Why I Will Keep Calling You Cisgender Whether You Like It or Not

Clara Barnhurst

I’ve had a few cisgender friends get upset when I use vernacular such as ‘cishet’ (cisgender heterosexual) and so forth. They say it hurts them or somehow defines them in a way they don’t like. They also love to say that they’re just normal, or that they don’t need a label. Sometimes they will recognise its meaning but exclude themselves because they feel it’s only talking about ‘the bad ones.’ I don’t want to hurt or embarrass people, but I’ll keep using the word.

While I am always grappling with the concept that I’m somehow normal, I resent the suggestion that I’m somehow categorically abnormal for reasons beyond my control. I know I’m weird, but I also know I’m not some kind of freak of nature; that’s what a cis person saying they’re ‘just normal’ suggests. It’s not endearing.

Beyond that, it suggests that anyone else on the gender spectrum - and it is a spectrum, people - is somehow not normal. But nobody is 100% anything. Nobody is 100% cisgender, nobody is 100% gay or straight. Some people may be an infinitesimally small percentage of a thing, so we can have someone who is almost completely cisgender and almost completely heterosexual. We know that the gender binary is objectively a lie we perpetuate for the sake of brevity. That goes for me too: I can shout that I’m a binary identifying female as much as I want, but I know I’m wrong. It’s just a shorthand. I’m female. I’m not binary because nobody is.


If nobody is binary, one might ask, why do we need the terms ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ at all? And I agree there are huge problems with the terms, but they don’t describe gender and they’re not actually describing the binary. What they do is answer a complicated question disguised as a simple one: do you identify in such a way that mostly agrees with your assigned gender at birth or not? Much of the time, people do (cisgender). Other times not so much (transgender). The terms may become less relevant as societies stop assigning genders in some distant future, but we need terms to note this fact until that happens. So the terms aren’t binary and don’t have anything to do with the binary; they note a level of agreement with the initial assignment a person is given.

I’m not going to talk about that specific group of cisgender people that are content to be terrible human beings. They get enough attention. It’s the allyish group that want to separate themselves from cisgender people because they perceive it as a negative term that interest me.

Part of being an ally is accepting that you’re outside of the transgender experience and recognising that you need to be called something else. Cisgender is the word, in this case. Being cisgender does not mean you’re a bad person by default, but, like well behaved men, it does mean that you have to recognise a certain amount of privilege and do a certain amount of apologising for your less behaved members. Basically, you might not be a bad person, but enough of your group is to make this a problem. If this is a hard pill to swallow, that’s too bad.

Slapping a #notallcis tag on yourself is every bit as transphobic as the #notallmen tag is sexist. Saying you’re not cisgender because you are well behaved is every bit as ridiculous as a well behaved man saying they're not male. Don’t do it. Allyish behaviour like that is damaging to the movement. You’re cis. You’re here and you’re making an effort. That’s amazing! Don’t expect us to pander to your ego by not calling you cisgender.

So why do some cisgender people call the term hurtful? This is a comment I find truly offensive. The others are unacceptable irritants but this is a real kick in the teeth. Carrying the cisgender label means that the person’s life goes on uninterrupted and untroubled by gender. It means that everyone around them automatically accepts their gender without pause. It basically means they haven’t suffered in this way and probably never will.

Being transgender means that leaving the house is a calculated risk that could result in a person’s death. That’s true in most parts of the world. It means that there are some parts of the world we can’t travel to because the authorities might take us away, never to be seen again. It means that our lives have at some point been utterly disrupted if not destroyed by coming out. It means living in fear, all the time.


So the suggestion that the cisgender label is hurtful just makes me want to give that person the finger. I don’t have time for people who claim to see our plight but then ask us to consider their feelings about a word that basically means, ‘I live my life without worry,’ at least with regard to their gender identity. It is the language of the supremacist, knowing or not, and I will have no part in it.

However! If the term cisgender is actually, truly hurtful, then perhaps that person needs to have a long hard look at their gender identity. If it hurts them to be noted as someone who hasn’t got any issues with their assigned gender, well, odds are pretty good they do. I have one friend in particular with a dislike for the term cisgender, especially when applied to her, that is clearly not cis but has also not entirely adopted another label. She knows that and she’ll get around to letting us know in due course. That’s different. I’ll not call someone cisgender if they’re in that position because they have an honest need to not be called that.

And I think, on some levels, transgender people as a whole would be unhappy about being called cisgender because that would mean they wouldn’t have an issue with their assigned gender. I would be annoyed: trying to be a man sucked and nearly killed me. Dangers of being out in certain company aside, I don’t want to be called that because it does mean something painful to me. Where possible, it’s a label I don’t want to carry. Hopefully we can get to a place where I never have to carry it for my own safety.

So. Nobody is ‘just normal;’ give it up. We don’t get to separate ourselves from bad examples of our group. Frank Zappa once said, ‘I’m not black but there’s a whole lotta times I wish I could say I’m not white.’ Live with the shame, that’s part of being an ally. If this is actually a hurtful thing for you, then check your gender ‘cause it’s probably not as simple as you think. But until I have more information, I’m going to keep calling you cisgender whether you like it or not.

Comments (4)
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Clara Barnhurst
Clara Barnhurst


My, we are full of assumptions, aren’t we? My level of suffering is irrelevant, and a person’s relative suffering does not validate or invalidate pain. There is no measure for this: we are all survivors of something.

And yes! I do enjoy having the luxury of clear communication that is enabled by words that mean things irrespective of what a person’s feelings about them might be. Use defines language, not the other way around. So until there is a better word (and I would quite like that) with a capacity for more granular meaning, I’ll work with the words I have. Or make some up. I make up words fairly regularly.


Some transgender people, like the author of this article, have clearly not suffered very much. Someone who has actually been traumatized because of gender issues would not be recklessly misusing the English language like this.Clara Barnhurst somehow enjoys labeling and assigning gender profiles to people she knows nothing about. People like this are a disgrace to the transgender community and are sabotaging all of us.

Clara Barnhurst
Clara Barnhurst


Well sure. It's not normally relevant but when it is, it is. There's no real way around it when it's relevant.


"Don’t expect us to pander to your ego by not calling you cisgender."I think “cis” has time and a place, it makes talking about trans related issues easier. It’s easier to say cisgender than it is to say assigned male/female at birth when the need to distinguish between the two arises. I for one do not want to be referred to as trans man/woman in ordinary conversation, I don’t mind it when it is necessary for the topic of discussion, I have little doubt the people assigned male/female at birth would feel the same way.

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