Bruce Jenner and the Gender Box

In light of Bruce Jenner's recent interview, and the many diverse and complex questions it brings up, Level Ground is hosting a screening of the interview and a conversation about gender identity. If you live in the LA-area, please join us on Wednesday, May 6 at 7pm.

More details at the end of this post.

Finally, a big thank you to Neville Kiser for getting the conversation started here!

If you were sitting at home on your couch two Fridays ago like I was, you probably watched (or heard about via the Twitter grapevine) the provocative Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce Jenner.  In the interview, Jenner famously revealed that, “I am a woman,” and said that his whole life has been building up to this moment.  Near the end of the two-hour, ABC broadcast, Jenner also said something that surprised me: “I’m saying goodbye to the people’s perception of me and who I am.  I’m not saying goodbye to me, because this is who I am…I’m not this bad person.  I’m just doing what I need to do.”

After pondering this for a few days, it dawned on me that Jenner – who is 65 years old – has been living with this secret largely because of one little box that was checked the day he was born.  The box on his hospital medical records and birth certificate that indicated which gender he was.  When it came to little Bruce, the doctors looked at his genitalia, and within seconds, checked one of those two boxes: male.

When you stop to think about it, this is actually a profound, extremely important, life-altering decision.  Not to mention the first time any of us are judged solely based on our physical appearance.  And what’s even more shocking?  Bruce didn’t make this decision himself; someone else made it for him.

Think about this for a second: the first category that every one of us in human existence is forced into is because of another person’s perception of our physical self.  A decision suggesting that how others see us must determine who we are.  But is this who we truly are?

Does being defined as either male or female actually embody all the varied mysteries of each and every person in the world?  And more important – as in Bruce Jenner’s case – what happens when you grow up and realize that who you were perceived to be physically at birth, was a lie?  Or as photographer Mariette Pathy Allen once put it,

“What do you do if the person reflected in the mirror, is not the one who lives inside of you?”

Milton Diamond, professor of anatomy and reproductive biology at the University of Hawaii wrote, “Nature loves variety.  Society hates it.”  To this day, I can think of no better, fewer words to sum up how we humans typically treat difference among us.  Particularly when it comes to the Transgender community.

Since the mid 1960s, scientists around the globe have recognized the varying manifestations of sex as it relates to gender identity.  Rather than two conventional genders with their anatomical differences, many anthropologists and sexologists often speak of the possibility of almost ten or more separate concepts of gender with regards to the human species.  Author Deborah Rudacille, in her fantastic, groundbreaking book, The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism & Transgender Rights, even goes as far to argue that there could be as many as 16 different gender types.

When I first stumbled onto this research I was baffled by it.  But fascinated, too.  If there really is so much complexity, so many nuances, so much we really don’t know about who people are on the inside, then why is there such a desire to define it?  Why, throughout the ages, has gender so often been confined to the binary debate of being either male or female?

To be clear, I’m not asking ‘why’ human beings feel the need to categorize or label themselves, as this can be very healthy in the development and maturation of how we come to know and define who we are.  Which is precisely what Bruce Jenner was aiming to do in his interview with Diane Sawyer.  He wanted the world to know which box he would check if he was given the chance to check it again himself, today: female.

After hearing Bruce utter those heartbreaking phrases near the end of the interview, “I’m not this bad person…I’m just doing what I need to do,” it made me hope for the day when gender isn’t just some fixed, binary category defined for us at birth.  But rather, it should be a fluid, ever-changing and ever-evolving mystery that differs significantly from person to person.  No matter if you identify as Transgender or not.

This is what I believe Bruce Jenner was fighting for last Friday night in that Diane Sawyer interview.  Not just the right to call himself a woman; but the freedom to not have to choose between just two gender boxes.

At least, not at birth anyways.