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might protest that gender needn’t be an issue in the modern world – surely those old-fashioned male-female roles are out of date – after all, this is 2015!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.

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
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  • That would be so confusing for someone to have to live with. Imagine how much harder it was years ago, before Drs recognised it. So sad


  • An unfortunate fact in life is that we all encounter such negativity regarding individual choices, things would function more smoothly if only strangers and loved ones contributed more positively with their opinions I feel.


  • I read this article because I didn’t even know what gender dysphoria was! Well know I know.


  • Believe it is true and can cause problems it is true,but in you heart of heart you need to be you. I admire the courage it must take to do. More awareness in general so it is not something to hide what is true


  • I feel sorry for bruce everyone is judging him and he is just trying to find himself.


  • Very interesting article. Have never doubted the realness myself, as with anything, just because I don’t experience something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There should be more awareness and support for those affected, and to educate the general public to eliminate stigma. Thanks for sharing. :-)

    • You have made some excellent points in your comments; in particular regarding stigma.


  • why on earth would anyone think that it isnt real! People always make stuff like this their business and put in their two cents if it isnt you dealing with it and have no support or positive words ship out!


  • I really dont see the big hype about it. He is a man who wants to change into a woman. People need to get over it. I dont see why people would be so judgemental about it, its not going to hurt them.


  • All true, well said.


  • Very informative article. I think there is too much judging of others and of how others choose to live their lives.


  • A super informative article – thanks


  • Thank you for this very informative article .. these folk need our support, not our sympathy.

    • You absolutely nailed it; support and not sympathy.


  • I never thought that it wasn’t a real thing, but this article sheds some light on the subject. Thank you.

    • just letting you know that i worte a story about you saying that i really liked your contribution. Find it under DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE MOM CONTRIBUTOR

      • I hadn’t seen that and I’m feeling so overwhelmed, it has warmed my heart. It makes me feel like I have a real purpose. I’m going to go and find this one right now. I can’t believe that you would take the trouble, I feel so inspired and worthwhile. Thank you from the bottom of my heart :) xxx


  • Years ago I knew a person who was going through the transition from male to female & sadly she suffered serious depression & actually became a recluse. It is a hard journey.


  • I know someone who struggled with their gender their entire life – and the stigma attached with being born a female in a male’s body. It took alot of strength, courage and counselling for her to finally be free to be herself – 35 years in fact! The message – don’t judge others.


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