The legs of people participating in the annual Gay Pride event in Johannesburg, South Africa, Saturday Oct. 26, 2019. Picture: Jerome Delay/AP

As the world begins to shift and become more accepting of the LGBTIAQ+ community, transgender and gender diverse people, new terms begin to emerge.

Or rather, it feels like new terms are emerging when in fact they have been in existence for a long time. One such word is “cisgender”. Some people feel the word is being used as a slur against people who are not transgender or gender diverse. 

Cisgender is not a slur. It is a word that means to be on the same side (cis) of gender. While transgender means to be across or on the farther side (trans) of gender. 

The sensitivity around being called cisgender or “cis”’, the shortened colloquial form of the word, may simply be because the term is not understood. And some may think that perhaps it is something being levelled against them. 

What does it mean to be a cisgender person?

To be cisgender means to live or experience the world as the gender you were assigned at birth. This means that when you were born, either male or female, entire systems or structures around you, such as family, medical, and others said you were then either a boy or a girl. You were then raised according to this. Everything else then fell into place: “boys do this and girls do that,” blue for boys and pink for girls, gender roles, and so on. 

There is a difference between being male or female, a boy or a girl. One is about sex, the other about gender. 

It does need to be noted that some people are born intersex. Often what will occur here is that doctors and parents will intervene just after birth, usually in the form of surgery, to ensure that the child is either male or female presenting. This is an example of the violence of cissexism – the idea that cisgender lives are the standard against which all other lives are measured against. It is also the idea that there are only two genders, and to deny the possibility of other genders or gender expressions. To do so is to fail to acknowledge and respect gender diversity. 

To be transgender is to not feel that the gender you were assigned at birth is your actual gender. We’ve started using the words “actual gender” over “preferred gender” to show respect for the gender identity and expression of transgender and gender diverse people.

Some people feel the word is being used as a slur against people who are not transgender or gender diverse. Cisgender is not a slur. Picture: https://www.genderbread.org/

Cissexist vs cisgender

When people hear “Don’t be so cis!” it doesn’t mean that being cisgender is what is being insulted but rather the cissexism that often comes with being cisgender. 

To be cissexist is to believe that cisgender people’s identities and lives are more valid or are more valuable than those of transgender and gender diverse people. It’s a view that allows someone to see a transgender or gender diverse person as not fully human, much like racism and sexism do with people of colour and women. 

It is this which is being critiqued. So, if you believe this and behave in such a way, then you are cissexist. However, if you are a cisgender person who values transgender people, attempts to understand the lived experiences of transgender and gender diverse people, and you work to be an ally to transgender people then you are not cissexist. 

What is cisgender privilege?

Cisgender privilege is about the social capital that cisgender people have in society. 

They are able to move through the world with greater ease than a transgender or gender diverse person. 

Some of these privileges include: 

  • never having to explain the difference between your assigned gender and your actual gender; 
  • never needing to explain that your name is your real name; 
  • not needing to convince your medical aid or healthcare provider that your surgery is not cosmetic, or that they need to cover your hormones; 
  • never having to think about which bathroom to use in a mall or at the office; 
  • your gender is on forms, and 
  • no one questions the gender you select on the form; you can buy clothing with ease, and not be mistreated by store staff who won’t let you into the fitting room you’re most comfortable in; and so many more privileges. 

Cisgender privilege is not something you necessarily have ever thought about. When you’ve never had to think of your gender before as something which privileges you, it can be an eye-opening and distressing experience to be suddenly confronted with your identity and the power it grants you in the world. You as a person may not be necessarily violent towards transgender and gender diverse people but other cisgender people are, and keeping quiet when transphobic comments are made about transgender and gender diverse people does make you complicit in that violence. 

There is nothing wrong with being cisgender but there is something terribly wrong with being cissexist, and it is this which needs to be challenged. 

If you are being told that you are cissexist then you need to consider why. It could be because you have said something which is potentially harmful towards transgender and gender diverse people. 

It doesn’t mean that you cannot unlearn cissexist behaviour, you certainly can work to undo the conditioning that has you privileging cisgender people over transgender and gender diverse people. 

As a cisgender person you can be an ally for transgender and gender diverse people by challenging those around you when they say or do transphobic things. This is one way to use your privilege for good, much like men only listening to other men speak about sexism, cisgender people may only listen to other cisgender people when having transphobic views challenged, or when asking them to be critical of their cisgender privilege.

* Dr Nyx McLean is a caffeine-fueled queer academic who researches LGBTIAQ identities and social movements.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus