Use of ‘cisgender’ perpetuates problematic dichotomy

Illustration by Tennery Carrtar

Some may have heard the word cisgender recently. Its entrance into popular usage is a solution to a problem between the mainstream population and the transgender community. Its meaning comes from the Latin root “cis-” meaning “on the near side,” as opposed to “trans-” which means “across.” Cisgender means one who was born with a physical body that is the same as their gender identity.

Before the invention of the word cisgender, average people were denoted as “normal” or “real” men and women. The opposites of “normal” and “real” are “weird” and “fake,” implying that transgendered people aren’t normal or real — hence the problem. The word’s invention and use is intended to take that sting away and to define the difference between those who don’t have sex change operations and those who do.

I don’t like the use of cisgender because it perpetuates definitions of people into binary categories, feeding an “us versus them” attitude.

As a definition, there is nothing wrong with the idea — it’s rooted in the language. But as a cultural norm, using it as a label will just widen the gap between people. Why? Because it focuses the argument on labels when the real problem is how groups of people are treating each other. It’s akin to trying to stop a fight by shouting for the fighters to take their corners. I also think that it puts those who care about the issue in the same boat as bigots.

While cisgender is not an insult — it’s similar to how we don’t say homosexual and heterosexual, but gay and straight — I think it is circular logic. Looking at the relationship between homosexual and heterosexual people that way doesn’t solve things. This differentiation is the same thing I’m talking about, except that gay and straight have been accepted while cisgender and transgender are not as widely used.

The terms gay and straight make it easier to say homosexual and heterosexual in casual conversation. Yet the fact that they are widely used doesn’t make the situation better — it has just made the separation between people easier and more expedient. The problem isn’t that we need to identify who is who, the problem is that part of the population is either against equality or is misinformed. I think that the use of cisgender replaces dialogue that would otherwise work toward the brighter tomorrow everyone wants.

In conversation, someone would hear that word and everything would fixate on it and its usage. Many don’t immediately know what the word means unless they have spoken to someone who does know, and even then those who do know the word’s meaning might not understand it or use it correctly. I know the word’s definition gets to the heart of the matter, but the use of a single word doesn’t fix cultural tensions.

An episode of “South Park” that deals with gay marriage was in the same vein as this. One side doesn’t want to call it marriage, so they spend all of their time trying to come up with different names for the arrangement. The gay community in the show is upset because changing the name of marriage doesn’t solve their problems — not being harassed and discriminated against does.

This isn’t the only place where labels have been bad. The overreaching example is politics. In the past we had the Red Scare. Nowadays we have the great political divide. That we have Republicans and Democrats isn’t the problem. The problem is that the definition of each of these groups are in opposition to each other. Membership is based on fighting those across from where you sit.

Many times, these labels are made up and no one understands them. If you have ever filled out a form for official record keeping, there might have been a question about what your ethnic heritage is. Among the choices are Hispanic and Latino. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 24 percent of people who answer to either of those designations actually identify themselves as what they put down. According to the results, most don’t know which applies to them, so they will answer Latino rather than Hispanic because of the association of Spain with Hispanic and Latino with Latin America.

I’ve seen coffee cups being sold on the web expousing a great phrase for this problem. “Labels are for Jars, not People.” Lest I seem entirely too idealistic without presenting a practical solution to what I have identified, I would like to point out that there is already a “label” affixed to everyone — the default that serves everyone pretty well.

That would be their name.

Patrick White is a junior in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to