'Cisgender' Has Roots in Latin, Biochemistry

By Rob Kyff

September 23, 2020 3 min read

Several readers have asked me about the meaning, origin and use of "cisgender," an adjective for a person who identifies with the gender they had at birth.

"Cisgender," pronounced "sis-GEN-duhr," means the opposite of "transgender." While the Latin "trans" means "on the other side of," the Latin "cis" means "on this side of." Thus, transgender people cross over "to the other side" of their birth gender, and cisgender people stay "on this side" of their birth gender.

Though "cis" is not a common prefix in English, you might be familiar with "cisalpine" (on this side of the Alps), "cisatlantic" (on this side of the Atlantic Ocean) and "cislunar" (lying between the Earth and the moon).

The first known use of "cisgender" is attributed to University of Minnesota biologist Dana Leland Defosse. In 1994, she posted on an internet news group that she was seeking information about attitudes among "the queer community and cisgendered people."

Defosse later explained that she needed an antonym for "transgender" and chose the "cis-" prefix because of her familiarity with its use in biochemistry, where it indicates that functional groups in an isomer are on the same side of the carbon chain — you know, as in common household words such as "cis-dichloroethylene."

After being coined during the 1990s, "cisgender" languished in obscurity for years. But during the mid-2010s, when awareness of transgender people was growing rapidly, it surged in popularity. By 2017, it had been added to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

While "cisgender" has certainly helped to raise awareness of the discrimination and injustices suffered by transgendered people, the term has also provoked controversy.

As Paul Blank has written in The Atlantic, some individuals who move back and forth in their gender identity feel that the cisgender/transgender dichotomy imposes an artificial, binary distinction on the wide range of sexual identities, e.g., agender, asexual, genderqueer. And because "cisgender" is associated with conformity and elitism, some lesbians and gay men resent having the term applied to them because it implies they're somehow less than on the LGBTQ spectrum. Likewise, some cisgender females cringe at the label because it suggests they're more privileged than transgender women (who were born male).

Given all these dynamics, the future of this useful but somewhat problematic term remains uncertain.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: Jasmin_Sessler at Pixabay

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