Last week Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman on the ABC news program 20/20, satisfying many inquiring minds. But more enlightening to me than the answers in that interview were the questions—questions we should be directing more at ourselves than at Jenner.
Interviewer Diane Sawyer accommodated our curiosity about Jenner with her reputational preparedness and warmth. She informed us about the differences between gender and sexuality, drew our attention to the many marginalized transgender and gender nonconforming people among us, and advised us not to assume the pronouns by which any one of us prefers to be identified. (She pointed out that, for the moment, Jenner prefers he/him/his.)
But it was Sawyer's moments of palpable perplexity that most awakened us to some truly central questions: How do gender identity, orientation, and expression effect each of our own lives?
“Help everyone struggling with what this is…,” says Sawyer, her eyes squinting searchingly through discomfort. Later in the interview she struggles some more, saying, “Again, it’s the confusion inside this because if you’re assigned male…,” Jenner’s eyes flicker with hard-earned wisdom and good humor as he follows her question, “...and you become female…,” Sawyer continues to wrestle with the conundrum, her hands rocking from side to side as Jenner nods playfully in unison. Sawyer struggles on, “But you like women...are you a het...erosexual who…” Jenner rescues Sawyer from her confusion with a clear educational answer about the difference between sexuality (“who you are attracted to”) and gender identity (“who you are”).
But the real answer is in his eyes. It is simply, “Yes.” Not “Yes, Diane. You nailed it,” but rather, “Yes, this is a truth that cannot be nailed. A truth without definitive answers. A truth that forces us to rock from side to side." Not just Jenner's truth, but our own.
Do you ever ask yourself what masculine or feminine expressions or mannerisms make you feel most safe, comfortable, authentic, free, or good? Do you check in with yourself about what turns you on sexually? Do the answers to any of these questions evoke fear in you? If so, have you asked yourself why?
Bruce Jenner has wrestled with these questions for his entire life, mostly while in the public eye, and this makes him a valuable resource for those who want to better understand how gender and sexuality impact our lives. But we can’t rely on Jenner alone to enlighten us. Sure, we benefit from his story. As Sawyer says, “We think it is a story that can only be told by someone who lived it.” But we also have stories of our own. We must struggle with our own questions—the way Sawyer’s confused hands do at moments in the interview—with our own fears and discomforts, in order to better tell our own stories.
By questioning and shattering the stories that have been imposed on each of us, we allow ourselves the opportunity to reassemble the fragments—as Jenner has done—into a mosaic of our own creation. We give ourselves room to live with freedom, with authenticity, and with a sense of integration.
And, at the same time, we also develop greater empathy for those, like Jenner, whose crucial need to live outside the norm is more obvious than most.
The more we understand our own relationships to gender, the less we scapegoat our marginalized sisters and brothers who are targeted, discriminated against, and attacked. By better understanding the fears we harbor about gender nonconformity in our own bodies and souls, the better we can answer the question, What is more frightening, the sight of a gender nonconforming person, or getting beaten to death?
Too many transgender people are regularly stigmatized, discriminated against, assaulted, and murdered. They need our advocacy, support, and protection. But fear of the unknown too often sways our thoughts toward the known instead, toward the majority of cisgender people—those who feel a match between their assigned sex and the gender they feel they are. Too many of us empathize more with the “normals” who get startled, flummoxed, or bothered upon spotting transgender folks in restrooms, rather than the transgender persons themselves. (BTW, when trans people enter bathrooms, like you they most likely just want to pee.)
The fear of gender nonconformity and the fear of physical attack are not the same thing. You or your child could very well be targeted in a public restroom. But should that occur—and I hope it does not—gender nonconforming clothing and/or behaviors are not likely to be the clues that tip you off to the perpetrator. In fact the opposite is far more likely to be true. (Statistics show that trans people are more likely to be victims of murder and assault than any other minority group.) Knowing the difference between your own fear of gender nonconformity and your own fear of attack will make you better able to protect yourself, your children, and also your gender-variant friends and family when any of you are in danger.
An excellent new collaborative performance art project, called Gender/ Power, addresses these very issues and assists in exploring them. Led by Maya Ciarrocchi and Kris Grey, the project’s goal is to not only elevate the “experience of being transgender away from medicalization and pathology,” but also to reveal “gender injustice as an insidious cultural condition in need of reformation.”
I attended a performance in March in New York City, and I found it to be revelatory, especially by the way it implicated my fellow audience members and me. As the piece opened, we were escorted into a room with several screens showing images of gender nonconforming bodies standing still. As there was no seating we all stood, squinting through discomfort like Diane Sawyer during the Bruce Jenner interview. But what was making us uncomfortable? The bodies we were watching? Not knowing which of them was female and which male? The stillness? The not knowing what would happen next? As we rocked from side to side in uncertainty, I witnessed men standing defensively with tense (strong?) arms crossed in front of their chests. I saw women fidgeting and rolling their eyes in awkwardness (girliness?). Every one of us clung for dear life to the gender expressions with which we were most familiar—a desperate grasp for control, for security, for an escape from the confusion.
The performers then entered the space and each shared narratives about their own struggles to reconcile gender with their own bodies and souls. Across the performance they seemed to swap narratives, effectively disorienting us but also disarming us, awakening us to the liberating possibilities available to each of us when the rigid walls of “normal,” of binary, of “man” and “woman,” are torn down.
As the piece came to a close, the performers stood in silence once again—this time live, as opposed to on a screen—staring at each of us, forcing us to confront our own genders, bodies, and souls, emboldening us with our own questions.
We will all be more enlightened, more aware, less afraid, less on the attack, and more prepared for attack, if we direct our questions about gender expression not just to the people who stand out, but also to the bodies we stand in. To ourselves.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW