What Makes You Your Gender?

June 30, 2015
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About the Author: Isaac Preiss, featured in the FRONTLINE documentary Growing Up Trans, was among the first generation of kids in the U.S. to medically transition from one gender to another. Today, Preiss, 20, studies film and gender studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. 

When Caitlyn Jenner revealed to the world her new identity as a woman in Vanity Fair this month, it marked a turning point for transgender visibility. By no means is Jenner the first openly transgender celebrity, but what makes her transition so notable is that her former public persona was, in many ways, the epitome of American masculinity. As an Olympic hero for the U.S. in the 1976 summer games, Jenner set a new standard for what a man could be. For Jenner to profess that she was lying to herself, her family and her friends, and is in truth a woman, shakes a foundational part of American culture. She ripped the gender paradigm from its roots. Or so it seems.

In April, when Jenner first came out as transgender in an interview with Diane Sawyer, there was no doubting she was a woman. She spoke from the heart about her experience with gender, making clear that her transition was what she needed to do in order to feel complete. Sawyer demonstrated what presumably would be the American public’s confused reaction, literally clutching her head at one point, asking Jenner to help her understand. The confusion seemed to stem from the fact that Jenner was not coming out as a heterosexual woman — that she didn’t consider her past wives or relationships to be part of an overarching lie of her gender, but genuine experiences of love.

The confusion was probably eased when Jenner revealed her new name, Caitlyn, in the eagerly awaited Vanity Fair story. On the cover, Jenner was wearing a sort of 1950s, Marilyn Monroe-style one-piece, her hair perfectly styled, her head seductively cocked to the side, shooting a proud half-smile. If there were any questions about her masculinity left over from her appearance with Sawyer, the Jenner in Vanity Fair had been sucked back into the comfort of our gendered world. After decades of praise for being a masculine man with a capital M, Jenner had made the full leap over every possible inch of the gender spectrum.

That doesn’t mean she was safe from criticism. In one notable op-ed from The New York Times, Jenner’s transition was criticized as another example of a man trying to define womanhood. This view, however, unfairly pinned the struggles of gender equality and identity politics on the backs of transgender people — a community that is perhaps most violently affected by gender stereotypes and inequality. Caitlyn Jenner is femme. Her individual gender expression is not a disappointment, it’s not a lie, and it’s certainly not a violent blow to feminism. At the same time, it’s way too early to pretend that the way we think about gender in America has been thrown out of orbit just because of Caitlyn Jenner.

As a transgender man, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to assert my gender at a young age, and to undergo medical and legal transition so that I can live comfortably as a man, use men’s restrooms or even display my driver’s license without fear of suspicion. But since entering this comfortable space, I’ve also had the privilege of hindsight.

“Caitlyn Jenner is femme. Her individual gender expression is not a disappointment, it’s not a lie, and it’s certainly not a violent blow to feminism. At the same time, it’s way too early to pretend that the way we think about gender in America has been thrown out of orbit just because of Caitlyn Jenner.”

There’s essentially one transgender narrative that is remotely acceptable to the public — and it’s a narrative that is essentially the same as Caitlyn Jenner’s. It goes like this: “Johnny” was born in a body that doesn’t match how he felt in his mind. After a linear process of coming out, hormone replacement therapy, name change, and at least the desire for sex reassignment surgery, Johnny’s body becomes as close as it can be to what it was meant to have been.

This narrative was in many ways my own, except for one important difference. Although I was always troubled by the fact that I was a girl and that I had to wear dresses and play the role of daughter, granddaughter, niece, etc., it wasn’t until I cut my hair into a boyish mop at age 10 that the idea came into my head that I could actually be a boy. People saw me as a boy and it gave me immense pleasure, so I decided to take it as far as possible. Whereas Johnny may have felt relief as finally being seen how he felt, my experience was more like seeing a new world open up — one that I preferred to the one I’d been living.

At age 12, I came out as trans, but it wasn’t until I was about 16 that I essentially ended up rejecting the idea of gender entirely. I still consider myself transgender, I still take testosterone and am still comfortable being addressed by male pronouns. But that’s all only because I don’t believe there’s a profound truth to my gender or that there’s only one rigid way of expressing it.

This shift was brought on by a thought I had that I found pretty unsettling at first, and one that many trans people I’ve brought it up with since have responded defensively to. The idea is as follows — in asserting one’s identity as transgender, it must be taken for granted that a person’s biological sex does not have to correlate with one’s gender.

