Trans 101: Cissexism

CW: Discussions of violence, suicide and prejudice. Note that though anyone can read this and get something out of it, the target audience is primarily cisgender folks.


What I am about to talk about can be very unpalatable for cis (not trans) audiences and that is usually due to not being able to accept the existence of their privilege. Many want to believe that they are good people and acknowledging the existence of cissexism within themselves and the institutions that benefit them at the expense of trans people is perceived as a threat to that self-image. It’s uncomfortable.

Discomfort is usually seen as a bad thing. Whenever people experience it to a significant degree, they tend to try to alleviate it in two primary ways: confront it or avoid it. Confronting it involves being able to gather the strength to be present with it and deal with whatever situation may be triggering it. Avoiding it involves separating one’s self from the uncomfortable situation. Sometimes confronting discomfort is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s not. Ditto for avoidance. But when it comes to systemic oppression (i.e., cissexism) it’s important for those in a position of privilege to confront the discomfort they feel.

Being cissexist, though definitely not a good thing, does not necessarily make one a horrible person. I am cissexist. I spent the majority of my life in self-loathing and many of the issues with my dysphoria today come from a place of self-loathing. For example, I tend to get dysphoric when I feel I won’t be able to pass (be perceived) as a female like cis women usually are. Though transitioning has done a great deal to help me feel better and to love myself, I do still occasionally deal with internalized transmisogyny.

Confronting an issue necessarily involves acknowledging it in the first place, and that acknowledgement almost always needs to start with one’s self. If I as a trans woman can recognize cissexism within myself, surely you can, too. The only difference between you and me (if you are cis, of course) is that cissexism helps you while simultaneously hurting me. Therefore, I ask that you confront the discomfort you are likely to feel as you continue to read.

What exactly is cissexism?

Let me begin by explaining the terms I will be using so you can more accurately understand what I am talking about.

Cis – on the same side as; also short for cisgender.

Trans – on the other side; also short for transgender.

Cisgender – someone is cisgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is in line with their gender.

Transgender – someone is transgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is not in line with their gender. In other words, someone is transgender if they are not cisgender. 

Cissexism – a set of norms and acts that privilege cisgender people and/or oppress transgender people; a system of violence that targets transgender people for the benefit of cisgender people. 

Cis privilege – the ability of cisgender people to directly, or indirectly, benefit from cissexism at the expense of transgender people. 

So when I talk about cissexism, it should be absolutely clear that no matter who you are, or how good of a person you are, you have cis privilege, i.e., you benefit from cissexism (if you are cisgender). That does not necessarily mean that you should feel guilty and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do is make it so that you and I are not on equal social footing. We may be moral equals, but there is a power difference between the two of us that puts me at a huge disadvantage and makes me vulnerable as a trans woman.

It’s like you are 6’10”, had some of the best training from some of the most elite coaches in the world, can bench press 300 lbs, and have phenomenal natural talent. I, however, am 5’9″ (yes, that’s my actual height), can’t even bench press 150 lbs, have relatively little natural talent, and didn’t have any of the resources you had. Who do you think would win in a game of one-on-one basketball?

Society gives you a lot more power than it gives people like me and so that must be taken into consideration when considering your actions that affect trans folks. It also must be taken into consideration when thinking about both your conscious and unconscious attitudes about gender as it relates to trans people. This may not seem fair. Maybe it’s not. But I and other trans folks suffer when cis people don’t and that’s definitely not fair.

What cissexism looks like

In order to help paint a picture of what cissexism looks like (that is, what measurable impact it can have), it helps to look at some statistics:

According to Injustice at Every Turn

  • 41% of trans individuals have attempted suicide.
    • Compare that to 1.6% for the general population (4.6% according the Williams Institute).
  • Trans people are four times more likely likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 per year compared to the general population.
  • While in K-12, 78% of trans and gender non-conforming people experienced harassment.
    • 35% experienced physical assault.
    • 12% experienced sexual violence.
  • Trans folks have double the rate of unemployment compared to the general population.
  • 90% have experienced harassment at work.
    • 26% report being fired for being trans.

According to the Office for Victims of Crime

Keep in mind that I am only including a few statistics for the sake of brevity. I could go into more of them, but that would make for a really long list. Also keep in mind that when other factors such as race or class are taken into consideration, the statistics tend to be significantly worse. For example, 21 trans women were murdered in 2015 and the majority of them were women of color. If you are interested in more, please investigate the sources I have linked.

I’ve mentioned previously (here) that trans folks don’t commit suicide because they are trans. They commit suicide because society does not accept their being trans. In other words, cissexism is the primary culprit.

In previous posts, I’ve described my struggle with gender dysphoria. Most, if not all of it, can be directly and indirectly attributed to cissexism. After coming out and beginning my transition, I noticed people started to look at me differently. So many of them stared at me in confusion, fear, or disgust like I was some kind of freak. It made me feel very uncomfortable and unsafe. I was also treated differently. The more feminine I became, the more condescending people were to me. My social relationships became much more complicated, including my marriage. If people didn’t ‘get me’ before, they definitely don’t now. Talking to many of them is like talking to a brick wall. Being deadnamed and misgendered all the damn time has become painful and exhausting. Air travel became a traumatic ordeal when the TSA suddenly started seeing me as suspicious and a potential threat when they couldn’t automatically read me as either male or female. I’ve been harassed by the young and old. I fear for my safety and well being all the time, but I put up with it because that’s all I can really do.

Think about it. If you were in a position where you felt constantly out of place, mistreated, and abused for simply existing as who you are, how much more difficult do you think life might be for you? How much more likely do you think you might be pushed to the point of wanting to end it all?

What should cis people do?

If you are cis and have made it this far, you may be feeling at least a little uncomfortable right now. You may feel that you are not directly responsible for trans suicides, and perhaps you are not. But that does not mean that your attitudes and the actions that reflect them don’t perpetuate cissexism. You may not hold any conscious prejudices against trans people, but keep in mind that implicit (unconscious) biases are real. Even if you don’t have any biases on the conscious level, it’s still very possible (even likely) that you have them at an unconscious level.

This is one of the things that make cissexism so sinister. It does not require any conscious intent. Thus it can be really difficult to recognize in ourselves and in other people. Cis people need be willing to look deep within themselves and critically examine how they may be perpetuating cissexism, both consciously and unconsciously, and act to mitigate it as much as possible.

Use our chosen names, even if they aren’t our ‘legal’ names. Use our pronouns, even if it’s singular ‘they’. Avoid cissexist language (click here, here, and here for examples). Respect us as the human beings and moral equals we are.

If you are ever in a situation where you identify cissexism in others (for example, in conversation with friends) you should speak up if it comes at relatively little risk to your safety and wellbeing. You don’t necessarily need to be a full time advocate, but we do need you to stick up for us when you can.

If you have the means, consider donating money and other resources to transgender folks. Plenty of us are in need of assistance and your help is appreciated.

Final comments

If you have made it this far, thank you. I know that this can be uncomfortable for a lot of people. However, discomfort is not always a bad thing. It has the power to facilitate positive change in many situations if it is allowed to.

Remember, cissexism and cisprivilege do not necessarily make cis people bad, but they do create a reality that harms trans people. That reality may require cis people to recognize their privilege and act in a way that minimizes harm to trans people. Please do what you can. We need it.