I’ve been asked a question that has taken various shapes & forms in conversations about trans rights. This question is typically asked as a sort of “gotcha” logic trap, though it can be asked out of a genuine desire to understand.
Here’s the question:
Why do trans people get to pick and choose their labels, but cisgender people can’t? Isn’t that a double standard?
Regardless of whether the motivation behind this question is to shut trans people down or to truly understand us, it’s based on a common and profound misunderstanding of what it means to be trans.
For anyone who genuinely wants to know the answer (and for fellow trans people dealing with being asked this question), I wrote this for you.
Trans people are correcting a false label
My experience as a trans person is in no way representative of all trans people. There are infinite different ways for a person to be trans. Trans folks can be women whose bodies were labeled “boy” when they were born, or men who were labeled “girl.” They can be folks who deal with gender dysphoria, or experience none whatsoever. They can have no gender, or their gender can vary from day to day. There are many different gender identities, and many different trans experiences.
The thing that unifies us all as “transgender” is that each of us was assigned the wrong gender label. All of us have our own path to correcting that false label.
For some of us, the journey is filled with joy and acceptance for our differences. A trans person may experience being seen, loved, and embraced for the person they truly are, and then come to easily identify labels that describe them more accurately than the wrong one that was put on their birth certificate.
For others, it’s a painful journey with many obstacles. A trans person may find themself surrounded by people who are so adamant about the false label that they refuse to even entertain the idea that the real person they are could even exist—even to a point of forcing them to live as the wrong gender. This is a horrific form of oppression. Historically, it’s been the norm for many people, but we’re making progress to change this.
The trans experience can be either of these, anywhere in between, or something else entirely.
All that to say, transgender people aren’t “choosing” a label, so much as we are correcting the false label that was wrongly forced onto us by a society that has tried to erase our identities (whether intentionally, out of fear and hate—or accidentally, out of well-meaning ignorance).
It’s often a misnomer that trans people are trying to find a label that makes us feel more special and unique. Really, we’re just trying to find a label that feels accurate and true. It’s often hard work to find the label that really fits, because the culture we live in often teaches us that even thinking about this is taboo. The process can take many turns as we go deeper and deeper into understanding aspects of ourselves that much of society doesn’t even think about.
There are many different labels because there are many different kinds of people. The labels exist to describe true experiences, many of which have been isolated and silenced for decades.
Cisgender means your label is already accurate
Cisgender people, in contrast, were labeled with the correct gender when they were born. For example, if a woman is cisgender, the doctor labeled her a girl when she was born, and the doctor was right. This is what makes her cisgender.
Cisgender people have the much less demanding experience of not needing to correct a mislabeling that kicked off their life, because doctors, government, and their friends and family didn’t get it wrong.
This is why they don’t “choose” their gender label. If they needed a different gender label, they could certainly have it, but then they wouldn’t be cisgender. That would make them transgender. In which case, they would then go through the process of soul searching and trying to find the label that really did fit them.
Cisgender isn’t a term transgender people came up with. It’s not a slur. It’s just part of a pair of words that form a dichotomy:
- Transgender: people whose gender is different from the one they were labeled with at birth
- Cisgender: people whose gender is the same as the one they were labeled with at birth
The bottom line is this: whether trans or cis, none of us choose our gender. Regardless, it’s important to have an accurate label.
For transgender people, there are more steps we have to take to come by it.