Bruce Jenner is a Woman. Here Is What It Means To Be Transgender.

Gender Identity, Transgender and Bruce Jenner Explained

by Avens O’Brien

[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]f you’ve been paying any attention lately, you’d know that Bruce Jenner, former Olympic gold medalist, came out on ABC’s 20/20 as a transgender woman this week. We discovered that a lot of people didn’t exactly understand what that meant, so we figured we’d answer a few questions that seemed to be popping up all over the internet and in our threads.

But he has a penis and XY chromosomes! He’s a man! How can he call himself a woman?

Bruce Jenner calls himself a woman because that is the gender he identifies as. He also stated in that interview that he prefers male pronouns until his transition is complete. If this confuses you, we’re here to help. We’re going to try to explain a bit more in detail, but at the end of the day you should try to remember something essential: What someone else calls themselves shouldn’t matter that much to you.

Gender identity is different than sex. Most people hear the word gender and are actually thinking of the word sex.

  • Sex is defined (by Wikipedia) as “the specialization into male and female varieties” of organisms. This is referring to biology, and the chromosomal makeup of organisms.
  • Sex assignment is defined (by Wikipedia) as “the discernment of the sex at the birth of a baby.” Generally a baby’s sex is identified through inspection of their genitalia at birth. Despite the word “assignment”, this does not usually refer to a “choice” by a parent, but rather an observation of physical characteristics of sex.
  • Gender is defined (by Wikipedia) as “the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these characteristics may include biological sex, sex-based social structures, or gender identity.”
  • Gender identity is defined (by Wikipedia) as “a person’s private sense and subjective experience of their own gender. All societies have a set of gender categories that can serve at the basis of the formation of a social identity in relation to other members of society. In most Western societies, there exists a gender binary, a social dichotomy that enforces conformance to the ideals of masculinity and femininity in all aspects of sex and gender.”

Basically, Bruce feels that his subjective gender is different than his biological sex.

Is that like being a hermaphrodite?

Transgender and intersex are two different things (but not mutually exclusive). The proper term for human with ambiguous genitalia (or ambiguous internal sexual characteristics) is intersex. Approximately 1% of live births exhibit some degree of sexual ambiguity.

Intersex is defined (by Wikipedia) as “a variation in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, or genitals that do not allow an individual to be distinctly identified as male or female. Such variation may involve genital ambiguity and combinations of chromosomal genotype and sexual phenotype other than XY-male and XX-female.”

Also important to note is the fact that “intersex infants and children are often surgically and/or hormonally altered to to fit into a perceived more socially acceptable sex category.” Often without a choice, and often irreversibly changed from their natural state. So anyone worried about the moral/legal issues of circumcision should consider intersex rights a very important issue in terms of bodily autonomy and infant rights.

Transgender is defined (by Wikipedia) as “the state of one’s gender identity or gender expression not matching one’s assigned sex.” This often leads to various feelings about conformation to their assigned sex, and if unable to safely exhibit these feelings of gender identity dysphoria may find themselves struggling socially with an internalized battle, but the the “degree to which individuals feel genuine, authentic, and comfortable within their external appearance and accept their genuine identity is referred to as transgender congruence.”

I’m normal! Why are they inventing new terms like “cisgender” to describe me?

The word “cisgender” is used (by Wikipedia) as a word to describe “gender identity where individual’s experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth”. The term began use in the 1990s, so you don’t get to blame Tumblr for this one. Yes, it expresses “gender-normativity”, but with transgender, transsexual and other variations appearing to be increasingly common and not outside a natural spectrum, “normal” isn’t really the right word for us anymore.

“Cis” comes from Latin, “on this side of” as a complement to “trans” which effectively means “on the other side of”. I’m not the biggest fan of the word myself, since I think it sounds funny and maybe a little gross, but I don’t like words “moist” or “mucous” either. Not my call, really.

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox

But I thought feminists hated gender roles. Now they’re accepting that the sexes are different?

I’m going to confess something here, as a feminist who has many transgender friends: it took me a while to “get it”.

I fight against imposing traditional gender roles all the time, so success to me feels like the moment that a cisgender female (born with a vulva and ovaries) can be a “tomboy” or play with army men or grow up and choose not to have children and still be a woman, not ostracized for her differences. Or that a cisgender male (born with a penis and testicles) can play with dolls or wear skirts or be a nanny and still be a man, not ostracized for his differences.

