Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity matches the sex registered for them at birth.
What does cisgender mean?
The term cisgender is used to define individuals whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.
For example, a newborn who was assigned female at birth (AFAB) and identifies as a girl or a woman is cisgender (or cis).
Terminologically, cisgender stems from the prefix cis- which is Latin for “on this side of”. The term emerged in the early 90’s and is considered to be controversial as it relates to subjects of cisnormativity and cissexism.
Cisnormativity is the idea that cisgender identity is the normal and preferred identity, which can lead to cissexism – a bias that favors cisgender people and often discriminates against transgender people.
The difference between cisgender and AFAB/AMAB
Cisgender refers specifically to an individual’s gender identity. The terms AFAB and AMAB mean “assigned female/male at birth” are used to describe the sex that a person was assigned at birth. This is something that people do not choose but is defined by a medical professional, unlike gender identity.
For example, someone who was assigned male at birth (AMAB) and identifies as a boy/man is a cisgender boy/man. On the other hand, someone who was assigned AMAB at birth but identifies as a girl or a woman is a transgender girl/woman.
An AFAB person who identifies as a man is a transgender man. Trans can also refer to someone who does not identify strictly as male or female. This is sometimes referred to as nonbinary or genderqueer.
What it means to be cisgender
A person’s gender is separate from their sexual orientation. Cisgender does not mean straight or heterosexual. A person can be cisgender and gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or identify with any other sexuality the same way a transsexual person can be straight or gay. However, if a doctor determines a newborn baby’s sex at birth to be male and this person identifies as a man, they are considered cisgender.
Children typically begin to identify gender around the age of 5 years old. Some individuals know from a very young age that their gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth, while others do not discover their gender identity until later in life.
It is also common that people change their gender identity at some point in life, or never feel comfortable with any gender at all.
Cisgender and sexuality
People who are straight have a sexual attraction to a person who is of a different gender than their own. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are cisgender.
People who identify as cisgender can experience sexual or romantic attraction to all, some (gay, lesbian, bisexual) or no gender (asexual). In this sense, ‘cisgender’ is a gender identity and not a sexual orientation.
Most identities that are included under the LGBTQ umbrella can fall within or outside of the cisgender definition. Here are some examples:
- Gay: A person whose primary sexual orientation is toward persons of the same sex.
- Transgender: A person whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth.
- Non-binary: A person who identifies outside of the traditional binary of male and female.
- Genderqueer: A person who rejects traditional gender norms or expresses a gender identity that is non-conforming.
- Genderfluid: A person whose gender identity shifts over time, experiencing different gender expressions.
- Gender nonconforming: A person whose gender identity does not conform to societal norms.
- Two-Spirit: A term used within some Native American and American Indian cultures to describe persons with both male and female qualities.
- Agender: A person who does not identify with any gender, or have a lack of gender identity.
- Asexual: A person who feels no sexual attraction or desire for forming sexual relationships. Sometimes linked to the term ‘aromantic’, which is an orientation that describes little or no romantic attraction to others.
- Bisexual: A person whose primary sexual or romantic orientation is toward people regardless of their gender.
- Demisexual: a person who feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond.
- Queer: A person who is gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or asexual. Sometimes used as an umbrella term like LGBTQ.
- Pansexual: A person who experiences romantic or sexual attraction for people of all genders.
Cisgender and nonbinary
A person who is cisgender has a gender that is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. On the other hand, a nonbinary person (or a transgender person) is someone whose gender expression does not match their assigned gender, which is assumed at birth.
Cisgender and transgender are typically described as binary identities and there is often an assumption that a person is either one or the other.
However, not all people feel that they fit within the binary of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Some people see themselves as existing between genders, whereas others may find themselves outside of the binary genders and are typically described as nonbinary.
The term cisgender has received criticism for reinforcing a gender binary that is inaccurate. For example, it has been accused of excluding people who are born intersex.
People with intersex conditions are born with rare physical sex characteristics that might make them both cisgender and nonbinary, or even non conforming.
It also creates a problem when babies born with natal intersex characteristics are assigned male or female regardless of their condition, which can lead to involuntary genital surgeries and dangerous medical treatments aimed to “normalize” their anatomy.