I coined the term “cisgender” in 1994. Nearly three decades later, the word has had ramifications I never dreamed of.
It began innocently enough. I was in graduate school and writing a paper on the health of trans adolescents. I put a post on alt.transgender to ask for views on transphobia and inclusion on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I was struggling because there did not seem to be a way to describe people who were not transgender without inescapably couching them in normalcy and making transgender identity automatically the “other.”
I knew that in chemistry, molecules with atoms grouped on the same side are labeled with the Latin prefix “cis–,” while molecules with atoms grouped on opposite sides are referred to as “trans–.” So, cisgender. It seemed like a no-brainer. I had no idea that hitting “enter” on that post would start an etymological time bomb ticking.
It took years for the term to take off, and it was not until 2016 that it entered both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary ― both attributed the origin of the word to my 1994 post.
At first, I found the viral use of cisgender surprising but did not give it much thought. It is obvious now that its use isn’t a fad. That hit home for me in 2022, when I saw that the Supreme Court of India defined the legal term “women” as “including other than cis-gender women.” The word cisgender is now an influential force in culture, sexuality, law and medicine around the world.
Before now, I have not spoken publicly, or even disclosed my role in the origin of the word cisgender to anyone beyond a few close friends and colleagues. Although I’ve not yet experienced personal attacks for being associated with its creation, it is painful when people imply it was intended to hurt others. I never believed that adding the word to the lexicon caused problems ― it only revealed them. Whatever the fate of the word, I feel compelled to speak out against the idea that it is hateful.
Even though I never predicted it, the word cisgender is now at the center of a minor maelstrom. Across social media, people say they resent being “labeled” or having an unwanted term “forced” on them. Some call cisgender a slur — as in, “I’m not cis, I’m normal.” What should be an innocuous term has spawned Twitter storms from celebrities like William Shatner who said he feels debased and hated by the use of the term. Cisgender privilege was even the topic of the “South Park” episode “Cissy.” Even some in LGBTQ+ communities have condemned the term cisgender as perpetuating binary constraints on gender.
It saddens me to hear that people feel harmed by the word cisgender. Is the creation of the word to blame? No. Cisgender is just a straw man. It is easier to attack a word than to address the reasons people feel intimidated by discussions of gender identity. The word is a threat because it linguistically separates biological sex from socially constructed categories of “woman” and “man.” That gender is a social construction undermines heteronormativity, critical to defending patriarchal sex roles and procreation. It is not surprising that those who have garnered dominance and privilege from traditional gender roles feel threatened and compelled to lash out. These ideas are not new. But the word cisgender repackages them in a way that is more potent and visceral.
“It saddens me to hear that people feel harmed by the word cisgender. Is the creation of the word to blame? No. Cisgender is just a straw man. It is easier to attack a word than to address the reasons people feel intimidated by discussions of gender identity.”
Today, enforcers of what I call “cispurity” are intervening in ways reminiscent of historical measures to eliminate target groups based on identity. In a recent campaign speech, Donald Trump called gender-affirming care “child sexual mutilation” and vowed to use federal agencies and police to enforce its prohibition. If reelected, he promises to pass legislation that codifies the identities of Americans as only cisgender males or females. Such a law would erase the legal existence of trans people, those who are intersex, and any other gender-nonconforming individuals.
Several U.S. states are introducing legislation to prohibit drag performances. Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson recently introduced legislation to criminalize drag performances in public spaces. Second-time offenders would be charged with a felony with a prison sentence of up to six years. As draconian as these laws sound, I am more concerned that they are so vague they will threaten transgender women and others under the sweeping definition of “female impersonator.”
The past has shown that the first stage of erasing people is to eradicate their history, culture and literature. As a library worker, today’s Kulturkampf horrifies me, and I fear for my colleagues. Reactionaries attack libraries with intimidation, guns, defunding, and even propose librarians be jailed for refusing to comply with anti-LGBTQ+ book bans. The entire full-time staff of a library in Iowa resigned over harassment for cataloging books with LGBTQ+ content. If militant anti-LGBTQ+ individuals can ban books, what’s stopping them from going after LGBTQ+ content on library computers? Will I soon be expected to prohibit library patrons from using computers to read a HuffPost Personal article on LGBTQ+ lives?
What troubles me even more than expunging trans voices is depriving trans people of lifesaving therapies. As with the war on women’s autonomy, health care providers caring for trans kids are intimidated by threats of violence and criminal liability meant to usurp the sacrosanct bond between doctor and patient that has existed since Hippocrates. It is beyond hypocritical that those claiming to support families would strip parents of the right to decide about their children’s health and well-being.
In a recent peer-reviewed study, 56% of trans adolescents have attempted suicide at least once, and 86% have considered it. A study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that trans and nonbinary teens who receive gender-affirming care had a 73% lower likelihood of considering suicide. All major health care associations in the United States recognize the need for evidence-based, gender-affirming medical care.
