Diane Sawyer's interview with Bruce Jenner on April 24th left me with much to think about and a lot of residual emotions, the greatest of which was anger.
It has not been that long ago that we ridiculed and tried to humiliate gay men in our society, leering oafs affecting a lisp and limping their wrists to imitate "queers," and all of this done publicly without shame. In 1990, when I first began teaching high school, teen boys regularly used the term "faggot" to jokingly refer to their friends—or anyone they wanted to bully.
In recent times, watching how the tabloids and late night comedians have treated Jenner, as if he is some kind of freak of nature, has reminded me of those benighted times when it was ok to be anti-gay. Part of me knows that, with time, we will get to a place where those who are transgender are welcomed and supported, as gay men and women are now. But we're not there yet, and as we slowly inch toward progress, I'm wondering how we can educate non-transgender members of the community to be sensitive in their speech. (If only I had a dollar for every time I said, "Actually, gay people prefer to be called 'gay'" in the '90s.) It's ok to be confused about gender identification, but let's try not to be cruel as we become educated about it. Here, let me see if I can help with that a bit.
1. As Bruce Jenner said, being transgender is not a mental illness, and it certainly isn't a choice someone decides to make.
2. Yes, transgender people are born that way; from a very early age, they identify with the gender that is the opposite of their genetic determination, often thinking of themselves in the pronoun (he/she) that fits their identity, rather than the one that fits their DNA.
3. Being transgender has to do with who you are, not who you want to sleep with. [Please, grammarians, cut me some slack or give me poetic license there; I'm trying to be consistent.] If it makes it easier, "Gender is not about genitals" has become somewhat of a rallying cry lately (although I have yet to see it on a sign). Thus, Bruce Jenner could say, "I am not a homosexual man. I'm a heterosexual man." How can this be, you ask, if his "soul" is that of a "woman," as he claimed in the interview? Because the same DNA that created his hangy down part and all those beautiful, rippling muscles we couldn't stop staring at in the glory days of the 1976 Olympics also determines which hormones compel him to act on instinctive urges, and for now, his testosterone tells him to bed with women.
Aren't we just "fearfully and wonderfully made," as Dr. Paul Brand says in his book by the same title?
I know that some of my evangelical Christian friends may be doing that "We love everyone, but..." stutter step they did when the ten percent of our population that is gay began to emerge from closets all around the country a while back. I expect to hear decrees against the so-called "sin" of body mutilation (if, in fact, a transgender person decides to do reassignment surgery). Christians will say, "You are in the body God gave you." I wouldn't disagree. But I would gently suggest that this is true of a baby born with a cleft palate or a heart defect. He, too, is in 'the body God gave him,' but we're not going to use that as a rationale to leave him that way, are we? No. Doctors will surgically construct a palate or replace a malfunctioning heart valve, and the infant will grow up to be a "normal," healthy individual. And for a transgender individual? Same. The earlier we allow transgender kids to follow the gender they feel instead of the gender we see, the healthier they are in terms of social adjustment.
Why is that last critically important? Because the suicide rate for our transgender folks is twenty-five times that of the general population.
Which is why Bruce Jenner said, "We're going to change the world." Absolutely. By going public—by opening his door and ushering everyone into his life to watch him transition, as he will be doing over the coming months, he is making a courageous statement. He is standing tall in the face of ignorance and criticism to say, as did (purportedly) Joseph Merrick, "I am not an animal." Jenner is willing to allow the most private aspects of his life to become public so that others will see he is not someone to be feared, but another soul to be embraced.
This is what the Dalai Lama tweeted today:
"Deep down we must have a real affection for each other, a clear recognition of our shared status as human beings." Indeed.