If you aren’t familiar with the many terms used to describe members of LGBTQIA+ communities, they may seem like a big ol’ bowl of alphabet soup. But there’s a good reason for all those terms: People are unique, and varying gender identities and sexual orientations can make it hard to fit into a two-gender box.
But what about other terms, like “cisgender,” that often (but not always) exist outside the LGBTQIA+ community? Are you automatically straight if you’re cisgender?
Let us explain cisgender vs. straight.
A cisgender, or “cis,” person identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth. So a cisgender person’s sex on their original birth certificate matches their current gender identity.
You might also see terms like “assigned male at birth” (AMAB) or “assigned female at birth” (AFAB) used to describe someone’s birth gender.
If a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth, they may identify as transgender or nonbinary.
Are you always male or female at birth?
In the United States, there’s a legal movement for a more inclusive approach to gender. Currently, 13 states allow you to change your birth certificate to say “male,” “female,” or the gender-neutral option “X.”
Identifying as straight is pretty, er, straightforward. Having a sexual orientation of straight means that someone’s attraction, either sexual or romantic, is to a gender other than their own.
This definition is deeply ingrained in societal norms. A straight relationship is typically between a person who identifies as a man and a person who identifies as a woman.
“Cisgender” is a gender identity. Gender identity describes how a person identifies themself, such as man, woman, nonbinary, or another identity they prefer. So if someone who was assigned male at birth identifies as a man, he’d be a cisgender male.
“Straight” is a sexual orientation, which describes one’s attraction to other people. Someone is straight if they identify as one gender and are attracted to the “opposite” gender.
A straight relationship is typically seen as involving a cisgender male and a cisgender female. But people whose gender differs from the one they were assigned at birth can still be straight if they’re attracted to a different gender.
When Murray in “Clueless” refers to Dionne as “woman,” that’s her gender. But calling her “female,” well, that would be her sex. What’s the difference? It’s not a simple answer.
Gender is typically influenced by society, not biology, and is responsible for the association of certain traits, language, behavior, and characteristics with being a man or a woman. But gender can be more complex and nuanced than the binary terms.
A person’s gender is often conflated with their sex. Sex is traditionally designated by doctors based on a person’s genitalia at birth. But gender identity is a more expansive view that goes beyond your sex. For example, a trans man could have female genitalia but identify as a man, not a woman.
Bottom line: Your sex (based on genitalia) doesn’t have to “match” your gender (how you identify). Your gender identity isn’t stuck in the construct of your sex.
What about intersex?
The term “intersex” refers to someone’s biological sex not fitting into the binary of male or female. But this term doesn’t dictate gender.
When a person is born intersex, their genitalia, sex organs, hormones, or chromosomes have both female- and male-identifying characteristics. This means an intersex person can have both a uterus and testicles, but they could identify as a man, a woman, nonbinary, etc.
This is also known as a person having a difference in sex development (DSD). It occurs naturally, although some characteristics don’t develop until later in life. Research suggests that about 1 in 100 people are born with DSDs.
As with most things related to gender, it’s not as simple as a person being either cisgender or transgender.
To be either cisgender or transgender still relies on the gender binary of male or female as the framework. Have a penis and identify as a man? Cisgender. Assigned male at birth but identify as a woman? Transgender.
Other gender identities or expressions that don’t always fit into the category of cisgender or transgender include:
- Nonbinary. Some folks don’t identify as either a man or a woman, while others identify as both. “Nonbinary” is often used as an umbrella term for people whose gender identities exist outside the binary of man and woman.
- Gender-fluid. A person can also identify as gender-fluid, which means their gender identity is not fixed — instead, they move between identities. One moment “man” fits, and another “woman” feels best.
- Gender-nonconforming. This means someone’s gender expression doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth. But people who identify as gender-nonconforming may also identify as cisgender.
These are just a few examples. There are more than 64 terms that can describe a person’s gender identity or expression.
The deal with gender identify
Gender identity is up to each individual to decide. And someone’s gender identity may not match their gender expression. For example, someone may identify as a woman, but their appearance may be masculine.
Sexual orientation is a spectrum, which means someone can identify in a myriad of ways beyond straight and gay.
Some (but not all) of the possible sexual orientations include:
- Gay. Sexual and romantic attraction to people of the same gender.
- Straight. Sexual and romantic attraction to people of a different gender.
- Queer. Often used to encompass the fluidity of one’s sexual orientation as not straight. (You can also choose not to identify with any sexual orientation at all.)
- Bisexual. Sexual attraction to people of the same gender and other genders.
- Biromantic. Romantic attraction to people of the same gender and other genders.
- Asexual. Experiencing little to no sexual attraction to anyone.
- Aromantic. Experiencing little to no romantic attraction to any gender.
The deal with sexual orientation
Your sexual orientation can be unique to your sexual and romantic attractions. Some people view their sexual orientation as fluid, falling in a different place along the spectrum at any given moment. Others can experience romantic attraction to the same gender but sexual attraction to all genders.
If you identify as cisgender and straight, you are considered cishet — this term is an abbreviation of “cisgender and heterosexual.”
So, a person who is cishet identifies as the gender they were given at birth and is attracted to a different gender.
Since “cisgender” is a gender identity and “straight” is a sexual orientation, one doesn’t determine the other.
These are two separate and individual identities. Some cisgender people identify as gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual, fluid, or any number of other identities that makes them not straight.
You can be transgender and straight. There are people whose gender identity doesn’t match the one they were assigned at birth but who experience attraction only to those of a different gender.
A poll from analytics company Gallup found that 66 percent of transgender people who were asked identified as straight.
A transgender man who is attracted only to women would be straight.
“Gay or straight” doesn’t cover all the ways people experience romantic love or sexual attraction. In the same vein, looking at gender as solely “man” or “woman” leaves out nonbinary, intersex, and other expansive gender identities.
These terms exist so each individual can use the term that works best for them. If your favorite color were blue, you likely wouldn’t take kindly to someone telling you that your favorite color had to be yellow or red. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not one-size-fits-all.
Don’t assume everyone you meet is cisgender or straight. Someone could be gay, straight, or anything in between.
If you’re unsure of someone’s gender identity, you can always ask, “What are you pronouns?” Just know that it’s never OK to reveal someone else’s sexual orientation or gender identity unless you have their permission.
- they/them (for one person)
But some folks might not feel comfortable telling you, and that’s OK too. If you know a person’s identity, respect their pronouns. And if you don’t, try to use nonbinary language like “folks” or “they/them,” or just use their name.
A way to share your pronouns when introducing yourself could be “My name is ______, and my pronouns are she/her.” You can also share your pronouns on your social media and other identifying places.
It’s not a question of cisgender vs. straight, because this combination is not mutually exclusive. “Cisgender” and “straight” represent two squares on the much larger quilt of possible identities.
Each individual is the best possible expert on which gender identity and sexual orientation fit them. So before you assume, consult the expert.