In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court on Thursday said it was unconstitutional to distinguish between married and unmarried women while allowing abortion when the foetus is between 20-24 weeks. Going a step further, the court said the term ‘woman’ in the judgment included persons other than cisgender women.
The three-judge bench said in the order delivered by Justice D Y Chandrachud, “Before we embark upon a discussion on the law and its application, it must be mentioned that we use the term ‘woman’ in this judgment as including persons other than cis-gender women who may require access to safe medical termination of their pregnancies.”
The term cisgender is used to define people whose gender identity and expression match the identity assigned to them at birth.
When a child is born, it is assigned a gender identity based on its physical characteristics. Many believe that gender is a social construct, and growing up, the child may or may not confirm to the birth identity.
For transgender people, their sense of gender identity does not match the one assigned to them at birth.
Thus, a cisgender woman is a person who was assigned female at birth and continues to identify as a woman. On the other hand, a child assigned female at birth can feel it identifies more authentically as a man as it grows up.
The latin prefix ‘cis’ literally means ‘on the same side of’, while ‘trans’ means on the other side. Trans as a prefix is used commonly (transatlantic, trans-tasman), though cis is rarer in popular usage.
‘Cisgender’ entered Britain’s Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, and the USA’s Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2016. Both dictionaries document its first usage around 1994. Dana Leland Defosse, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, is believed to have first used the word in connection with a study on transphobia, in May 1994.
What is commonly agreed upon is that the word existed in academic journals since the mid-90s. It was popularised by gender theorist and activist Julia Serano’s 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and gradually, especially with the advent of the internet, became part enough of popular parlance to be included in the dictionaries.
Quite simply, if there are ‘transgender’ people, there should be a word for those who are not. Giving a label to only one section of the population, especially when that is in the minority, implies that the others are default, ‘normal’, and only that section needs to be labeled.
Having distinct words for transgender and cisgender people denotes that both are equally valid, neutral experiences, with neither being an aberration.
Also, cis and trans are not the only gender identifiers in use. There are many other terms, such as genderqueer, gender fluid and gender variant. Some also choose not to use the traditionally gender-tied pronouns of he/she/her/his, and go for they/them.
Criticism of the word
Some people, including those working on trans rights, feel terms like ‘cisgender’ belong in the realm of gender theory alone, and their usage can be counterproductive – people are less likely to grasp a message if they have to look up the individual words that make up the message.
Others feel ‘cisgender’ as a counter to ‘transgender’ is restrictive – reinforcing a binary of genders that many choose to reject – and does not have space for intersex people (people born with a combination of male and female biological features).
Use of gender-inclusive vocabularies in official documents
Before India’s Supreme Court used ‘cisgender’ in the context of reproductive rights, last year in June, the US government had replaced the word ‘mothers’ with ‘birthing people’ in a section on bringing down maternal mortality in its 2022 fiscal year budget, provoking quite a furore in Republican circles.
Those who advocate the use of ‘birthing people’ say it is not just women who give birth. Transmen — a person assigned the female gender at birth but who identifies as a man – and genderqueer people – who identify as neither man nor woman – also give birth.
Cases of ‘men’ giving birth
Two prominent cases of ‘men’ who gave birth are USA’s Thomas Beatie and UK’s Freddy McConnell.
Beatie, assigned female at birth but legally male, had, while transitioning, kept his female reproductive organs because his wife was infertile. His case hit the headlines in 2008, when he gave birth to his daughter. Beatie went on to give birth to two more children.
McConnell in 2019 lost a much-publicised legal battle to be officially recognised as the father, and not the mother, of the baby he gave birth to. McConnell had argued that though he was born female, he was a man by the time the child was born in 2018.