Redefining Transsexual/Cissexual & Transgender/Cisgender

October 2, 2008

So, there are two standard definitions of transgender:

1)A person who violates gender norms
2)A person who identifies as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.

#2 is also one definition of transsexual, which has another standard definition:

3)A person who transitions, particularly a person who modifies hir body in ways related to transition (both medical body mod & other).

All three of these have their ups and downs. I’m no longer interested (as I used to be), in having one, monolithic definition of these terms. There are different things we mean by them, different things to illuminate.

But, I need to add another pair of definitions:

4)transgender: a person whose self-determination of hir gender is regularly invalidated/undermined by hir society.
(cisgender: a person whose self-determination of hir gender is generally validated and upheld by hir society.)

5)transsexual: a person whose self-determination of hir sex is invalidated/undermined by legal, political, scientific, medical, & religious institutions (et al). (and through which society & individuals at large)
(Cissexual: a person whose self-determination of hir sex is validated and upheld by legal, political, scientific, medical, and religious institutions.)

In a world where my self-determined gender and sex were totally validated by my society I can no longer imagine transgender and transsexual being meaningful terms anymore; I’d still be a transitioner, I’d still use this technology, but almost all of my current experiences as a trans person would be gone. If I’d never been coercively gendered/sexed at all, my use of estrogen & spiro might not even be about transition, because there’d’ve been no “male” to transition from–and ‘transition’ itself would become vastly different.

So, yes, in one sense trans people wouldn’t exist in my utopia. But in another sense, it’s the distinction between trans and cis, the rigid wall that would be torn down and no longer exist. Gender coercion would no longer exist, and with it would go subversive gender, gender deviance, ‘gender variance’ (to be replaced by genders 3-400+), transphobia, misogyny, etc etc.

16 Responses to “Redefining Transsexual/Cissexual & Transgender/Cisgender”

  1. stufftransmenlike said

    Cis people wouldn’t really exist in your utopia either, right?

  2. Elly Rouge said

    I don’t see the difference between definition #1 and #4. One is the consequence of the other, isn’t it ? (i.e., your gender is unvalidated because it violates gender norms)

    This being said, I agree that the notion of cis/trans (as, I think, man/woman and homosexual/heterosexual) would be obsolete in a world without gender coercition.

  3. Cedar said


    I feel like there are two differences:

    1)I’m not breaking gender norms by wearing a skirt, I’m breaking them by wearing a tie. But if transsexuals fall under that definition, you have to misgender us to make it work.

    and perhaps the more significant for my purposes:
    2)you make a good point that they are logically equivalent (thanks! I hadn’t thought of that before) but even so, one definition makes it about/the fault of/the action of the trans person, whereas the other points the finger at transphobia… That is, it makes my oppression not about me.

  4. shiva said

    May i ask where (if anywhere) in your opinion “genderqueer” fits into this?

    I ask because, in my head, “genderqueer” approximates your definition #1 of “transgender” (or maybe slightly more accurately, “someone who doesn’t fit in, whether by choice or by unchosen nature, to a binary gender system”), and “transgender” seems to me to be a bit of an awkward umbrella term for including both “genderqueer” and “transsexual” (whereas, for me, “genderqueer” and “transsexual” are orthogonal* to each other, and so i’m not sure if “transgender” really means anything)… tho i like your definition #4, which might resolve that problem, by making “transgender” more of a political identity…

    *i hope i’m using that word correctly, as i’ve never read a dictionary definition of it, just picked it up from context…

    And i think i share your utopia 🙂

  5. Cedar said


    Yep! Or, maybe they would and we’d all be cis? It gets into questions of dominance v. support, right? Like, cisgender seems more a matter of support, but I think cissexuality is fundamentally rooted in dominance (because those institutions only affirm these things through being coercive). But the more I think about it you can make the same statements about cisgenderedness being rooted in dominance as well.

    I mean, obviously, in either case, cissexuality and cisgenderedness would be so radically changed as to not really exist in the same way, either. But I think (?) that both groups’ experiences would end up looking more like cis folks’ do. Maybe not, I suppose the figuring-out-one’s-own-gender/sex would be universalized… Your thoughts?

  6. Cedar said


    I feel like the problem one runs into is if you attempt to define genderqueer, drag, and crossdressing as distinct from each other. Because either they’re basically the same thing, or you resort to trans misogynistic subversivism (crossdressers and drag queens reify the gender binary while genderqueers and drag kings subvert it and fuck shit up!), or you talk about the populations doing it (white, MAAB, middle class, heterosexual, middle aged, cissexual, feminine folks (crossdressers), or white, middle-class, young, temporarily able bodied, cissexual, masculine FAAB folks (genderqueers, drag kings), or POC, young, MAAB, lower-class, feminine (drag queens)–which is also super problematic because all these “populations” are formed by exclusions based in oppression.

    What do you want orthagonal to mean? Unrelated? Opposite? …Don’t use jargon if you don’t have to, especially if you’re not sure… Anyways, I’d say that they’re partially independent variables–I suspect a much higher percentage of transsexuals are genderqueer than cissexuals are, and a much higher percentage of genderqueers are transsexual than gender conforming people are, but not that transsexual people are predominantly genderqueer or vice versa. So, correlated, but separate variables.

