Very simply put, the term cisgender (also sometimes referred to as "cis") is used to describe someone whose gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth, says therapist and sexuality educator Aida Manduley, LCSW.
In other words, if you were born and called a boy, you still see yourself as a boy or man, and if you were born and called a girl, you still see yourself as a girl or woman.
Basically, “if you came out of the womb and the doctor said, ‘It’s a boy!’ and you agree, ‘Yes, I am a boy,’ then you are cisgender," says Liz Powell, PhD, an LGBTQ-friendly sex therapist in California and Oregon.
The Difference Between Cisgender, Transgender, Nonbinary, and Other Gender Identities
The spectrum of gender identity is constantly evolving and growing. “For anyone who does not internally agree with the sex or gender they were assigned at birth, there is a variety of terminology they may choose to run with,” says Powell.
Some people may identify as transgender, which is “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth," according to GLAAD's website. This would be used to describe someone whose gender identity is male, but their sex assigned at birth was female—or vice versa, says Powell. (Consider this to be the opposite of "cisgender.")
There are also those who identify as nonbinary, which is used to describe folks who reject the concept of gender and the binary all together. “They are just beings who may tend to lean to one side more than the other or are a combination of it all,” says Jimanekia Eborn, a sex educator and trauma specialist in Los Angeles.
Another identity on the gender is gender fluid. Those who identify as such experience gender that fluctuates depending on how they're feeling, their mood, etc. They may experience different gender identities at different times.
Then, there's intersex, and according to InterACT, one of the leading intersex advocacy organizations, "intersex is an umbrella term for someone who experiences differences in sex traits or reproductive anatomy. People are born with these differences or develop them at a young age. Genitalia, hormones, internal anatomy, or chromosomes can develop in many ways."
What Cisgender People Can Do to Acknowledge the Gender Spectrum
Introduce yourself using your pronouns.
Ask others for their pronouns. "And if someone offers up various sets of pronouns, ask them which they prefer," says Manduley.
Don't assume a group's gender.
Use neutral words like "ya'll" or "folks" in a group setting.
How Cisgender People Can Be Better Allies
Even if you identify as cis, Eborn says it’s still important to be familiar with other genders and learn how to use cis privilege to make the world a better place to live in for others.
“Those of us who identify as cisgender have the privilege of not having to challenge the world every day,” Eborn says. “We have less of a chance of being questioned for our actions. It makes us no better than anyone, it just makes us folks who feel connected to the gender we were assigned at birth.”
So how can cis people help others? To start, when you introduce yourself to a crowd of new people, use both your name and pronouns. For instance, “I’m Sophie Saint Thomas, and my pronouns are she/her.” When cis people say their pronouns and ask others for theirs, it normalizes the practice and makes life easier for trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer folks who are frequently misgendered.
“Another thing we can all do is stop making everything so hetero/gender normative,” Eborn says. “There are other ways to address a group of individuals without making it gendered. You can say y’all, people, humans, or friends, just to name a few. Do not assume anyone’s gender and/or pronouns based upon how one may present.”
Oh, and always be understanding and compassionate regarding people's gender identity and sexual orientation. Manduley adds: "Three of the most helpful qualities in allyship are humility, respectful curiosity, and flexibility. No community is a monolith, so not all trans and gender non-conforming people will need or want the same thing. Being in solidarity with a community well means having some general knowledge but also staying humble and flexible to engage with varying specifics."
Lastly, educate yourself about what dangers trans communities are facing right now, suggests Manduley. "There is a lot going on around healthcare right now, for example. Engage with that more meaningfully. There are workplaces that, sure, ask employees to put pronouns in their email signatures, but continue misgendering staff at meetings and don't cover gender-affirming procedures in their health insurance plans. The bar for decency can't just be the floor anymore."
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