What It Means to Be Cisgender

When a person is cisgender, they identify as the gender that is typically associated with the sex that they were assigned at birth. Cisgender is, as such, a complementary designation to the term transgender.

A common mistake that people make when trying to use this term is to say someone is "cisgendered." You would not say that someone is "gayed" or "lesbianed." Transgendered is also sometimes incorrectly used where the word transgender is more appropriate.

A transgender woman is a person who was assigned male at birth but who exists as a woman. A cisgender woman is a person who was assigned female at birth and exists as a woman.

A person is non-binary if they identify as neither a man or a woman—no matter what sex they were assigned at birth.

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Differences Between Sex and Gender

Although the terms are frequently and incorrectly used interchangeably, sex and gender are not the same.

Sex, in scientific terms, is a biological and physiological designation. It refers to both a person's chromosomes and the way that their genes are expressed. (XY individuals can develop physiologically female bodies if they have certain genetic conditions that affect hormone processing.)

Chromosomes are invisible to the human eye; therefore, it is not possible to definitively know someone's sex by looking at them.

In contrast, gender is a social construct. It refers to the social roles, behaviors, and expectations that are thought to be appropriate for men and women. Masculine and feminine are adjectives describing gender characteristics. Male and female describe sexual characteristics, although they are sometimes also used to describe gender.

  • A biological and physiological designation

  • Refers to both a person's chromosomes and the way that their genes are expressed

  • A social construct

  • Refers to the social roles, behaviors, and expectations considered appropriate for men and women

Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

Gender identity and sexual orientation are also not the same things. A cisgender person can be heterosexual or homosexual, bisexual, or asexual. So can a transgender person.

This is, in fact, one of the problems with lumping transgender individuals into the LGBT (or LGBTQ or LGBTQQI) acronym. It makes it more likely that people will conflate gender identity and sexual orientation. Really, they are two entirely different spectra.

Risks for Transgender People

Some transgender individuals do not medically or surgically transition to affirm their gender. Transgender individuals have high rates of mistreatment by the medical system. They may also face structural risks.

For example, transgender people engage in relatively high rates of sex work, compared to the general population. This is especially true for transgender women and transfeminine people. This is, in part, due to difficulties in finding employment.

It is worth noting that, just as the word for working on the assumption that all people are heterosexual is heteronormativity, the word for working on the assumption that all people are cisgender is cisnormativity.

This is different than gender essentialism—the idea that everyone must behave in certain, gender-specific ways that are linked to the sex they were assigned at birth.

Cisgender vs. Non-Transgender

Many sexuality educators, LGBT activists, and individuals who are cognizant of gender politics use the term cisgender to reduce the stigma associated with a transgender identity. Many people may use cisgender and "normal gender" interchangeably. However, that implies that transgender people are not normal.

Using the term cisgender, in contrast, does not assign a relative value to either gender identity. Instead, it accepts transgender and cisgender identities as equally valid ways to experience gender.

Some transgender activists prefer the term non-transgender to cisgender. They see people self-identifying as cisgender as not wanting to be defined by the term transgender.

In truth, the purpose of both terms—cisgender and non-transgender—is the same. These terms are designed to categorize everyone's gender identity, removing the notion that there is a default or "normal" category.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Where did the word “cisgender” come from?

    The term first appeared in the 1990s, possibly in online discussion groups. The prefix “cis” comes from Latin and means “on the side of,” making it the opposite of “transgender,” which uses the Latin word “trans,” meaning “across from.”

  • Why are babies labeled male or female at birth?

    A baby is considered male or female at birth based on the appearance of a baby’s external genitalia (penis or vagina). If a baby has ambiguous genitalia, healthcare providers may use chromosomal testing to assign a biological sex.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Clayton JA, Tannenbaum C. Reporting sex, gender, or both in clinical research? JAMA. 2016;316(18):1863-1864. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.16405

  2. Moleiro C, Pinto N. Sexual orientation and gender identity: review of concepts, controversies and their relation to psychopathology classification systems. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1511.doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01511

  3. Nemoto T, Bödeker B, Iwamoto M. Social support, exposure to violence and transphobia, and correlates of depression among male-to-female transgender women with a history of sex work. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(10):1980-8. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2010.197285

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.