What Does 'Cisgender' Mean? Sex Vs Gender Explained

Photo: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
What Does 'Cisgender' Mean? Sex Vs Gender Explained

Gender identity, orientation and expression are increasingly common topics of discussion among just about everyone currently living in the U.S.

As we continue to gain have a greater understanding of LGBTQIA+ terminology and the spectrum of human sexual orientation and gender identity, it should be no surprise if the term "cisgender" has popped up in the mix of new words you've seen that seemingly lack clear definitions.

What does referring to someone as "cis" or "cisgender" mean?

Cisgender is a word used to describe someone whose gender identity (i.e., woman or man), gender expression (i.e., feminine or masculine) and biological sex (i.e., female or male) all align. "Cis" is simply a shortened, gender neutral version meaning the same thing.

RELATED: How Many Genders Are There — And Why Does Talking About The Spectrum Of Identity Matter So Much?

For example, if someone is born a female (biological sex), identifies as a woman when they grow up (gender identity/orientation), and presents as a woman to the outside world, she is a cisgender woman. The same goes for someone who's born a male, identifies as a man, and presents as a man to the outside world.

A cisgender woman may also be referred to as a cis woman, and if she is both cisgender and heterosexual, she may be be referred to as cishet.

Likewise, a cisgender man may be referred to as a cis man, and if he is both cisgender and heterosexual, he may be referred to as cishet as well.

Think of the word cisgender as an equivalent of the word transgender.

In Latin, the prefix cis- means "on this side of," where trans- means "on the other side of."

A transgender woman may be referred to as a transwoman, a transgender man may be referred to as a transman, and as is the case for people of any gender, their sexual orientation may fall into any of the number of identities on spectrum of human sexuality.

While it's difficult to find a statistically reliable record of how many people in the U.S. are cisgender, transgender, neither or other, it's been estimated that about 1 in every 250 adults, or almost 1 million Americans (0.39% of the population), identify as transgender. That figure is believed to be underestimated, and is expected to rise in the future.

It should also be noted that the percentage of people who identify as transgender is higher in international studies, nor is it necessarily inclusive of people whose identifies aren't either cis or transgender — such as genderfluid, gender non-conforming, agender, non-bindary, genderqueer, etc. — or those born intersex, for whom the constructs of biological sex and gender may be even more fraught.

RELATED: Your Essential Guide To Understanding The LGBTQIA+ Acronym — So You Can Use Each Term Respectfully

Julia Serano, writer. performer. musician. scientist and author of the book "Whipping Girl." says the best way to understand the seemingly new nature of these gender orientations is by considering the parallel use of homosexual and heterosexual as terms.

"There was a time when there were homosexual people and everyone else was considered to be the 'normal' people," Serrano explains. "Now, people think of themselves as straight or heterosexual," but they don't necessarily think being so makes them any more "normal" than anyone else.

That doesn't mean cisgender people are "normal" and everyone else isn't, but it does mean many have thought that way until recently.

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And since being transgender isn't as simple as being either a woman or man living in the body of the opposite biological sex, no discussion of gender is as simple as black and white.

Cisgender has now been added to major dictionaries, and social media forums are continually expanding the options provided for users when selecting their gender identification.

And while some cis people see the label as an insult, it's not. The thing is, it's really not about you.

For Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, a better understanding of what it means to be transgender is criticial in the fight against transphobia and the violence too frequently encountered by trans men and women.

"The lack of understanding of our humanity continues to cause us to face disrespect, discrimination, and violence, and is actually killing us," Keisling says. "And when trans people face that and other issues like racism, ableism, and xenophobia, the disrespect and violence can be so much worse."

And Serano believes learning about about the spectrum of human sexuality and gender orientation should be a given for us all.

People who are cisgender and have never had to consciously label themselves as such still have a gender identity, Serano says, "it's just not one that is challenged or questioned."

"People don't go around all the time thinking of themselves as a straight woman or a heterosexual man," she continues, "but it becomes useful when you're talking about the ways in which people are treated differently in society."

In the end, of course, we're all human.

Neither our sexuality nor our gender define the totality of who we are as individuals, and we should treat others as such, no matter how they identify.

RELATED: What Is Gender Dysphoria & How Does It Affect People Who Are — And Are Not — Transgender?

Samantha Maffucci is an associate editor for YourTango who focuses on trending news and entertainment.