In transgender ideology, the term cisgender (often shortened cis as in cis man or cis woman, sometimes used as a prefix) stands for a person whose supposed gender identity aligns with their sex, as opposed to transgender people who claim to have a gender identity that contradicts their sex. Since feminists oppose the gender essentialist notion of an inborn, inherent and essential feminine psyche, and define gender as a patriarchal tool of sex-based oppression rather than a personally felt identity, they consequently disagree with the concept of a "cisgender person" as defined on the basis of gender identity.
A simplistic interpretation of cis, often used to defend the term from its opponents, is "anyone who isn't trans." This defense fails to take into account precise definition of trans under transgender ideology, which rests not on the material state of being transsexual, but solely on the questionable concept of gender identity, which is a core tenet the ideology.
Etymology and history
The words "cis" and "trans" originate from Latin, where they could be translated as "this side of" and "the other side of." Their usage as antonyms can be seen in a number of fields, such as in the cis-trans isomerism in organic chemistry, the so-called cis-trans test in genetics, or geographic terms such as Transjordan and Cisjordan (the eastern/western side of River Jordan). The word "cis" is presumably less well known than "trans" since many if not most terms using the word "trans" do not have a logical counterpart using "cis", for instance: translate, transform, transatlantic, transpacific, etc.
In a 1998 essay, sexologist Volkmar Sigusch cites his own 1991 article "Die Transsexuellen und unser nosomorpher Blick" ("Transsexuals and our nosomorphic view") as the origin of the term "cissexual," which might be a precursor to "cisgender."
The terms cisgender and cissexual were used in a 2006 article in the Journal of Lesbian Studies entitled Debating Trans Inclusion in the Feminist Movement: A Trans-Positive Analysis and in Julia Serano's 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. These works are attributed with the popularization of the term among English-speaking activists and academics.
A Google Trends analysis shows that interest in the term cisgender was virtually nonexistent in the years prior to 2010. After a gradual increase towards 2014, a sudden spike in interest can be seen in February 2014, and further occasional spikes along with a general increase in the years after.
While a simplistic definition of cisgender such as "everyone who isn't transgender" seems innocuous, the precise definition rests on the concept of gender identity. A "cis woman," for instance, is said to be a person who is both physically female, and who possesses a "female gender identity." While proponents of transgender ideology tend to refuse explainig what a female gender identity comprises, it seems similar to the oppressive notion that women have a feminine psyche or an inherent identification with feminine stereotypes. Although a person with female anatomy is allowed to identify out of the feminine gender under this world view, a false dichotomy is drawn between female people who belong naturally into the feminine gender vs. female people who belong naturally outside of it.
Feminism does not believe that asking whether an individual identifies with the particular social characteristics and expectations assigned to them at birth is a politically useful way of analyzing or understanding gender. Eliminating gender assignments, by allowing individuals to choose one of two pre-existing gender molds, while continuing to celebrate the existence and naturalism of “gender” itself, is not a progressive social goal that will advance women’s liberation. Feminism claims that gender is a much more complicated (and sinister) social phenomenon than this popular cis/trans binary has any hope of capturing. -- Elizabeth Hungerford, A feminist critique of "cisgender"
The concept leaves little room for a woman who is comfortable with her female anatomy, sees herself as nothing other than a "woman" in accordance with a straightforward biological definition, and yet rejects sexist notions of an inherent feminine nature of her personality. She could be a strongly gender non-conforming radical feminist, and yet the mere act of calling herself a "woman" would mean that she has a female gender identity. As such, she would belong in the same category as a conservative woman who strictly adheres to traditional notions of femininity. Furthermore, even if we defined the former woman as "transgender" on the basis of her gender non-conformity, the femininity-conforming woman would have to be seen as being the way she is out of her inherent nature, since being transgender/cisgender is said not to be a choice. Opposite to that, the feminist perspective would posit that the woman who conforms to traditional femininity has internalized sexist oppression, is limiting her freedom, and could mentally break free and embrace gender non-conformity if she were to raise to a feminist political consciousness.
... despite possessing female biology and calling myself a woman, I do not consider myself a two-dimensional gender stereotype. I am not an ideal manifestation of the essence of womanhood, and so I am non-binary. Just like everybody else. However, those who describe themselves as non-binary are unlikely to be satisfied with this conclusion, as their identity as ‘non-binary person’ depends upon the existence of a much larger group of so-called binary ‘cisgender’ people, people who are incapable of being outside the arbitrary masculine/feminine genders dictated by society.
And here we have an irony about some people insisting that they and a handful of their fellow gender revolutionaries are non-binary: in doing so, they create a false binary between those who conform to the gender norms associated with their sex, and those who do not. In reality, everybody is non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce with others, and positively rail against others still. So to call oneself non-binary is in fact to create a new false binary. It also often seems to involve, at least implicitly, placing oneself on the more complex and interesting side of that binary, enabling the non-binary person to claim to be both misunderstood and politically oppressed by the binary cisgender people. -- Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, The idea that gender is a spectrum is a new gender prison
Another problem with the concept of cisgender arises when considering lesbian women, especially butch lesbians, for whom gender non-conformity feels natural. While every woman can choose to disregard rules of femininity after coming to a political consciousness, some women, especially lesbians, might feel naturally repelled from feminine stereotypes, beginning in early childhood. The concept of gender identity would have it that they are possibly transgender and as such not women, even though they might feel perfectly content with the word "woman" when stripped off of feminine stereotypes and limited to a non-sexist, scientific definition. Yet the concept of "cisgender" groups them together with women who find it easier to perform femininity, effectively erasing their unique experiences with regard to gender.
- A feminist critique of "cisgender" by Elizabeth Hungerford
- The idea that gender is a spectrum is a new gender prison by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper
- Am I cisgender? by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper
- Neither cis nor TERF by Robert Jensen
- Schilt, Kristen; Westbrook, Laurel (August 2009). "Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: 'Gender Normals,' Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality". Gender & Society. 23 (4): 440–464 . doi:10.1177/0891243209340034
- Sigusch, Volkmar (February 1998). "The Neosexual Revolution". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 27 (4): 331–359. doi:10.1023/A:1018715525493. PMID 9681118.
- Green, Eli R. (2006). "Debating Trans Inclusion in the Feminist Movement: A Trans-Positive Analysis". Journal of Lesbian Studies. 10 (1/2): 231–248 . doi:10.1300/j155v10n01_12. PMID 16873223.
- Serano, Julia (2007). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-58005-154-5.
Pfeffer, Carla (2009). "Trans (Formative) Relationships: What We Learn About Identities, Bodies, Work and Families from Women Partners of Trans Men". Ph.D Dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan.
Williams, Rhaisa (November 2010). "Contradictory Realities, Infinite Possibilities: Language Mobilization and Self-Articulation Amongst Black Trans Women". Penn McNair Research Journal. 2 (1).
Drescher, Jack (September 2009). "Queer Diagnoses: Parallels and Contrasts in the History of Homosexuality, Gender Variance, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 39 (2): 427–460. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9531-5. PMID 19838785.