Julia Serano on “cis”

// 18 May 2009

Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl, has written a comprehensive post on the terms cis, cissexual and cisgender, which I thoroughly recommend for anyone who is unaware of or uncomfortable with these terms.

I didn’t really understand the term when I first came across it in Helen G’s Trans101 feature, but reading Whipping Girl helped me see through my privilege and begin to challenge my beliefs on gender and identity, and I now wonder why I had such difficulty with it. Cis is simply used to designate those individuals who are not trans. As Julia Serano explains:

“Trans” means “across” or “on the opposite side of,” whereas “cis” means “on the same side of.” So if someone who was assigned one sex at birth, but comes to identify and live as a member of the other sex, is called a “transsexual” (because they have crossed from one sex to the other), then the someone who lives and identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth is called a “cissexual.”

In other words, cissexual people do not experience dissonance between the sex assigned to them at birth in accordance with their physical body, and the gender or ‘subconscious sex’ that they know and feel themselves to be. Crucially, for those who may not have come across the term before, it should be noted that a cis person may dislike the gender stereotypes and roles that are forced on them by patriarchal society, but they do not feel this sense of dissonance between their physical sex (their body) and the sex their brain tells them they are. So while I may not identify with the term “woman” as I have come to understand it in a patriarchal society, I do not feel any internal mental and/or physical rejection of being gendered female, I do not feel that my female body is incongruous with how I gender myself; rather, I have created my own definition of “woman”, and I am happy with that, and with my body. Therefore, I am cis.

The term is important because it places cis and trans people on an equal footing, where terms such as non-trans or normatively gendered posit trans people as an abnormal Other. (And on a purely practical level it’s a hell of a lot quicker than writing “people who are not trans”.) By giving a name to the experience and fact of being cissexual, the term also enables us to recognise and challenge the privileges that cis people benefit from. Serano explains this with reference to the terms homosexuality and heterosexuality:

Fifty years ago, homosexuality was almost universally seen as unnatural, immoral, illegitimate, etc. Back then, people regularly talked about “homosexuals,” but nobody ever talked about “heterosexuals.” In a sense, there were no “heterosexuals”—everyone who wasn’t engaged in same-sex behavior was simply considered “normal.” Their sexualities were unmarked and taken for granted.

If you were lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) during this time period, there was almost no way for you to convince the rest of society that you were unfairly marginalized. In society’s eyes, nobody was oppressing you, it was simply your fault or problem that you were “abnormal.” In fact, it was quite common for LGB people to buy into this presumption of abnormality themselves, as there was simply no other obvious way to view their predicament.

But then gay rights activists began challenging this notion. They pointed out that all people have sexualities (not just homosexuals). The so-called “normal” people weren’t really “normal” per se, but rather they were “heterosexual.” And the activists pointed out that heterosexuals weren’t necessarily any better or more righteous than homosexuals. It was just that heterosexism—the belief that same-sex attraction and relationships are less natural and legitimate than heterosexual ones—is institutionalized within society and functions to unfairly marginalize those who engage in same-sex relationships.

She also addresses cis people’s oft-repeated complaint that they don’t identify with the term:

Cis is not meant to be an identity. Rather, it simply describes the way that one is perceived by others.

An analogy: I don’t strongly *identify* with the terms “white” and “able-bodied,” even though I am both of those things. After all, I have been able to navigate my way through the world without ever having to give much thought to those aspects of my person. And that’s the point: It is my white privilege and able-bodied privilege that enables me *not* to have to deal with racism and ableism on a daily basis!

In general, we only identify with those aspects of ourselves that are marked. For example, I identify as bisexual, and as a trans woman, because those are issues that I have to deal with all of the time (because of other people’s prejudices). While I may not strongly identify as white or able-bodied, it would be entitled for me to completely disavow myself from those labels, as it would deny the white privilege and able-bodied privilege I regularly experience.

You can read the rest of the post here, and check out the Cis Privilege Checklist here.

Comments From You

Rachel H-G // Posted 18 May 2009 at 11:28 pm

Although I understand the need for challenging heteronormativity, I resent being referred to as “cis” anything. It’s a label I have not chosen and am not comfortable with.

What’s wrong with “woman”?

Laura // Posted 19 May 2009 at 5:27 pm

Hi Rachel,

Because if we talk about ‘woman’ and ‘trans woman’, this positions the cis woman as the norm (she doesn’t need a label, she’s the default) and the trans woman as abnormal. This kind of thinking is what lies behind much of the discrimination trans people face. By differentiating between cis and trans we make it clear that the two groups are different from each other, but there is no hierarchy there.

Why do you resent being referred to as cis? I didn’t actively choose to label myself white, or able-bodied, but for the purposes of describing my ethnicity and the state of my body, that’s what I am, just as for the purposes of describing my gender identity and my experience of my physical sex I am cis: I really don’t see how that is in any way offensive or harmful.

