The Power of the Word “Cisgender”

Owning the power to displace the center

Note: throughout this story I place certain words in “double quotes” in order to set them apart from other words in a sentence. My sole purpose is clarity, not invalidation of the perfectly legitimate word “cisgender” through the use of what are sometimes called “scare quotes.”

One needn’t spend very much time on social media these days to realize the currency enjoyed by the word “cisgender.”

Pendant to the older term “transgender,” “cisgender” refers to a person whose gender presentation (or expression) and gender identity correspond to the sex they were labelled at birth.

For example, infants labelled “girl” at birth, who grow up to identify as girls, then women, are cisgender. Specifically, they’re cisgender girls, then cisgender women.

This, in contrast to the word “transgender,” to indicate a person whose gender presentation/expression, identity, and labeling at birth do not align — at least, in the way their society expects. (Historically and cross-culturally, societies have differed in their acceptance of those who come to identify or present a gender that differs from their labeling at birth.)

Both terms — transgender and cisgender — are relatively new, only coming into popular usage in conversations about gender in the 1990s.

Objections to the term “cisgender” are often countered with assertions that the word is merely “an adjective” — a neutral descriptor of the noun that follows it, as in the term “cisgender people.” However, in societies that privilege cisgender people as the norm or default, even the naming of cisgender people as “cisgender” is an exercise in power.

And pretending it isn’t is either naive, ignorant, or disingenuous.

The fact of the matter is, most people are cisgender (even if they don’t identify that way). Current estimates are that only about .6% of the U.S. adult population (or 1.4 million people) identifies as transgender.

I suspect the actual number of transgender people (including the identities customarily grouped under the term “transgender” such as genderqueer and gender non-binary) is larger than this, but still quite small as an overall percentage.

In any case, that means about 99% of adult Americans are cisgender (even if they don’t identify that way).

But where cisgender people are often just called “people,” those who aren’t cisgender are linguistically marked with additional modifiers (such as transgender, gender non-binary, genderqueer, etc.), implying they represent a departure from some default gender or “norm” (i.e. they are “deviant” or “ab-normal.”)

As many as 99% of adult Americans are cisgender.

A similar naming convention is at work, for example, in “sports” and “women’s sports,” a pair of terms that imply athletics are the natural province of men. Thus, when women play sports, their pursuits require a linguistic modifier to differentiate them from ‘regular’ sports, which are not typically prefaced by a sex/gender modifier. Those ‘regular,’ unmarked sports are (implicitly) understood to be played by men — if only because they are not marked as “women’s sports.”

The linguistic convention that differentiates between “women’s sports” and “sports” works to “center” men’s sports as the social norm (or default) and “marginalize” women’s sports as a kind of an exception or departure from what is “normal” or “natural.”

And the existence of these two different terms both reflects and contributes to vast differences in the social status, power, wealth, and popularity of (men’s) “sports” and “women’s sports.”

And that’s because language is never neutral: it both expresses and produces the balance of power in society.

The failure to name socially normative groups has contributed to the notion that such groups’ enjoyment of greater social power and status stems from possession of superior or innate traits and characteristics, rather than social processes that systematically privilege some groups and disadvantage others.

Some groups’ occupation of the social “center,” and the relegation of other “marked” groups to the social “margins,” comes to be viewed as inevitable or “natural,” rather than the result of social, cultural, economic, or political structures or systems that produce inequality.

In the face of structural inequality that centers some groups and marginalizes others, the intentional naming of centered groups that often masquerade as the normative default — whites, males, heterosexuals, etc. — is a social justice strategy designed to change the balance of power in society.

It is an effort to make the ‘invisible’ norm ‘visible’ through strategic deployment of language.

The intentional use of the adjectival modifier “cisgender” implies that everyone has a gender identity, sex assignment, and gender expression/presentation — not just those whose gender identities are seen to require some kind of additional modifier (like transgender, gender non-binary, and genderqueer people).

Strategic deployment of the modifier “cisgender” makes cisgender people linguistically ‘visible’ in ways that non-cisgender people have always been.

Thus, even uses of the word “cisgender” that appear or are claimed to be “merely” neutral or descriptive are always an exercise in power. Naming that which desires to remain unnamed — de-naturalizing that which claims to be natural — disturbs the status quo.

And disturbing the status quo is often the first step in bringing about desired social change — implicitly, a society that does not relegate transgender people to the social margins. That possibility is why some cisgender people react so strongly to being named as what they are (cisgender).

Those who deploy the term “cisgender” might embrace that fact rather than defensively denying the power in the word.

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

Prof. of Gender & Sexuality Studies, U. Ill. Springfield

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