In January, the U.S. state of Utah was the first this year to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, and at least 21 additional states have proposed similar bills in 2023. Any rational policymaker could only conclude that legislation depriving trans kids of gender-affirming medical care will trigger more tragic loss of life. It’s gaslighting at its worse to claim to be protecting kids by enacting policies that virtually ensure greater mortal risk. I’ve known too many trans people that were lost to suicide. No one should have to get one of those 3 a.m. calls, worst of all, a parent.
As if putting kids at risk of self-harm wasn’t enough, there are some who openly use language that incites violence against trans people. With a page from the playbook of history’s purity defenders, elected officials espouse thinly coded rhetoric that fuels violence while keeping their hands clean of the weekly homicides and suicides that devastate trans communities and their families. Sometimes the rhetoric is not so subtle. Alisabeth Lancaster, a Santa Rosa County, Florida, school board candidate endorsed by the local Republican Party, said that doctors caring for trans kids “should be hanging from the nearest tree.” Pastors in Texas and Idaho have openly called for the assassination of LGBTQ+ individuals.
James Slaugh was a patron at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when a mass shooting killed five people and injured seven. The town is the home to Focus on the Family, a font of anti-LGBTQ+ narratives with a half-billion-dollar war chest for political influence across the United States. In riveting testimony to a U.S. House of Representatives panel, Slaugh said, “Hate starts with speech. The hateful rhetoric you’ve heard from elected leaders is the direct cause of the horrific shooting at Club Q.”
The Human Rights Campaign report, “An Epidemic of Violence,” documents at least 300 violent deaths of gender nonconforming people killed in the U.S., with 57 in 2021 alone. Since 2013, 85% of the victims were people of color. Sadly, many acts of violence against trans people are not reported or classified as hate crimes.
“I didn’t even know trans people existed until decades after experiencing what I later learned was gender dysphoria. Had I seen trans people in daily life, I may have avoided the feelings of fear and isolation that were sometimes so unbearable that I lost the will to live.”
I am disheartened that a term I only intended to improve the precision of the English language may have become a divisive tool in today’s toxic landscape of exclusion and violence. But language abhors a vacuum. I do not lay claim to coining the term cisgender as an inventive act as much as an outcome of the inevitable evolution of a living vocabulary. I am convinced the word cisgender was needed, even if the emotion and fear it evokes for some may overshadow its potential to advance understanding.
In 2014, 20 years after my fateful inoculation of the word cisgender into the vocabulary, Time magazine released a cover story titled “The Transgender Tipping Point.” The article asserted that the transparency of transgender people has been “…improving the lives of a long-misunderstood minority and beginning to yield new policies.” The wave of awareness, visibility and recognition of our contribution to society at every level is momentous and unprecedented.
I want to believe it cannot be stopped. In recent studies, 9% of high school students in the Pittsburgh area reported gender identities different from those predicted by their sex assigned at birth, and about 5% of young adults say their sex assigned at birth and gender differ. In the study ”Gender: Beyond the Binary,” 50% of those 18-24 years old said gender roles and binary labels are outdated. Young people are the future, and I see one a lot less hung up on gender identity and expression.
In my opinion, the number of people identifying as trans or nonbinary isn’t necessarily growing. They have always been there, it’s just that no one asked, and awareness and acceptance have made it possible for kids with gender dysphoria to better understand themselves and achieve self-esteem. As a Boomer, I didn’t even know trans people existed until decades after experiencing what I later learned was gender dysphoria. Had I seen trans people in daily life, I may have avoided the feelings of fear and isolation that were sometimes so unbearable that I lost the will to live.
No matter how hard fanatics try to erase trans people, we will endure, because we have been here throughout history and are not going anywhere. I’m proud of what trans people have achieved, but I also know we can never drop our guard, especially at this critical time. Like any civil rights movement, constant vigilance is vital. History is full of examples of how quickly society can pivot against a minority group, sometimes with devastating consequences. I would like to think that understanding will change the climate for trans people. But the stamina of racism, Jim Crow, and misogyny makes me realize that hate has the power to endure.
My greatest hope is that more people will realize that silence is complicity. The anti-trans movement inordinately targets people of color. The overlap of hate against trans people with antisemitism has a long and dark history. The people denying health care and bodily autonomy to trans people are the same people denying women those rights.
I call on all communities to voice intolerance of anti-trans hate speech and the transparent incitement of violence by those who feign innocence and moral supremacy. Because it diminishes all of us. And it’s not about words. You don’t need to be a student of gender identity terms to know that living in a just society means respecting human dignity and autonomy and opposing the victimization of children.
Dana Defosse, Ph.D., MPH is a retired researcher and physician educator. She is the author of two novels and her poetry appears in numerous journals. She works at a public library where she develops programs and services to empower health literacy in her community. Dana lives with her beloved feline, Anja.