What Does Cisgender Mean, Exactly?
Gender therapists and educators break things down.
Whether you heard the term 'cisgender' flung around on Vaderpump Rules, at your last doctor's appointment, or on social media and are wondering WTH the word means, you can quit looking for your answer because it's here.
Below, three gender therapists and educators explain what 'cisgender' means and how it differs from 'transgender' and 'non-binary.' Plus, they share tips for exploring your own gender, which (spoiler alert!) they recommend everybody try!
Cisgender, A Definition
Put simply, cisgender is a word for someone's gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, explains Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. Important: Cisgender is an adjective, not a noun, they say. Meaning, someone is not 'a cisgender'. They're a cisgender man, cisgender woman, or cisgender person.
Confuzzled by some of the terms in the above definition? Let's clarify. Gender refers to a set of behaviors, interests, and roles that society uses to put you in the "woman", "man", "non-binary" or "other gender" box. Basically, gender is the way a person moves through the world, and what they wear as they do it.
Also known as someone's natal sex, sex assigned at birth is a label given to newborns (and sometimes fetuses) based on factors like hormones, genitals, and chromosomes. Doctors use this info to put 'male' or 'female' on the birth certificate.
(Worth knowing: About one percent of people are born intersex, meaning they have sex characteristics that do not neatly nearly into neither the male or female box, says Rae McDaniel, a non-binary licensed clinical counselor and gender and sex therapist based in Chicago. Sadly, most doctors wait to fill out the birth certificate until the newborn has undergone treatments that force them into one of two categories).
Someone is cisgender when they are man and were assigned male at birth (AMAB), or when they are a woman and were assigned female at birth (AFAB).
Cisgender vs. Transgender
Transgender is the word used when someone's gender does not align with their assigned sex at birth. "The prefix 'trans' means on the other side of," explains McDaniel. So someone is transgender if they have a gender that is on a different side of their sex assigned at birth, they say.
Need some examples? Think about trans-celebrity Elliot Page, who was assigned female at birth and is a man. Or Laverne Cox who was assigned male at birth and is a woman!
For the record: Both of these Netflix stars are what would be considered binary trans people. "Someone whose gender is not aligned with their sex assigned at birth and does fit neatly into the 'man' or 'woman' box is a binary trans person," explains McDaniel.
Someone whose gender is not aligned with their sex assigned at birth and does not fit neatly into those boxes — for instance, is non-binary, agender, genderqueer, to name just a few non-binary trans identities — is known as a non-binary trans person, they say. (Think: Demi Lovato or Jonathan Van Ness). The more you know!
How Do I Know If I Am Cisgender?
"You are cisgender if your gender correlates to the sex you were assigned at birth, and gender your parents assumed you were and raised you are," says Kahn. "For example, if when you were born and the doctors were like "it's a girl!" and you grow up to be a woman, you're cisgender," he says.
According to pleasure-based, queer- and polyamory- inclusive sex educator and sex-positivity advocate Lateef Taylor, most cisgender folks never ever question their gender. So if you've never thought, "Wait, am I actually a girl??" or felt like your gender was a too-tight pair of jeans, odds are you are cisgender. (Yes, even if you've never heard this identity term until now!).
If, however, you don't feel like the gender you've been living in is the "right" gender, you may not be cisgender. In this instance, Kahn notes that there are a variety of words you might use to name your lived experience and gender. Including non-binary, transgender, non-binary and transgender, or any other gender identity term.
4 Tips For Exploring Your Gender
"Critically exploring your gender, and questioning how you want to dress and express yourselves is beneficial to everyone," says McDaniel. So no, these tips aren't just for non-binary and transgender folks!
"Doing so can help people across the gender spectrum experience a kind of gender freedom," they say.
1. Give yourself a Gender 101 course.
"Start by educating yourself on what gender is, various gender terms such as non-binary and transgender, and what the differences are between things like gender identity and gender presentation," suggests Kahn. The Gender Reveal, En(ba)by, and Queery podcasts are all good sources for this.
(FTR: Gender presentation and gender expression encompasses things like how you dress, act, talk, and walk and it does not have to match your gender identity).
2. Interrogate your own preconceived notions.
Beyond just educating yourself on the terminology, "it's important to also reflect on your familiarity with, relationship to, and underlying judgments and assumptions of the people and communities that embody these identities, expressions, and experiences," says Kahn.
While we all have judgments, and it's OK that we do, he says, "we do need to be aware of and work to unlearn, not perpetuate, those judgments."
One way to unlearn those judgments is by following people across the gender spectrum on Instagram. Another way is to consume memoirs by non-binary, transgender, and gender non-conforming folx. I recommend starting with Amateur by Thomas Page McBee and Sissy by Jacob Tobia.
3. Do some deep thinking.
Better yet, grab a journal. Then, Khan suggests jotting down thoughts on questions like: What does gender mean to me? How might I describe my gender? What words resonate for me? What's my gender presentation and how does that differ or feel aligned with my gender?
4. Focus on what brings you gender joy.
Often, says McDaniel, when people talk about how to explore your gender there's a lot of attention on what clothing, expectation, and roles make you feel icky. How un-fun!. "But rather than focusing on all the things that make you feel bad, it can be helpful to think about what things make you feel good," they say. (Things that make you feel good in your gender are often known as gender euphoric).
Your job: Make a list of all the articles of clothing, activities, chores, colors, hairstyles, and makeup #lewks that make you feel gender bliss. Then, lean into them and continue leaning into them.