What It Means to Be Cisgender

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People who are cisgender identify with the gender traditionally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. This term is one of many that describes gender identity and complements other terms that describe people's personal experiences with gender. These terms include nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, transgender, and more.

Thus, a spectrum of gender identities exist and are as diverse as each unique individual.

Someone could say, "I am a cisgender man, and my friend is a transgender woman," but never "I am cisgendered" (which attempts to use the word as a verb) or "I am a cisgender" (which attempts to use the word as a noun. Instead, the term cisgender—and other terms to describe gender identity—should be used as adjectives.

Just as the word trans is an abbreviated version of the word transgender, the word cis can be used as shorthand for cisgender. Use the term cisgender or cis to describe yourself if you identify this way or describe other people you know, but never assume that you know someone's gender identity. Instead, it's best to ask.

What Is "Assigned Sex at Birth?"

At birth, most infants are assigned "male" or "female" by doctors, other birthing professionals, and parents based on their external genitalia. People often use sex information gathered from a sonogram to assign a gender identity onto infants still in utero, but nobody can be sure of a child's gender the child tells them what their gender is.


Cisnormativity is the social structure that presents cisgender ideals and experiences as universal, assuming a cisgender identity of everyone. This leads to the assumption that infants should be treated as though they are cisgender and will identify as cisgender until they develop language to communicate otherwise.

Society has conventionally perceived gender and sex as a binary, with each sex correlating to one gender. This line of reasoning erases the existence of intersex and transgender individuals and creates the assumption that everyone does or should identify with the gender associated with their assigned sex. This result is that cisnormative standards are imposed on a much more diverse population.

A person born with a vulva who identifies as a woman would be considered cisgender and a person born with a penis who identifies as a man would also be considered cisgender because they were likely assigned female and male, respectively, at birth.

Cisgender people navigate the world with the privileges associated with cisnormativity—including greater access to health and hygiene spaces, increased anti-discrimination protections, and other advantages that trans and nonbinary people lack.

You might not have thought much about your gender identity if you are cisgender and your experience of gender has never been questioned, monitored, or stigmatized. You may also have never experienced gender dysphoria.

Cisgender people can be harmed by cisnormativity because it imposes problematic perspectives about gender roles and expression onto all people. They may or may not feel closely aligned with the expectations for gender roles and expression placed on them by society. Some may encounter personal experiences of oppression and marginalization associated with their gender.

Still, cisgender people have privilege on the axis of gender oppression. They are offered more flexibility and compassion when exploring their own gender expression and their pursuits of rights and freedoms because their core gender identities are accepted within the dominant culture's norms.

Why Isn't Biological Sex Straight-Forward?

Most people who received some sex education in high school or attended a biology class learned that biological sex is binary—that people with XX chromosomes are female and people with XY are male. This is an outdated and overly simplistic view of biological sex.

Experts argue that chromosomes cannot determine sex through the presence or absence of these genes because the way genetic material interacts in particular sequences is more important.

Biological sex is actually determined by various body functions and can shift over time throughout all of life's stages. Secondary sex characteristics, including genitals and reproductive organs and their appearance and behavior, develop as hormones, environmental factors, and genetic components interact. All of this changes the ways our bodies look and act as we grow over time.

Even assumptions about biological sex based on skeletal appearance lead to errors in historical records and unjust exclusion from competitive sports.

Chromosomes Are Not Inherently Male or Female

Researchers underline that although the X chromosome has traditionally been viewed as the distinguishing factor between male and female experiences, there is nothing inherently female about the X chromosome.

For instance, many people with XXY genetic material identify as cisgender men who have seemingly typical experiences of biological sex and don't ever even learn that they have a second X chromosome. This points out how common intersex and not binary experiences are and how much diversity exists within biological sex, highlighting the need to reach beyond more conventional definitions of biological sex.

Because so much of the body's inner functioning is not typically explored unless a medical problem arises, many cisgender people don't realize that they have traits that are considered conventionally intersex.

These characteristics, such as fallopian tubes in cisgender men and gonads in cisgender women, are unknown to their carriers. Inclusive estimations project that as many as 1 in 100 people experience differences in sex development.

A recent study asserts a lack of evidence to support the belief that sex is binary based on differences in the brain, endocrinology, or psychology—noting that each of these aspects of human existence is similar across biological sexes and is also malleable.

No single biological measurement can definitively place a person into just one of only two categories.

This highlights the importance of distinguishing that cisgender people do not necessarily identify with their biological sex, as biological sex is more difficult to determine. Instead, they identify with a binary gender that is traditionally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

How Can Cisgender People Support the Trans Community?

People who are cisgender have many privileges and can use their privilege to advocate for and support the trans community.

Understand That Transphobia Is Systemic and Oppressive

Cisnormativity creates environments where persistent transphobia is rampant. Increased encounters with harassment, hate crimes, job and housing discrimination, homelessness, and other experiences of marginalization are the result of obvious and direct transphobia as well as less overt iterations of transphobia (as transphobia is perpetuated both via oppressive institutional systems and interpersonally).

These experiences, negatively impact the mental health, quality of life, economic standing, and life expectancy of trans people.

One especially violent example of transphobia is trans-exclusive radical feminists (or TERFS). They describe themselves as "gender critical" but advocate for perspectives and legislation that limit freedoms and protections for transgender and gender non-conforming people. They do not view trans women as women and perceive trans masculine people as confused or misguided women.

Most recently, groups of TERFs were involved in the creation and passing of anti-trans legislation which revoked trans and gender-nonconforming people's access to sports, locker rooms, and public bathrooms.

Engaging in transphobia or doing nothing perpetuates stigma and promotes unsafe atmospheres for trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people. Taking action against transphobia improves the lives of trans people by repairing existing strains on mental health, physical health, and socioeconomic standing through increased access to community, resources, and support.

Refrain From Assuming Someone Else's Gender

It is important to know that outward expression is not the same as gender identity. For example, a nonbinary person's appearance might seem in line with cisnormative standards. Still, their expression does not mean they are not actually nonbinary or that other people don't need to respect their pronouns.

One way to dismantle internal cisnormativity is to refrain from making snap judgments about people's genders; an excellent way to practice this is to refer to people whose pronouns you are unaware of by using they/them/theirs pronouns.

Instead, ask people about their identities and pronouns when appropriate and respect their privacy when you don't need to know.

Normalize Trans-Affirming Language

Cisgender people should also normalize trans-affirming language. They should share their own pronouns, even when trans and nonbinary people are not knowingly present. They should also avoid differentiating themselves from transgender and nonbinary people unless necessary and promote proper terminology when doing so.

For example, there is no need to use the terms cis or trans when referring to spaces and experiences shared by cis and trans people of the same gender.

Some nonbinary people use she/her and he/him pronouns solely or alongside non-traditional pronouns. Anyone can choose to use any pronouns because while pronouns often reflect gender identity or gender expression, they are separate from both.

Use adjectives, such as cis or trans, to draw attention to a specific group—but only do this when needed. For example, the more distinct experiences unique to those groups were required for differentiation in this article.

Cisgender people should never refer to their gender experiences as "real" or "normal" to juxtapose trans identities. For example, trans women are real women, so cisgender women do not need to qualify their experience as such.

Choosing language that affirms and respects diverse identities does not negate or deny any cisgender experiences. Instead, it builds a world that is safer and healthier for all people.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

By Lauren Rowello
Lauren Rowello is a writer focusing on mental health, parenting, and identity. Their work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and more.