So, let’s just say it took me a while to understand why people feel the need to change their gender identification — can’t we just have girls who like legos and boys who like dollies and everybody can keep their bodies intact, who cares?

But then it struck me, in a multitude of mediums, from watching Boys Don’t Cry, to Transamerica, to speeches by Laverne Cox, to consistently applying my belief in liberty, that it doesn’t matter what I think about what makes somebody feel happy and complete. It matters what they think.

It matters to the person who has to live with their body, either intact or modified. It matters to the person who has to wake up every day and look at their face in a mirror, and determine whether or not that’s who they are inside. Only they get to decide what is right for them. I cannot fathom feeling like I’m in the wrong body. I don’t need to fathom it, I just need to understand and respect that other people feel it.

Biology isn’t our only defining factor. When it comes down to it, of course gender is different than pure biology. A cisgender woman who has a hysterectomy or mastectomy to fight cancer isn’t suddenly not a woman. What defines her womanhood? Her self-identification as such.

People get tattoos, porcelain veneers, breast implants, liposuction, they cut their hair, they dye their hair, they wear makeup, they get botox and hair transplants. People study to try to make themselves smarter, they work out to make themselves stronger, they diet to make their bodies different — everyone modifies themselves in some way, into whatever subjective image they have of themselves. Why is the decision to take hormones, wear other clothes, do a surgery or alter oneself in any way to make themselves feel more authentic or comfortable a problem? Or – any of your business at all?

Why should we ever deny anyone the right to try to find happiness, provided it isn’t infringing upon the liberty of others?

But it’s in the DSM as a mental disorder! How can you claim these people aren’t mentally ill?

First, the DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s been published in numerous editions since 1958, and previous editions included homosexuality, Asperger’s syndrome and more, to be mental disorders. It turns out that inclusion in the DSM is pretty much decided by a vote, and as social attitudes about various differences evolve (as well as scientific evidence), so does the DSM’s opinion of them (but often only when financially convenient). Frankly, the DSM is not a Bible, but a guidebook, something even psychologists will tell you.

Transgender people are more prone to depression and suicide! Doesn’t that indicate that they know what they’re doing is wrong?

It’s been said that between 40% to 50% of transgender individuals attempt suicide. Increasingly, we hear about these stories in the news, as people are less afraid to discuss the issue, or because they self-advocate even after they have killed themselves, like Leelah Alcorn did in December of 2014. Annually, activists and allies recognize International Transgender Remembrance Day.

Transgender children find various reactions, from the positive stories of parents allowing them to express their identity, to instances of being forced to undergo conversion therapies. Reading stories of some of the hate and pressure young transgender individuals feel from families and their communities is heartbreaking.

Not every transgender individual pursues surgery. Surgery itself doesn’t stop the depression that many feel (and some still feel “incomplete” after surgery)  – and some people have come to claim that this is due to sex itself not being the problem, and surgery being a false solution. Suicide rates post-surgery are still uncomfortably high.

However, surgery doesn’t change your position in society. it doesn’t make people call you or recognize you as the gender you identify as. It doesn’t stop the fact that transgender individuals (particularly of color) are disproportionately victims of violent crime and under enormous social pressure to conform. It’s not just about finding the place where your body and brain find peace, but also the fact that others need to accept it.

The continued marginalization of transgender individuals contributes massively to their struggles to accept themselves, and make a place within society. Dehumanizing these individuals, referring to them as “it”, cause terrible people to justify violent acts against them.

But this is against my religion or beliefs, why are you forcing tolerance of this on me?

So far it seems that we’re still dealing with people who misunderstand the word gender and are actually thinking of the word sex. I can’t recall a specific passage in the Bible outlawing the concept of transgender but I’m open to suggestions if you’ll show me.

In the meantime, what you believe and what is scientifically studied and accepted is another thing altogether. When it comes to gender identification, you’re absolutely right about one thing – I can’t make you believe Bruce Jenner is a woman any more than I can convince a Biblical literalist that the Earth is older than approximately 6,000 years. I can’t force you to change your mind. But I can advocate you learn to be a decent human being, respecting the humanity of another and accepting that others may choose to live their lives in ways you view as immoral – but that doesn’t mean you can force them to hide away from your personal sensitivities.