I can understand the defensiveness. In the Johnny narrative, and in the lives of many trans people, including my own for all intents and purposes, a major part of the trans experience is the medical transition — actively changing one’s body so that it correlates with the opposite biological sex. I initially called this a hypocrisy in a YouTube video explaining my thoughts that received many angry comments from people who felt that I was both self-hating and delegitimizing anyone who has undergone medical transition.

I would take back the term hypocrisy and consider it now to be more of an unfortunate paradox of transitioning in a world where gender roles are so deeply engrained. Still, if deeply considered and allowed to thrive, the idea that one’s body has nothing to do with gender — and that gender is essentially a social construct and not a biological inevitability — would not just have profound positive effects for trans people, but anyone who carries the weight of gender on their shoulders — i.e. everybody.

I’ll be the first to admit that this destabilizes the narrative that has made trans identity easy to sympathize with, and which has provided an acceptable structure through which so many people who were not able to live happily as the gender they were assigned at birth can live their lives. And as transgender people have for so long been subject to extreme silencing, hate and violence, it’s no wonder that the acceptability of the Johnny narrative is a relief. In other words, it may not be totally accurate for everybody, but it’s easier for many to fill in the gaps where their own experiences don’t match up with Johnny’s than to be constantly examining what is unique about their individual gender experience, or what gender actually means to them.

In my own experience, I often feel that I am not masculine enough for my identity to be valid, and even have moments of feeling distinctly feminine. I need to remind myself sometimes that not only is that totally acceptable, but probably something experienced by a lot — if not all — men.

Another claim repeated in the Johnny narrative is that gender and sexual orientation are two completely distinct concepts.

In my experience, this is simply not the case. I began transitioning before I really could have a sexual identity. I had crushes, certainly, but they were very innocent and immature. I worry that transitioning with the Johnny narrative in mind stunted my ability to explore my sexual orientation, as I was so hung up on the excitement of being male, and in the current gender paradigm, maleness often means straight maleness. Transitioning for me meant that my life had a trajectory that was defined by gender, so there was a foreseeable end-point. I had assumed that end-point would involve heterosexuality, so it was profoundly difficult for me even to ask myself whether it was possible to be interested in men, as it completely threw off the trajectory that had legitimized my experience.

“If deeply considered and allowed to thrive, the idea that one’s body has nothing to do with gender … would not just have profound positive effects for trans people, but anyone who carries the weight of gender on their shoulders — i.e. everybody.”

Awareness and acceptance of trans identity has become a cultural phenomenon, and as such, a lot of pressure is put on the parents of young people who struggle with gender to make major medical decisions for their children that will affect them for the rest of their lives. It’s difficult for me to really speak about this topic because on the one hand, beginning medical transition as young as I did saved me years of social discomfort. On the other hand, I wonder if had the stage been set differently regarding how I thought about gender, if I would have felt so inclined to transition medically.

When working with young trans kids, I’ve been shocked by how rarely they’re encouraged to seriously play and experiment with gender, how the option of being a feminine boy as opposed to a trans girl, for example, is never stressed as a possibility. This isn’t to say that they’re making a mistake by transitioning, or that they might regret it and should wait, but I worry that strict gender roles are placed even more heavily on the backs of trans people, especially young trans people, as we are given few options but to either follow the Johnny narrative, or live uncomfortably in our assigned gender.

Having our identities medicalized, officially considered a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until just recently, it’s no wonder that we so often are compelled to exhibit whatever normalcy we can, even though we are inherently and beautifully abnormal. Gender wise, we’re the radical exceptions to an oppressive and restraining rule, and labels like “gender identity disorder” have been used to maintain that rule, as our very existence is deeply threatening to its integrity.

Right now in my life, I embrace opportunities to play with my gender, sometimes indulging in the pleasures of masculine expression, other times embracing more feminine aspects of my identity. I think that in order to open doors for young people in regards to how we’re able to embody our genders and go about transition, there needs to be a larger awareness of how everyone, trans or not, lives deeply gendered lives. There needs to be space for young people to play with the idea of gender without being judged or pushed into one category, and conscious action must be taken to make sure children are aware of the reality of gender — that their body is theirs no matter what it looks like and that they can be a boy or a girl, or either, or even experiment with being both. A question to start this with might be: What makes you your gender? The answer should be different for everybody, and when you think beyond gender stereotypes, you may be surprised by how the answer is never firmly concrete.

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