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Questioning the Definition of (Cis/Trans)Gender

Updated: May 5, 2022


Even though the word ‘trans’ ‘bear[s] a myriad of divergent meanings, for the many people who use them,’[1] transgender studies scholars often dictate that transgender existence is always about ‘movement’.

For example, Susan Stryker defined transgender existence as ‘a movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place,’ whereas Hayward and Weinstein propose that it is a ‘movement across precisely vitality itself.”[2]Transgender therefore reifies the idea that a person may be born as one gender, then move to another.

However, it may be preferable to use the term ‘gender non-normative’ (‘normative’ meaning a person who fits definitively into ciswhiteheteropatriarchal ‘male’ or ‘female’).


As Kean writes, the phrase gender non-normative ‘is especially helpful when referring to youth who may be expressing themselves in non-normative ways but have not adopted a trans gender identity, or have not come out publicly as trans.’[3]

Since ‘cisgender’ is often used to mean ‘a person who identifies the same gender as they were given at birth,’ we end up walking into a few dead-ends, so to speak.

I shall give some examples that I have thought of - where this definition of transgender as change might create issues when we are trying to talk about gender non-normative people, or gender minorities.

(1) A person whose parents and/or state have not assigned a gender at birth.

a. And they still attribute themselves to this non-gender.

i. In which case, they would be considered cisgender.

b. And they do not attribute themselves to this non-gender.

i. In which case, they would be considered transgender.

Further questions are raised here: is the person then cis-nongender or trans-nongender? In (a), is the person neither cisgender nor transgender, as these are both gendered terms and the person does not have a gender? In (b) is the person cisgender, due to the fact that they have never had a gender, and therefore have not changed genders – or is non-gender still considered a gender?

(2) A person whose parents and/or state have assigned a gender non-normative or minority gender at birth:

a. And they still attribute themselves to this gender/non-gender.

i. In which case, they would be considered cis-gender.

b. And they do not attribute themselves to this gender/non-gender.

i. In which case, they would be considered trans-gender.


Ultimately, as one might have expected, the categories of trans and cisgender end up blurred together. It cannot be said that transgender studies scholars wish these categories to truly hold up – after all, transgender studies is more about communicating and understanding what it means to be gender non-normative; not rigidly enforcing gender binaries.

However, when writing for cisgender audiences, I cannot help but feel as if I am enforcing rigid definitions if I use transgender and I do not critique – at every possible moment – the ways in which trans as ‘movement’ from one gender to another might be wholly inadequate to describe gender non-normative existence.

This ‘normality’ is, perhaps, just as uncategorisable as ‘transgender’. After all, if the ‘abnormal’ (transgender) is complicated in its categorisation, then its reflection of ‘normal’ (cisgender) may also be so. Kean’s use of the words ‘especially helpful’ in reference to this specific instance may infer a problem in transgender discourse – that a hierarchy is established in the face of categories of non-normativity.

Perhaps the general definition of 'transgender' should be regarded as 'a person whose gender is not the

Regardless of what this debate withholds, we may always fall back on the fact that language (and its categories) are created through a complex web of both social and material intricacies.



[1] Greta LaFleur et al., Trans Historical: Gender Plurality Before the Modern, 2021, p. 15. [2] Cáel M. Keegan, Laura Horak, and Eliza Steinbock, ‘Cinematic/Trans*/Bodies Now (and Then, and to Come)’, in Somatechnics, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, vol. 8, iss. 1, pp. 1-13. p. 2. [3] Eli Kean, ‘Locating Transgender Within the Language of Queer in Teacher Education’, in Multicultural Perspectives, 2020 vol. 22, iss. 2, pp. 57-67. p. 62.



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