should take on. Yet he does not consider himself transgender, either. There’s an argument to be made that Jensen has cisgender privilege because he’s non-trans, and thus the term is useful; however, I’m not convinced that biological men and boys who are not masculine, but also non-trans, get the same level of privilege as a stereotypically masculine biological male since (depending on how effeminate you are) a straight non-trans non-masculine man will tend to experience some level of bullying and teasing.

The word “cisgender” is not going to go away, and I feel it remains useful in some settings. What Jensen makes me realize is that we should be careful in how we use the term: we shouldn’t use the term “cisgender” in such a way that it reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, we wouldn’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity by grouping Robert Jensen together with Donald Trump under the rubric “cisgender men”; Trump is constantly enacting stereotypes of a hyper-masculine gender role (marrying a woman much younger than he, asserting his virility in various ways, putting success above everything else, etc.); Jensen is taking on a significantly different gender role.

So I’ll continue to use “cisgender” as a term for larger groups of people. But I’m going to be disinclined to apply it to a individuals, aware of its cultural assumptions, and careful not to turn it into yet another binary division.