Renee // Posted 19 May 2009 at 5:57 pm


Honestly it does not matter whether or nor you resent it if your body and gender align that is exactly what you are. It is not a slur it is simply a statement of fact. I suspect the reason that you have difficulty with the term is that it forces you to realize the privilege that are embedded to your body because socially we have decided that certain bodies deserve privilege.

terese // Posted 19 May 2009 at 6:56 pm

Rachel – seriously? this is your response to this post? Did you even read it? Did you read Julia Serano’s post that this linked to? Or any of the other links Laura put in?

Trans women ARE women. That’s why simply using ‘woman’ does not work in contexts when it is necessary to distinguish between trans and cis women.

And it’s not about challenging heteronormativity (because trans is not about sexuality, it’s about gender) it’s about challenging cisnormativity. How can this be challenged if it can’t be named?

Aimee // Posted 19 May 2009 at 10:34 pm

Because calling trans women ‘trans’ and non trans women ‘women’ implies that trans women are not legitimate women, they are an ‘other’. Applying a label to non trans women redresses the balance and legitimises trans women.

I think the fact that a woman finds it difficult or odd to consider a concept like ‘being cis’ shows how hard it is to accept one’s priviledge. Even if we don’t actively discriminate, non trans women are still priviledged in comparison to trans women, but it’s hard to comprehend because we resent the implication that we are somehow the ‘opressors’. I’m not trying to justify anything, i just don’t think we can be too hard on people without giving them the opportunity to understand better.

Clare // Posted 20 May 2009 at 12:34 pm

How does being intersex fit with this? What happens if you are uncomfortable with any of the genders you are being asked to identify with or happy to adopt either?

Rachel // Posted 5 July 2009 at 7:42 pm

I’d like to go back to Rachel’s question: What is wrong with “woman”? Why do we need to distinguish between cis and trans? Let me be clear: I don’t resent the label; I don’t understand the need for it – neither the trans nor the cis part! To me, this differentiation is at the heart of the discrimination because although Lauren claims there is no hierarchy there, having two labels tends to bring us hierarchies because one is viewed as the norm and the other as, well, the other. Sure, there might be a need to label something, say during a clinical exam or even an analysis, the differentiation might help, but overall whether a woman is cis or trans shouldn’t make a difference – she is a woman. I fear that by adding the label cis or trans, we keep reinforcing that there is a difference. To me the goal is to view a person as the identified gender they are now, no matter how they got there.

Holly Combe // Posted 5 July 2009 at 10:29 pm

I see what you mean and, to a certain extent, share the fear that the terms could be used to perpetuate the othering of trans people. Like any method of consciousness raising, I guess there’s always the chance that it could be counter-productive to its own goals. However, I reckon that has more to do with the general dynamics a cisexist society perpetuates rather than the terms somehow being “at the heart of the discrimination itself”. I’d say just about any perspective, however egalitarian, can probably be twisted back to suit the status quo if left unchecked but surely that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t actively support ways to push things forward? Ideally, those ways wouldn’t need to exist because, as you say, whether a woman is cis or trans shouldn’t make a difference. Unfortunately, I don’t think thats the situation we have. As Serano says in the piece, she uses the term because of the “vastly different ways in which we are perceived and treated by others (based on whether or not we are trans) and the way those differences impact our unique physical and social experiences with both femaleness and maleness”. She does recognise that the language could be said to contribute to a “reverse discourse” that “simply reinforces the distinction between transsexuals and cissexuals” and has marginalized her in the first place but I think the following excerpt lends more weight to an argument for using the terms:

“…while transsexuals are extremely familiar with cissexual perspectives of gender (as they dominate in our culture), most cissexuals remain largely unfamiliar with trans perspectives. Thus, to ask me to only use words that cissexuals are familiar with in order to describe my gendered experiences is similar to asking a musician to only use words that non-musicians understand when describing music. It can be done, but something crucial would surely be lost in the translation. Just as a musician cannot fully explain their reaction to a particular song without bringing up concepts such as “minor key” or “time signature,” there are certain trans-specific words and ideas that will appear throughout this book that are crucial for me to precisely convey my thoughts and experiences regarding gender. In order to have an illuminating and nuanced discussion about my experiences and perspectives as a trans woman, we must begin to think in terms of words and ideas that accurately describe that experience“.

Rachel // Posted 5 July 2009 at 11:04 pm

Thanks for enlightening me! :-) I realize now (after reading your response and here and here) that the main flaws in my thinking were that (a) using labels creates hierarchies and (b) removing the labels removes/prevents those hierarchies. If I call a carpet “red” it simply states that it’s made out of mostly red yarn. It doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse than a blue carpet. Using terms like “trans” and “cis” simply describes a fact. It doesn’t mean that one is better or worse than the other. Also, describing myself as a cis woman doesn’t automatically mean that I am transphobic… And do I wish that we could bring down patriarchy simply by calling everybody human rather than men and women…

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