You’d have to have been living on Pluto not to have heard speculation that Bruce Jenner may – or may not – be planning to live as a woman. I have no idea whether this rumour is true, but of course it’s sparked a storm of comment: some sympathetic, some critical, with plenty of trans-jokes thrown into the mix.
We all have a gender identity. It’s our own sense of being male or female, or somewhere on a continuum. Most of us feel that our bodies match our minds, but some people don’t. They have the strong sense that their birth-assigned, physical sex doesn’t match their gender identity. Many say they’ve known this since they were very small children (Bruce Jenner is said to have felt he was a girl ever since he was five years old). It’s often described as feeling you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, or vice versa.
This is gender dysphoria, sometimes called gender identity disorder
Inevitably, this inner conflict can lead to depression. Sometimes it becomes unbearable; the rates of suicide are high. The death late last year of a teenager in Ohio appears to have been one of many such tragedies. You might protest that gender needn’t be an issue in the modern world – surely those old-fashioned male-female roles are out of date – after all, this is 2015! But this isn’t a question of gender stereotypes; it’s about something fundamental. One transgender woman I spoke to described it as: ‘how I imagine it might feel to be conscious, but unable to move or speak. You’re a woman, but you can never express yourself as one.’
Some people bury this conflict; they try hard to live in their birth-assigned gender, often marrying and having children. Bruce Jenner wouldn’t be the first national hero to transition. Kristin Beck – formerly Chris Beck – was a US navy SEAL with more than 20 years’ service when she announced that she’d always felt she was a woman, and retired in order to pursue her new life. The legendary writer Jan Morris was The Times correspondent with Hillary and Tenzing when they scaled Everest – but in those days her name was James Morris. She and her wife stayed together despite her transition in the 1970s. They were forced to divorce due to same-sex marriage laws, but they never parted and in 2008, when they were in their eighties, they remarried. How’s that for an enduring love story?
The word ‘transition’ is quite a broad term. In the case of male to female transition, it may involve a person living openly and full-time as a woman, perhaps using a female name. For some people, this is enough. Of course financial cost is a big factor. Others turn to hormone replacement therapy to help alter their physical characteristics, and they may use laser facial hair removal. Some make use of speech therapy, or coaching on how to walk and move. A proportion of transgender women – by no means all – eventually undergo SRS (sex reassignment surgery), possibly alongside other surgery such as facial feminization or breast enhancement. Transition can be a very long journey.
According to social media, there are those whose hero Bruce Jenner used to be – an Olympian athlete, of course he was a hero – who now say he is their hero no longer. I’ve even seen the hash tag #freak. Yet, whether he identifies as male or female, Jenner is the same person who brought home that gold medal.
And there’s the thing. Gender dysphoria isn’t imaginary, it’s real. Transition isn’t easy; it takes courage. There’s the fear of hurting family and friends, and of rejection. There may be public ridicule, health risks, sometimes loss of employment, high financial cost and – let’s be honest – pain. In the case of a celebrity, private struggles become public news. I doubt anyone would take such a decision lightly.
It took years of intense training and dedication for Bruce Jenner to stand on that Olympic podium, back in 1976. If the latest rumours prove to be true, then then he may be about to embark on one of the greatest challenges of his life.
This post was written by Charity Norman
Charity Norman’s new book, The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone is published by Allen & Unwin and is now available here.