When Bruce Jenner came out as transgender, a national conversation was started.
Like many people last Friday night, I watched the Bruce Jenner interview on ABC News. I have to admit, I was skeptical. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was another Kardashian ratings stunt. I quickly concluded that it was not.
I’ve heard Jenner’s story many times over from people I’ve met in the transgender community. If one thinks gay people are misunderstood, the transgender population is a subject of confusion and, consequently, prejudice for many on the outside.
According to sociologists, we build and maintain our homogeneous cultures as an evolutionary response to threat. We naturally fear people who don’t look or act like us, unless we’ve been raised in an environment that integrates a variety of cultures, colors and experiences.
Many years ago I played keyboards for a black choir. After travelling and playing with them for several months I invited them to sing in my all white church. We hosted a small get-together after the service and I quickly noticed that each race went to its own virtual corner, with very little mingling. It wasn’t a matter of prejudice, but of the unknown on both sides.
While we don’t know a lot about makes someone definitively transgender, we know much more than we used to, thanks to ongoing studies in neurology, psychology and cultural anthropology.
Brain sex does not always match the gender
As I wrote a few weeks ago, in Brain Sex: Gender Sexuality and Cultural Roles, human gender and sexuality is a conglomeration of neurology, biology, psychology and environmental factors. It is possible for someone to be physically one gender, while having the chromosomes, or even external sex organs of another.
According to the Intersex Society of North America, around 1 in 1,500-2,000 births will result in a child with atypical genitalia. In the mid-20th century, doctors would decide which gender the child was based on genitalia alone, usually without consulting the parents. They believed that if the child was raised being told what gender it was, the child would simply become that gender. Disastrous results soon followed, making the medical community rethink everything they believed about intersex people.
Gender is different than orientation
As Jenner pointed out at the beginning of the interview, gender and sexual orientation are not the same. Several months ago, Andrew Caldwell, in his infamous “deliverance” video declared, “I’m not gay no more!” He went on to erroneously tell the crowd that he wouldn’t dress as a woman or carry a purse. Those are two different things.
I don’t know who Diane Sawyer quoted on the show, but she rightly stated, “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with. Gender identity is who you go to bed as.” The two are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to be a lesbian, gay or bisexual transgender person.
It’s also important to point out that human beings are not as binary as we’d like to think. Both genders may exhibit culturally identified characteristics of the other. I have straight male friends with characteristics that I would identify as feminine. They are happily married and happily straight. I also have female friends I tease for thinking and acting like American cultural males, but they are also exclusively attracted to the opposite sex. Many of us make judgments and assumptions about people we perceive as gay because of mannerisms our culture defines for us.
This is not a new phenomenon
In some Native American societies gender-variant people were called “two-spirited,” meaning they embodied both male and female characteristics of their cultures. Earlier in the Muslim culture, history notes they were called, “mukhannathum.” And there are records, though sparse, for Africa, Asia and at other points throughout history where someone’s gender was noted as a cross between the sexes.
The study of gender and sexuality is relatively new, beginning at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century. Only recently have we begun to study and identify biological and neurological connections.
Gender is inborn and not created.
While the way gender is expressed is cultural, its existence is not. We know from research that LGBT people are not created from their environmental surroundings. Some religious groups point to distant relationships with same-sex parents, physical or sexual abuse, or some trauma that sent the victim into a rebellion against their born gender and God. This is completely unfounded. In fact, if those factors created LGBT people, statistically, there should be more LGBT people than there actually are.
Typically, when a scientist says “environmental factors,” they are not talking about how someone was raised. Environmental factors can have something to do with what was going on in the womb hormonally and chemically, or there could be other biological factors outside of the specific study scientists are conducting.
Transgender people are not mentally ill
There is no research to suggest that transgender people have any greater propensity toward mental illness than the rest of the population. The caveat, of course, is societal acceptance, starting with their own families. In those cases, The Family Acceptance Project notes that youth are nearly 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide, nearly 6 times more likely to report higher levels of depression and more than 3 times likely to use illegal drugs.
Theologian and trans activist Dr. Adam Ackley spent years trying to run away from his problems through drugs and alcohol. Still, he recounted in an interview, “I thought my community would be happy [when I finally came out], but it was pretty hard to get the message that we preferred you insane and dying than healthy.”
Additionally, it’s not uncommon for transgender people, upon realizing that they are “trapped in the wrong body,” to jump into the hyper-masculinity or hyper-femininity of their birth sex. They believe that becoming world famous athletes, as in Jenner’s case, or decorated soldiers, or super moms, or hot models, will cure their innate need to be the opposite gender. Only self-acceptance sets them free from the mental conflict, allowing them to move on with their lives in complete authenticity.
Society has a long way to go toward acceptance
While there was an outcry from the LGBT community about the suicide of transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn, we have a long way to go in learning to love and understand transgender people as a society.
In 2015 alone, several deaths have been reported due to violent attacks. Vanessa Santillan, a 33-year-old from Miami, Florida was fatally beaten. The death of 46-year-old Kristina Gomez Reinwald, also from Miami, Florida, was initially reported as a suicide, but later changed to a homicide as more evidence surfaced. 22-year-old Bri Golec, of Akron, Ohio, was stabbed to death by her own father.
It takes the courage of people like Bruce Jenner, who has nothing to gain at this point in life, to stand up and be noticed. A 2013 Pew Research poll stated that 87% of Americans know someone who is gay. According to Diane Sawyer, only 7% of Americans said they know someone who is transgender. Jenner, along with others, will change that statistic and the way transgender people are viewed, as they come forward and come out.
Photo – ABC News