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 many 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.

2 thoughts on “What does it mean to be cisgender?”

  1. IMHO, Jensen’s objections to the cisgender label sound similar to situations where white individuals object to terms like “white privilege” and “white fragility.”

    As a cisgender person (a person where biological sex / sex assigned at birth and gender identity align in the most common way), Jensen has the privilege of being the assumed “default” identity even if he rejects the cultural assumptions associated with gender and biological sex in our society.

    After all, it’s very unlikely that Jensen will be murdered for being cisgender or refused emergency medical care for being cisgender.

    A different response to those who object to the cisgender label comes from atheist / humanist Greta Christina:

    And one last thing on the topic of language : some cisgender people object to the word “cisgender” on the very basis of self-definition. Even if they understand the word’s origins (the Latin-derived prefix “cis-” means “on this side of” and the prefix “trans-” means “on the other side of”), and even if they understand that “cisgender” is simply a descriptive word and is not a slur, they still don’t like it. Some dislike the word even if they understand that it doesn’t imply any kind of acceptance of traditionally rigid gender norms and that it really just means “I identify as the gender I was assigned at birth, whatever that means to me.” They argue that they didn’t choose the word, and that therefore they shouldn’t be expected to use it, or accept it being applied to them.

    Fair enough. If we cisgender people had come up with another word to describe ourselves, that would be a fair critique. But we didn’t. We were content to let ourselves be called—what? “Not-transgender”? “Normal”? Nothing at all? We were content to let ourselves be defined as the default assumption, as the thing that doesn’t even have to have a name because it’s just how people are. We were content to let our lack of a name mark trans people as other—as not like regular people.

    So a word got chosen for us, by people who were sick of being disparaged, disrespected, and marked as other, and who needed parallel language that framed different gender experiences as equally valid. We cis people had the chance to choose our own language. We blew it. We need to suck it up.

    Source — https://thehumanist.com/magazine/september-october-2014/fierce-humanism/trans-people-and-basic-human-respect

  2. Steve, I think Jensen’s point is that although his biological sex is male, he doesn’t feel aligned with masculine gender identity or gender roles, and at the same time he doesn’t feel that he is transgender. While I am not particularly interested in Jensen’s more general objections to the term “cisgender,” I am interested in his personal objection. As a religious educator who watches young people grow up, I have seen young people who definitely aren’t transgender but who don’t fit the norms of gender roles and gender identity. If they’re biological girls, we might call them “tom boys”; if they’re biological boys, some would use the pejorative term “sissies.” What if there were an intermediate term between transgender and cisgender, a term that was not pejorative? I can think of one or two young people right now for whom that might be a helpful term, so they didn’t have to feel limited to a binary choice between cisgender and transgender.

    We might think of this as somewhat equivalent to the term “bisexual,” which has allowed people to find an identity that wasn’t strictly heterosexual or homosexual. I think it was Holly Near who took a lot of heat for breaking up with a woman then starting a relationship with a man; as I recall there were hard comments about how she betrayed lesbianism, etc.; she didn’t fit into a binary division of sexual preference.

    Our society really likes to put people into binary categories: you are gay or straight; you are black or white; you are cisgender or transgender. Then along come bisexuals who say they are neither gay nor straight, or maybe both. Along come biracial people who identify with more than one racial group. And I’m open to the possibility that there are people who feel neither transgender nor cisgender, or maybe both. Why should I, as a cisgender person, force them to choose?

    As a footnote, I find it very interesting that some Native Americans don’t buy into the transgender terminology at all, saying that they have a different cultural viewpoint; instead they prefer their own term, “Two Spirit”; these Native Americans are annoyed when white people people tell them that they have to choose between “transgender” and “cisgender.” Again: why should I, as a white cisgender person, tell them what to call themselves?

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