Monday, March 19, 2012

Cisgender and AIS

Hi, there, everyone! A while ago, Queer Intersects posted some ideas about the link between AIS (androgen insensitivity) - my own form of intersex - and cisgender. Cisgender can be broadly defined as identifying that your body form "matches up" with your gender identity. For example, "I am a biological female and I feel like a female! I am a cis-gender female." This term is often used in contrast to transgender, which can be defined as identifying that your body form does not match up with your gender identity. For example, "I was assigned male at birth, but I am a female! I am a female, who happens to be transgender." Other examples may include those who identify as genderqueer, where their biological sex does not necessarily match up with their gender identity, and/or their gender identity may not be either male or female. For example, "I was assigned female at birth, but I [do not identify as male or female] [identify as male or female some of the time] [identify as genderless] [do not use any labels to describe my gender]." There is a lot of variation in what it can mean to be transgender.

Before talking more about cis-gender, let's define AIS. AIS, or androgen insensitivity - is my own form of intersex. There are two main forms of AIS - CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity) and PAIS (partial androgen insensitivity). It's important to note, though, that there's not just two kinds of AIS; within each of these two broader categories, there are many variations within of how one's body may function and look. One of the hallmarks of AIS individuals, in general, is that they "look feminine" because they are adrogen insensitive to some degree (= their bodies cannot use testosterone at all (CAIS), or their bodies can use testosterone to some extent (PAIS)). Although some clinical literature states that AIS bodies may be "hyperfeminine," this concept has been challenged by Queer Intersects about what it means to be and look feminine in the first place. AIS bodies may be be albe to be accurately characterized as hyperfeminine, but regardless, AIS individuals walking down the street would not be labeled "male" by other passers-by by virtue of their intersex.

Why is this information about AIS relevant here? Weren't we going to talk about identity and cis-gender? We definitely are! This information is relevant because intersex indviduals may tend to have body features that result in others reading them as more masculine or more feminine, depending on their form of intersex. (Any individual - intersex or not - may look more masculine or feminine anyway, based on individual differences, but this isn't what we're referring to here.) Individuals with AIS variations happen to conform to stereoteypical ideas about what women look like, so they are almost alway regarded as exclusively female. Since most mainstream societies assume a link between biological sex and gender identity, AIS individuals are labeled as cis-gender females, even if passers-by on the street don't exactly use that terminology. (They'd be more likely to go, "Oh, look! A woman.").

While cisgender sounds relatively straightforward, things become more complex when considering AIS. Are AIS individuals actually cis-gender? Can an individual be both cis-gender and intersex? If you identify as intersex, does that inherently mean you cannot be cis-gender? What happens when others label you as cis-gender, but you don't feel like you are?

One thing to consider is that identity comes from different places. Self-identity and perceived identity by others are different phenomena. For example, I self-identify as intersex but am never identified as anything other than cis- female by others, unless those people know them me and are aware of my intersex identity. Since I'm read as cis-female, though, does this cancel out my self-identity? Is my intersex identity less real? No, it doesn't mean that it's less real; it simply means that there is sometimes a discontinuity between self-identities and perceived identies. If perceived identities are incorrect (= others assume you are someone you're not), it doesn't mean that one's self identity is less real, although it complicates communicating who you are since intersex is still largely misundertood or unheard of. If self-identity is about knowing who you are, then perceived identity is about visibility. AIS individuals who identify as intersex may feel uncomfortable being perceived since their intersex identity is not visibile. The fact that intersex is stgmatized, and discussing intersex in a meaningful way is uncommon, does not make it easier to clarify such situations by communicating one's intersex identity.

It is also worth nothing that identities may not be static, but fluid. Identities may shift over short or long periods of time - for example, over the course of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, etc. Individuals that have a fluid sex and/or gender identity - whether on a frequent basis, or a one-time event - may also feel dissonance between their self-identities and perceived identities if they feel that their self-identity has changed over time and their perceived identity has not, or vice versa, or if both fluctuate.

Another interesting point in sussing out the relationship between cis-gender and intersex is that whether one identifies as cis-gender or not, AIS individuals still receive cis- privilege by virtue of being read as cis-gender. Some intersex individuals may variably be read as either male or female by others; some people may feel uncomfortable and verbally or physically assult individuals they feel are not easily labeled as "male" or "female." AIS individuals are not subject to this kind of discrimination since they are almost always identified as "female," and thus don't any difficulty in being labeled male or female by others because of their intersex. Going further, the relationship between intersex and the cocnept of cis-gender itself merits scrutiny. While Queer Intersects points out the difficulty in finding clear-cut, inclusive definitions of what "cis" really is, the concept of cis-gender is really simplified in thinking that it's when your body "matches up" with your gender identity - i.e., "I identify as female and I'm female-bodied"; "I identify as male and I'm male-bodied." (Of course, this assumes that sex and gender identities need to "match up" in a certain way, which is not the case. You are who say you are! Period.) Accounting for intersex bodies, it becomes clear that biological sex is not binary - there are many variations. If we agree that intersex bodies exist legimately in their own right, and aren't "in between" or "ambiguous" with regard to male and female forms, then the concept of "opposite" doesn't make sense. For an individual who identifies as intersex, what would the opposite be? What would the not-opposite look like? Is the concept of your-identities-don't-need-to-match-up-in-a-particular-way-to-be-valid relevant here? is that I need think more about this.

Part of me thinks that if we embraced the fact that there are not only two kinds of biological sex - male and feamle - then the utility using the terms cisgender and transgender would break down. If we accepted that there aren't just two kinds of sex, describing one's gender as the "same as" or "opposite" one's sex cease to be meaningful. However, this line of thought assumes that individuals that could be included as intersex individuals actually identify as intersex - something that is not necessarily the case. Individuals may identify as males or females, who happen to be intersex, for instance. They acknowledge that they are intersex, but it's not a part of their IDENTITY. In these cases, using terms like cis- and trans- may be more useful in describing their identity.


