“I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live.” -Caitlyn Jenner
I have been following Bruce Jenner’s transition since it first appeared in People magazine months ago. Emerging from the Kardashian empire, it seemed like just another press stunt, but the recent Vanity Fair cover of Bruce’s total transformation into Caitlyn at age 65 is actually nothing short of stupendous courage. Gender identity is the first identifier we are known by at birth. Whether it’s a boy or a girl tells us volumes about who the baby will become. In fact, it is such a profoundly impactful aspect of our identity that most of us just take it for granted, and yet, for those people who never find comfort in their original gender identification, life doesn’t make sense at the deepest level of knowing who one is. This explains the relief that so many transgender people express after their change- they finally feel like their appearance reflects their self-image. In fact, Caitlyn expressed just this- “My whole life as Bruce I was lying, always hiding my true self. As soon as this cover comes out- I am free.”
I still remember the sunny, warm, beginning-of-summer afternoon over 14-years ago when Marty, a helpful dad from my daughter’s kindergarten soccer team asked me to take a walk because he wanted to shared his own transgender decision. He wanted the people who knew him as Marty to understand how he had come to choose becoming Marley. And he was open and generous about both his plans and his fears; the procedures involved, where he would have to travel and how much expense and pain is involved. I asked how his wife felt about it and was happy to hear that she was supportive, although surprised that she was so OK about losing her husband. It was the first time that it had ever occurred to me to be grateful for my husband’s gender identity.
I had noticed Marty’s painted finger and toe nails on the soccer turf before, but thought it was just a way to get closer to his daughters. As he described how long he had openly been cross dressing in his wife’s closet, I began to understand how his painted toe nails were the only thing he allowed himself to show out in the world. As we walked towards our parked cars, I still vividly remember his parting comment, “I mean, I will still be the same person even as a woman… Gender doesn’t define us, does it?“
Over the years as we ran into each other in the grocery store after her transition, I would often ask how she was doing now. Her marriage ended and she was sad about missing her girls around every day. Still, she smiled, saying how freeing it was to see herself in the world the way she had always felt. I asked her if she still felt like the same person and she told me a story about how she had recently seen some video footage of Marty and how, seeing him then, he felt more like a brother or a cousin to who she was now, someone she would hardly know now. And yet, she went on as happy as I am, “The hardest part, is staying here, where everyone who sees me, only sees who is gone from me. And what I hear them saying, or imagine them saying, as they turn and point.”
The courage it takes to change genders is beyond what most of us can imagine. It is hard to imagine the gender dysphoria that drives the transgender decision-making process. How uncomfortable would you have to be with your gender identification to undergo the years of transformative surgery and hormonal alterations to uncover your true sense of self and then, when it is all said and done, how alone you often are with your choices. I remember another conversation with Marley later on, when she was telling me about some dates she was going on and questioning when was the right moment to share this aspect of who she was. Caitlyn will never have to ask this question- with her cover on Vanity Fair, she has lost the right to share this information or not.
We often aren’t comfortable with dealing with our own sexuality issues even on a personal level, and gender identity cuts right to the heart of where our sexuality begins. Thus, it is both commendable and bold of the ESPY committee to choose Caitlyn’s public revelation of living in harmony with who she has always believed herself to be with its annual courage award. Recognizing the courage it takes to come to terms with our sexual identity may be just the thing we all need to begin to soften the rigid constructs of what we believe our gender defines.