A documentary on the high-profile transition of Sonny and Cher’s only child Chastity Bono to “Chaz” was premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2011. Three years later, Time magazine featured Laverne Cox of the TV show Orange is the New Black on their cover. The heading read “The Transgender Tipping Point” and below that, in smaller print, was “America’s next civil rights frontier.” Jazz Jennings, at just 14 years old, is the youthful face of this frontier. He has already got the attention of millions on YouTube (thanks to ABC News’ 20/20 story “’I’m a Girl’ – Understanding Transgender Children”) and the promise of a reality show to premiere this summer on TLC.
Forget sex, it’s gender that sells.
Now, it’s Bruce Jenner, former Olympian and father to reality TV stars Kendall and Kylie Jenner, plastered on the cover of Vanity Fair, with the caption “Call me Caitlyn.” The question is: Should we? Skeptics muse that this is all a farce, a quest for fame and riches. Some are calling him the most famous transgender “woman” in the world. Days after his debut as Caitlyn, he amassed millions of Twitter followers. He is likely to gain even more when his docu-series I am Cait (which is intriguing to many advertisers) airs on E! television in July. Other factors, like his claim he’s now asexual and his involvement in a fatal car crash in February, certainly cast suspicion on his real motives for transitioning. And if Bruce Jenner’s feelings are legitimate? Is it then alright to call him Caitlyn?
A guide from GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) provides tips on what to say when referring to 65-year-old Bruce Jenner and what not to say. “Caitlyn” gets the green light but “Bruce Jenner” apparently falls under the nay category. So does any male pronoun. Because the list of politically correct and incorrect terms is always “evolving,” GLAAD has also generously offered a lexicon on transgender issues. They define “gender identity” as “one’s internal, deeply held sense of one’s gender,” and gender, according to the American Psychological Association, “refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviours that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex.”
It appears then that the experts have deemed the connection between gender and biological sex as simply cultural and nothing more. In doing so, they have turned gender into a mere social construct, code for “We-made-it-up,” and relegated gender identity to one’s preferred camp in this seemingly arbitrary game of make-believe. The astonishing part is that the champions of this movement think non-conformance to the cultural standard of “man” or “woman” means that instead of broadening our scope of gender to allow for exceptions to the norm, one’s biological sex should be glazed over or even one’s physical body mutilated.
Although challenges to traditional notions of gender appear sprinkled throughout history (castrated “priestesses” in ancient civilizations, two-spirited natives, the odd cross-dressing king or queen here and there), it was not until the mid-20th century that hormone treatments and sex changes really began, and organizations for transgender people (those whose gender identity is not congruent with the sex they were born as, regardless of whether they have had a sex-change or not) sprung up.
Transgender activism picked up in the late ‘60s and continued to increase through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Interestingly, some of the pushback came from lesbians and feminists, who saw the female body as being appropriated. Nevertheless, in 1972, Sweden became the first country to allow transsexuals (those who have undergone a sex change) to change their sex legally, even offering free hormone injections. The medical community in the United States remained resistant and in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association classified transgender people as having “gender identity disorder” or GID. In their fourth ddition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 1994, they estimated that the prevalence of GID was 1 in 30, 000 adult males and 1 in 100,000 adult females (although recent studies have suggested the prevalence is perhaps higher: the Amsterdam Gender Dysphoria Clinic says 1 in 10,000 males and 1 in 30,000 females). In 2012, “gender identity disorder” was replaced with “gender dysphoria,” which is what some transgender individuals displaying “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender” would be diagnosed with. The same year, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled that one’s sex could be legally changed even if one has not had sexual-reassignment surgery.
Strangely, physical reality – the human body – has now become the myth, the deception, the barrier blocking one from becoming what GLAAD’s president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis calls one’s “authentic self.” Or perhaps it’s not that strange at all. Contraception and abortion have attempted to beat back at biology for decades now. Of course, there are always consequences for those who take on Mother Nature.
According to one study in Ontario, 77 per cent of transgender people have considered committing suicide, and 45 per cent have actually attempted it. While progressives cry “stigma,” a Swedish study that spanned from 1973 to 2003 and involved 324 transgender participants found that it’s not quite that simple. Ten years after their sex change, transgender people commit suicide at a rate 20 times that of the population of non-trans individuals. The authors of the study concluded, “findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group.”
Johns Hopkins University’s Gender Identity Clinic was among the first in the United States to perform sex changes. However, once it became clear that sex-reassignment surgeries were doing nothing to correct the underlying psychological problems of the patients, the clinic ceased the practice. Somehow, trying to address mental troubles by distorting the body just didn’t work out.
Research from the United States and the Netherlands suggests that it could be one in five patients regret their sex changes. What happens if Bruce Jenner is among that group? After all, according to the Vanity Fair interview, he did suffer a panic attack and asked himself, “What did I just do? What did I just do to myself?” when he emerged from facial feminization surgery. “Coming out” as transgender warranted him the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN. How much more courage would expressing regret take? How fast would the media turn on him?
This is the cost of transgenderism. It has planted the idea that you can’t really know whether you’re male or female or none of the above. Gender, apparently, is fluid (though sex-change operations are hardly temporary). Some academics and activists are declaring that man or woman is a false dichotomy. Instead of checking box M or F, people should instead be free to move a sliding marker around on a scale whenever they feel a slight change in the wind. The Human Rights Tribunal in British Columbia is considering removing gender from birth certificates completely because the Trans Alliance Society has complained. Assigning one a sex at birth is audacious, much too presumptuous; except biological sex is a part of one’s identity, as is height, race, and ethnicity. To brush it off is also to sever a crucial piece of oneself.
On his new Twitter account, Bruce Jenner announced, “Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” His use of the third person reveals the disconnect. He’s attempting to learn how to be someone else – an impossible endeavour, impossible because Bruce Jenner is a man. He may be a man who shaved down his Adam’s apple and procured fake breasts but he is a man nonetheless and men and women are different.
LGBTQ activists like to ignore this fact when it comes to debates about same-sex marriage and the effect growing up without a father or mother has on a child but one would hope that there still is somewhat of a consensus on this basic premise. Certainly, if Bruce Jenner is willing to undergo hours of surgery to “become a woman” there has to be something significant enough to jump ship for.
With variances in anatomy and physiology come variances in behaviour, and thus, gender roles. Must one always adhere to this role as if it’s an immutable script? No, but at the same time, it’s foolish to think that just because one doesn’t play the prince, he must be the damsel. Our liberal culture may have tried to convince Bruce Jenner otherwise but no amount of surgery will change that fact