Bruce Jenner umaas shaken up our world and brought the question of gender to the forefront of popular consciousness. His two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer was a very well-planned introduction to the “real” Bruce Jenner, an introduction to a public figure we thought we somewhat knew, but actually haven’t met before. A few things we learned about this more authentic presenting Bruce is is that he is a woman “for all intents and purposes,” he is more feminine than masculine, he prefers male pronouns for now, and he’s also a Republican. Since conservatives are more likely to be unaccepting of those outside the accepted gender binary, all of these facts taken together threw everyone for a loop.
What is gender? Is it biological in some way, maybe in the brain? Is it a social construct? If you’re more feminine than masculine, do you have to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man or a woman? Do well-defined definitions matter to us more than they should?
One thing Bruce pointed out that gender is not necessarily tied to sexuality, i.e. who you want to have sex with. It’s also not necessarily tied to your sexual organs, DNA, or hormones, which are the given biological markers of male and female. Gender is something else, it lives in the brain and is definitely influenced by society and cultural norms and cues. Starting very young we are sent messages about what the differences are between girls and boys, these differences can seem very arbitrary and could apply to any gender, and they often change as cultural norms change. For example, the idea that girls are the ones who cook and play with dolls. Boys can and should do both of these things, in fact they do play with dolls given a different name: action figures. In the Victorian era, baby boys were often dressed in elaborate and frilly dresses, which would be considered cross-dressing today.
As these boundaries become defined for us, we can feel boxed in. Most of us are gender fluid, possibly all of us, because our preferences inside almost never completely align with all the gender expectations placed on us. Sometimes it’s ok, or even rewarded to cross certain gender boundaries. Sometimes, thanks to a degree of social progress, most of us can just feel out the world for ourselves and live as we wish. This is never easy. It’s never easy to be yourself, and it’s never easy to even figure out who or what that is.
The self, whatever it is inside that feels like “you” changes and grows, and the culture you reflect yourself off of, that your self interacts with to help define itself, is also constantly evolving. Sometimes it’s like being in a funhouse. Your community and world is reflecting all these different representations of you. They all seem familiar, but a bit strange. Some of these reflects seem more “right,” than others, there are some places where we feel more comfortable, more like ourselves. Sometimes we’re tricked about which path was the right way to go, we get enticed by illusions. It’s all an experiment, this life, but it’s a bit easier if you feel even somewhat comfortable in your own skin and how others seem to perceive you.
“I’m me. I’m not stuck in anybody’s body.” – Bruce Jenner
Sometimes, though, the characteristics and expectations of your assigned gender are too constricted. The roles you are supposed to play feel alien to you. You see how people treat and interact with the opposite gender, and you wish this was how people interacted with you. We can all feel distant in our identity from how we’re perceived and what’s expected of us, and most of us definitely have moments, usually many, many moments, when we feel our outward appearance is obscuring our “true “selves completely.
But, when the distance between who you feel you are inside and the outside gendered expression of that is too great, you may be going through a gender identity crisis that can be alleviated by transitioning to the outward expression of the what’s considered culturally to be the opposite gender.
Gender identity isn’t about being gay (sexuality is also a fluid thing,) it’s about being. The line between male and female isn’t a solid as we think it is. We’re all human mammals who reproduce using sex, and because there is an egg and a sperm needed for this, we tend to cling to this either/or thinking. It’s more simple to build cultures and morality systems around this duality instead of recognizing that the characteristics of what are labeled masculine or feminine exist in all of us on a spectrum of varying degrees. The expression of these characteristics are not neatly tied to whether we provide the egg or the sperm (some humans can actually provide both,) during the reproduction process. It’s not all wrapped up in who we are attracted to and wish to partner with.
Most of us are struggling with some sort of identity issue, and accepting non-conventional expressions of gender identities can hopefully save lives and make everyone feel a little more okay with peacefully expressing and being ourselves in a way that feels right to us. Bruce coming out as transgender isn’t about him “being a woman,” though that’s what it needs to represent to a lot of people, it’s about him being himself.
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