For most people, they are born, the doctors and nurses take a look at the baby’s external anatomy, and then put “male” or “female” on the birth certificate. And for most of those people, their sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with the sex put on their birth certificate. This is most of the world, and it has been treated as the “default.” This would be described as “cisgender.”

Who are some examples?
Examples of cisgender individuals include Barack Obama, Donald Trump, John Oliver, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, Mike Pence, Hillary Clinton, Ted Nugent, Harvey Weinstein, Chris Rock, and Beyoncé, just to name a few. Though we could name millions, literally.

It sounds like you’re saying most of the world is cisgender.
As I said, the majority of people fit this category. They might not identify as such, but’s because up until now, this has been considered the default, much in the same way that straight was considered the default.

I hadn’t heard of “cisgender” until recently.
You’re not alone. The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that the first known use of the word was in 1994.

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What does the “cis” in “cisgender” mean?
According to The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis, “cis” means “on this side of” or “not across.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary expands upon that by explaining that in the context of chemistry, “cis” is “characterized by having certain atoms or groups of atoms on the same side of the longitudinal axis of a double bond or of the plane of a ring in a molecule.”

In other words, the prefix “cis,” which means “not across” or “on this side of,” is distinctly different from “trans,” which means “across.”

As in the “trans” in “transgender”?
Yes. Functionally, the term “cisgender” is a term to describe people who are not transgender. The term is seen as important because without a term for this, it’s been easy for people to equate “not being transgender” with “being normal.” In a 2014 essay for The Atlantic called “Will ‘Cisgender’ Survive?,” Paula Blank wrote:

“Cisgender” suggests a commonality among transgender and non-transgender people, at a time when transgender people are struggling for recognition. It tells us that we all experience some kind of relationship between our bodies and our selves, whatever that relationship may be. And it reminds us that those who experience a “match” between their body and their selves have it a lot easier in our society than those who do not. To the extent that “cisgender” helps raise awareness of intolerance and injustice towards transgender people, it serves a crucial political purpose right now. Potentially, “cisgender” could help build consensus on transgender rights.

Is cisgender the opposite of transgender?
Not necessarily. In that above-mentioned piece for the Atlantic, Blank said the term originated in the 1990s as an antonym to “transgender.” But in a 2018 interview with PopSugar, Rachel McKinnon said that “cisgender” and “transgender” are not necessarily opposite terms, because to frame it in that context would ignore that there are non-binary gender identities.

So “not transgender” could mean cisgender or non-binary?
It could, though a post from Everyday Feminism explains why “not transgender” is best avoided:

So why do we say ‘cisgender’ instead of ‘non-transgender?’ Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal. Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people,’ but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender,’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.

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