This week the OED added, amongst other words, cisgender to the dictionary (read more here). It is described as “designating a person whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth”. This was hailed as a step forward by trans groups as it furthers the understanding and discussion of gender identity and opens people’s minds to alternative possibilities. Although I understand this, I’m not sure cisgender being recognised as a word is as helpful as, perhaps, people think it is.
This month, a colleague at work was speaking on the telephone with a straight, white, non-trans man about Jersey’s new discrimination regulations, which include gender reassignment as a protected characteristic, and the caller said: “if any of those trans people call me cisgender, I’ll take them to the tribunal.” It set me thinking.
I started to unpack why someone could be as offended by being called cisgender as many in the trans community would be if someone called them tranny, say. It’s not because the term cisgender is factually inaccurate. It may be because a) they don’t like the sound of the word, b) it’s being said derogatorily and/or c) they don’t recognise it as a description of themselves. But, I believe, it is because, primarily, it sounds medical. It sounds like they have a disease. The non-trans population feel pathologised.
Cisgender is a term that the trans community (predominantly) has been using since the 1990s to describe non-trans people, and I don’t disagree that it is a useful term as “non-trans” can get a bit wordy in certain circumstances. But is it ever right for one community to dictate to another what they should be called? Isn’t that what has happened to LGBTQ groups for years? Being named by others outside the group?
Cisgender might be in the OED but it’s a word we should be cautious of imposing on others. We know better than anyone what it feels like to have a medical-sounding label attached that doesn’t fit. In the same way that we expect others to ask us how we identify and to respect that identity, we should reciprocate and do them the courtesy of asking how they identify.
It would be an interesting experiment to ask your work colleagues one day how they identify and what pronoun they would prefer. Unfortunately, I think I’d get some bemused looks at best and a punch on the nose at worst. Many people won’t have ever thought about it, some will be offended at the implication that their gender identity is not obvious and others won’t understand the question. However, in terms of furthering understanding and opening up conversations about gender, wouldn’t that be a better method than using the word cisgender, a term most people don’t recognise and could well find offensive?
Personally, I’m leaving cisgender behind and sticking with non-trans until we have evolved a bit further.