  7. […] to other people, and 2)exploring the faulty logic that goes into the usage. Gender and sex are self determination. “Biological” is determination by other. If we are being honest when we say that […]

  8. shiva said

    Ok… i’m kind of confused now, and think we’re possibly operating from extremely different definitions of the word “genderqueer”.

    The people who i know who identify as genderqueer are… mostly but not exclusively young, mostly but not exclusively white, about equally split between male and female assigned at birth, and… not so sure about class, TBH, depending on if you’re defining it economically, educationally or aspirationally, but certainly mostly below average income (by choice or otherwise), and a very much greater percentage of them than the general population are disabled in one way or another. About the only thing that unites all of us is anti-oppression politics in a vaguely left-libertarian framework (and related causes such as ecological sustainability)…

    Talking about drag and crossdressing seems like a non-sequitur to me, because for those i know “genderqueer” doesn’t describe presentation but identity-regardless-of-presentation (OK, perhaps i should have put drag and crossdressing within the “awkward umbrella” as well as transsexual and genderqueer… but, TBH, i don’t really ever think about drag or crossdressing, largely because the idea of clothing having any gender connotation at all has always felt pretty absurd to me, and clothing in general is something i pretty much don’t notice)…

    Could this be another UK/US thing?

    By “orthogonal” i basically meant “independent variables, but easily conflated”. Not *totally* unrelated, but not having any causal relationship with each other…

  9. Cedar said


    The demographic thing was largely snark. Not completely–read “The End of Genderqueer” by Rocko Bulldagger in Nobody Passes–but I don’t completely mean it. Part of it, as well, is a prescriptive definition–this is what genderqueers are supposed to be, these are the people who count–rather than a descriptive defninition (these are the people who either 1)claim the label or 2)meet the description.).

    Basically, “genderqueer” can mean multiple things in the US, one of which is “I’m thin & white & young and I wear a trucker hat and big hipster glasses and say oh my gender is so complicated and wear anti-racism as a fashion statement and talk about Judith Butler all the time–aren’t I so cool!”. (This is more snark. I don’t mean it.)

    Crossdressing is about identity too. As is drag. I’m not going to explain that one–I think that’s a matter for you to figure out by recourse to the words of crossdressers and drag performers themselves.

  10. […] a comment » Cedar, who all the kids are linking nowadays, has a post up about trans definitions that I’d like to riff […]

  11. […] and “real” versus those that are “invalid” and “fake,” the distinction between cis and trans, disappears. Without it, one might still have a dissonant reaction to one’s genitals/physical […]

  12. […] 3, 2009 We all have the capacity for violence. Rape, and promoting rape, is not limited to cis straight men, to white men, to men of color, to men you don’t know, to men at all, to cis […]

  13. GiniLiz said

    I want to thank you for this here and for much of what you have written throughout this site. You have articulated something I have been struggling to articulate for quite some time now, namely the insufficiency of the current cis/trans binary rhetoric and need for more insightful definitions.

  14. […] That’s right. Because by calling you cis, we’re calling you no better than a fucking tranny*, and THAT, my friends, is one of the worst insults we’ve got in US culture. We’re calling you no more real than us, and we’re not real. We’re calling you no more a woman than us, that you deserve no more respect than us, and in your eyes, that means, that means Ann Coulter jokes, that means it’s fine for the general public to post videos of your genitals all over the internet with big purple arrows and random fetishizing speculations. It’s insulting your penis size. It’s saying you can’t apply makeup. It’s saying that the only difference between us is that you think you’re better than us. […]

  15. DavidC said

    I’m seeing another difference (though I think related to the ones Cedar talks about above) between #1 and #4, which is how ‘violat[ing] gender norms’ relates to the person’s self-determined (?) (thinking about this word is kind of confusing me) gender.

    Easiest to demonstrate by talking about myself: At contra dances, I often like wearing a skirt, and often like following instead of leading. These both violate gender norms (though the former not nearly as much as it would in other contexts), but I don’t think it’s really undermining my self-determination of my gender. I don’t see those choices as being about my gender. They’re just things I like doing, in a way that I think is mostly separate from gender.

    The difference seems important, probably because I imagine that if those choices were more about my gender for me, then the policing they get might be a lot more threatening. In this way, #4 seems a lot more like what the word ‘transgender’ is trying to get at than #1.

    (Should add: There’s a little here I’m uneasy about. Maybe how violating gender norms is always about gender for someone, in the sense that at least their self-determined gender doesn’t keep them from doing what they’re doing. Not sure.)

  16. […] I avoid talking about gender dysphoria or gender dissonance. You’ve probably noticed. I don’t frame access to transition related medicine in how much it hurts to have your body not look or feel or move like you want it to, I frame it in terms of risk of violence, of economics, of freedom of movement, of control of the body, but *why* one wants to transition I leave out. I don’t frame being transsexual as being about identifying as a sex other than the one I was assigned at birth–it’s about the State, institutions of medicine, religion, Science-with-a-capital-S, etc underm…. […]

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