Intersex identities make it clear that the concept of cis-gender, and its use as an identity label, is much more complex that it may initially seem. Here, we've got several different viewpoints that may contradict one another in various ways. It may be tempting to conclude that there's no answer to how intersex and cis-gender relate, but I think that the answer is that this issue is complex and a diversity of thought exists about these concepts. The answer is that things are really messy, and more discussion is necessary to clarify the relationship between intersex and cis-gender. Answers don't = easy answers, for sure. What do you think?


  1. As an intersexual who considers himself (for lack of a more truly feasible pronoun, heh) cis-gendered (that is to say, intersex-identified), here's my take on things:

    The 'cis' in 'cisgender' is the same 'cis' one encounters in chemistry. In chemistry, it means, effectively, 'on the same side;' as opposed to 'trans-,' which means 'on the opposite side.' It basically tells you where functional groups are located in relation to one-another.

    While it has been adopted by some as a shorthand to mean 'identifies with (assigned) birth gender in accordance with sociocultural norms,' I think makes more sense to understand it as meaning 'sex and gender are in alignment.' My body and my sense of gender are not in conflict, though for a while I thought they were (that was, in my case, a question of mistaking difficulty finding people who understood who I was for conflict inside myself).

    Being 'cisgendered' is not problematic when one's body and gender conform to sociocultural norms; it can, however, be problematic if your body and gender don't conform to said norms. One who is physically intersex and who identifies as intersex would very literally be cisgendered, but being cisgendered in such cases doesn't make things easier.

    My experience has been that being a cisgendered IS person can be quite awkward in a culture that recognizes only two possible variables. The world generally (though not always) perceives me as a gay male. I'm reasonably okay with that, but it isn't quite an accurate description of who I am. Closer, I suppose, than it would be if the world assumed I was a gay female (since I am primarily attracted to men), but close -- as they say -- only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades :)

    Occasionally, the world assumes I'm a straight male, which causes me a weird kind of cognitive dissonance (this also happens to my fiance, who perceives himself as a 'queeny guy,' but who in fact seems pretty normative at first pass).

    I like your thoughts, here, by the way. I hope I don't come across as excessively critical. Unfortunately, I am gifted with the social grace and tact of your average wolverine.

    Anyway, it seems like, in recent months, my fiance and I have been stumbling across more thoughtful IS blogs, and that makes me happy. I'm glad you're out there!

  2. to me, "trans*" just means that you were designated the wrong gender at birth. for instance, i was designated female at birth, but i'm not a woman; i'm a nonbinary trans* person.

    lots of trans* folks don't want/need to change their bodies and i think you sort of erased those people in this post.

    other than that, i really like this post; totally interesting and i'll be checking out the rest of your blog.

  3. Hi, rainbowgenderpunk! Thanks for commenting! I am sorry that it came across that way; I tried to zero in on the fact that trans* identity doesn't follow along binary lines in my first paragraph. I am in no way trying to erase non-binary trans* individuals in this post.

  4. Hi, Asher! First off, as a scientist, can I just say that I love that you used a chemical definition of "cis-"? Yay!

    Hmmm, that's interesting. Based on your definition of cisgender, though, I think having one's sex and gender be "in alignment" = in accordance with sociocultural norms at that time. I wouldn't agree that in general, the "cis" gender identity for intersex (biological sex) is intersex (gender identity). I think it's complex because not all individuals who could be labeled by others as intersex identify as intersex themselves, in terms of biological sex. Things are so complex, with identity! Man!

    One thing I kind of like about your definition is, if taken literally, that cisgender = when your sex and gender is in alignment, then anyone who's happy with both their sex and gender is cisgender! A person who was assigned female or male or intersex at birth would be cisgender regardless of what sex they were assigned or what their gender identity/ies are as long as they like 'em! I don't think this concept is really legit, but I liked that idea! :)

  5. Hi.. I've come across this blog whilst trying to find out more about intersexuality, as I remember, when studying A-level Psychology in 1997, some fascinating stuff about self-identity, physiology, genes, hormones, and cultural forces...and the Party I'm in is trying to fix gender quotas for some posts at the mo. It seems many people, if they've heard of intersex! assumes that such a person wants to be M or F. I immediately wondered why some shouldn't want to identify as intersex (ie be cis-gendered) -although I imagine don't imagine it's easy because of wider societal prejudices or confusions. However, if we look to the more 'social' aspects of gender identity, I would think that plenty of men (physiologically, genetically, hormonally male -and sexually attracted to women) might feel more like females in terms of classic behavioural traits and ways of thinking. Assuming that describes me: I might feel really uncomfortable about being labelled 'male' because of what society expects of a male in terms of attitude, behaviour, interest. In terms of my mind, I might want to identify as female. Does this in any make me transgender, or simply opposed to sexist stereotyping? [The converse could equally apply for a 'classic female']. Also, if gender is at least partly a socially construct, could I not, in a balanced kind of way! want to identify as intersexual? Or do I need to be medically defined as a such?
    Perhaps a whole more complex code of identity is needed, so someone could score (perhaps on a 1-5 scale between complete femaleness and maleness) 'physiologically', then 'genetically', then 'hormonally', then 'mentally' ..followed by a score for sexual preferences (itself a complex mix of spectra re :gender markers, asexuality, polygamy to monogamy, and flexibility of preferences over time) Most of the time, I don't really think about people's 'gender' -in a way, I wish we didn't have to...I don't think it's really important most of the time (well, shouldn't be) - I don't even really see the point of it on a passport (although the M/F/X option in Australia is better than the standard M/F option)