As a term and concept, “transgender” is now firmly embedded in common parlance and popular consciousness. By contrast, the term ‘cisgender’ – an important linguistic counterpart – only entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015.
The term “cisgender” (pronounced “sis-gender”) refers to people whose gender identity and expression matches the biological sex they were assigned when they were born. For instance, the musician Moby has said he is a “run-of-the-mill, cisgender, heterosexual male”.
“Cisgender” was introduced so our language could be more fair and inclusive, and to make us more aware of everybody’s experiences of gender. However, the term has critics as well as fans.
What are the word’s origins?
The prefix “trans-” comes from Latin, meaning “across from” or “on the other side of”. In contrast, the prefix “cis-” means “on this side of”. It is commonly used in chemistry and in relation to geographic features, such as in “cisalpine”.
“Cisgender” was coined in academic journal articles in the 1990s. It started to gain broader popularity from around 2007 when transgender theorist Julia Serano discussed it in her book Whipping Girl. Over the next decade, activists, scholars and online forums helped to, literally, spread the word.
It is largely used by those who are sensitive to issues of gender and identity. Nevertheless, its general acceptance and endurance as a term and concept was acknowledged when it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015.
Cisgender relates specifically to gender rather than sexuality. A person can be cisgender (often abbreviated to just cis) and have any sort of sexuality. For example, two men may both be cisgender but one straight and one gay.
Because it is a personal identity category, it is difficult to know just from looking at someone whether they are cisgender.