In the meantime, more transgender individuals in the media and the (positive) news give hope to young people who felt alone and unsupported. Silencing voices like Laverne Cox or Bruce Jenner does a disservice to many transgender youth struggling with their own experience. You don’t have to like it, but a social tolerance can literally save lives.

But I have a right to discriminate against them and their lifestyle! Why do you shame me for my beliefs?

As I mentioned above, I can’t force you to believe that Bruce Jenner is a woman now. However, me telling you that Bruce Jenner is a woman is not violating your rights. It is recognizing science and definitions. It’s not even shaming you. If you decide to discriminate against him or people like him, that’s really up to you, provided you don’t initiate violence.

However, hate, vitriol and misunderstanding this experience contribute to the previously mentioned high suicide rates. People are dying from suicide and from homicide, and since people love to remind everyone that we don’t live in a vacuum and our choices affect others, I’ll come right out and say it: being intolerant, disrespectful or emotionally cruel to anyone makes you less of a good person, and I do blame people like you for these deaths.

But all of this is recent! Tumblr made it “cool”, and now everybody just wants to change gender! Next I’m going to call myself a different race or, hell, I’m a teapot! You can’t stop me! This is all ridiculous! When does it end?

The concept of identifying differently than the sex characteristics you exhibit is not a new one. Societies throughout history and the world have had occurrences of a “third sex”, such as the Albanian burrnesha. The fact is, gender has had a certain level of fluidity to it even in history, and we’re just now talking about it openly. Transgender individuals, even when being hailed as “heroes” like Bruce Jenner was by many, are still targets of hatred, vitriol and discrimination. Just because Twitter or Diane Sawyer says it’s okay does not mean these individuals do not find themselves attacked, abused or even murdered simply for being themselves.

Here’s where it ends: when you stop making such a big deal about what other people call themselves.

What then what about actual sex with other people? Are they gay or what?

Transgender individuals may identify themselves as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or something else entirely. Their gender identity has little or nothing to do with their sexual preferences.

All this seems so complicated? Why can’t I just call people whatever the heck I want?

Do you call your friend “George” when his name is “John”? If your blonde friend dyed their hair brunette, would you call them your “blonde friend” anymore or would you describe them differently to others? Frankly, names and pronouns are factors of respect. Where is your line regarding respect? Do you decide to respect your friends to a point and then just draw a line saying “I stop respecting you as a human being with agency here”?

When it comes down to it, we should all try to be a bit more kind and compassionate towards everyone. It’d do us a world of good. So, when you encounter someone and you’re not sure (or even if you are), take their lead. What do they call themselves? What name did they use? You can always ask — which pronouns should I use for you? When in doubt, they/them is generally safe. But if they express a preference, use it.

Why do some people call themselves stuff like “gender-fluid”?

Many recognize that genders are not binary – the false dichotomy that one must be entirely one or the other is based on this concept that there are only those two options. One can have feminine and masculine characteristics – they do not have to exclusively adopt one and reject the other.

I still think it’s icky, why do you still persist on talking to me about this?

Because it shouldn’t matter if you find it “icky”. If you feel the need to legislate against this, you’re depressingly part of the problem: people trying to control others.

After all this information and research and explaining, you have every right to ignore everything I’ve just said. Every right.

But here’s the deal: people are struggling to find happiness. Every single day we seek happiness. Every single day we manage our discomforts and our worries, and we continue on, looking for the things that make us happy, that make us feel complete, and self-actualized.

Does a person identifying as another gender harm you in any way? Are you being asked to change your identity? Are you being physically harmed in any way?

No. It really doesn’t. You really aren’t. You are not inherently impacted by a transgender individual living their lives to their fullest. You can associate with whomever you want, and live whatever life you please, peacefully. Why not let others do the same?

How dare you speak for transgender individuals, did you even bother to ask if anyone approved?

Actually, yes. This piece was written by myself, but reviewed by a transgender friend, compiled on the advice of other transgender individuals, and is attempting to take the time to explain something that transgender individuals shouldn’t have to. I have the time, the patience, and I am not generally the target of hostility for my gender identity, so I wanted to contribute something educational, useful, and hopefully improve the dialogue.

I am missing a lot of information in this piece. The complications of biology, the rules surrounding asking people their transition stages, I’m probably not as sensitive as I should be towards the inherent internal experience which is gender. But I’m trying. This is not “the only source you’ll ever need” on the topic. This is a place to start.

Go be kind, go be gentle, go try to respect the liberty of others.

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