October 5, 2010

Transgender, Genderqueer, Cisgender… What Do These Terms Mean?

To further our understanding of gender, I define three terms that relate to gender identity and expression: transgender, genderqueer, and cisgender.

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In a few recent posts, my fellow Kinsey Confidential bloggers and I have been defining and discussing a diverse array of sexual, gender, and sex identities.  What is sexual identity, and how is it expressed?  And, of course, Brad‘s three-part blog series on distinguishing sex from gender: part 1, part 2, and part 3.  I want to add just a bit more to our understanding of sex and gender by defining three terms that relate to gender identity and expression: transgender, genderqueer, and cisgender.

Gender Identity And Expression

First, let me take one step back to define two other terms that are fundamental to our understanding of gender.  In understanding gender as a social role – much like a role in a play – there are two key elements: our gender identity and our gender expression.  Our gender identity is simply the label we adopt to define who we are in terms of gender: woman, transgender, man, genderqueer, girl, boy.  Gender expression is the things we do, say, and wear to convey to others our gender identity.

For example, to present oneself as feminine, one may wear tighter-fitting jeans and a cute top, keeping one’s hair long (rather than short), and behaving in ways culturally defined as feminine.  Like an actor in a play, one is given a part (gender identity), and uses scripts, costumes, and interactions with others to play that part (gender expression).  Of course, there are social norms in place about how to play each part, but these can and do change over time.


In the past few decades, especially these past ten years, transgender people have become increasingly visible as a part of the US population.  The term “transgender” is generally used to refer to a person whose sex (i.e., anatomy, hormones, chromosomes) are inconsistent with their gender (i.e., sense of self, behavior, appearance).  With available surgical and hormonal procedures, some transgender people seek to change their sex to match their gender.  However, due to personal decision, but also because of the high costs of such procedures that usually are not covered by health insurance, there is a great deal of variation in the extent transpeople go to change their sex.  (Some seek out extensive sex reassignment procedures, while others may seek a few or no medical procedures at all.)


But, not everyone whose gender and sex are incongruent want to change their sex to become the “opposite sex.”  People who identify as “genderqueer,” a rather new term used mostly among young adults, experience this incongruence, but experience gender as neither woman nor man.  That is, as a female-bodied genderqueer person, one does not desire to change one’s sex to become male.  In fact, genderqueer people challenge the idea of two genders (woman and man) and sexes (female and male); rather, they seek to blur such binaries to resist the idea of “this” or “that.”


Finally, the gender term that is least known about, but describes the vast majority of people in the world, is cisgender.  “Cisgender” refers to people whose sex and gender are congruent by predominant cultural standards: women who have female bodies, men who have male bodies.  This term was created to challenge, as many transgender people have argued, the privileging of such people in the term “gender” relative to the term “transgender.”  For example, in referring to “transmen” (female-to-male transgender men) and “men” (cismen), it may seem that transgender men are always a special type of “man,” while men are, without question, “real men.”  This video by transactivist/actress Calpernia Addams  may be helpful.