I want to say upfront that I have accepted I am limited in my understanding on certain topics and that I have to depend on others to provide me with the voice of their community. The LGBT community is one such community. While I can say I have a deep compassion for them, I can only sympathize with what they have gone through and listen to their stories as way of helping me understand. As I have sorted through the vast amounts of research and thoughts of different people, this is what I have come up with.
With the recent Vanity Fair cover story of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, it seemed as if she had broken the Internet. The number of people responding with their thoughts and feelings on the topic blew up on newsfeeds in social media, as well as news networks. We have followed her journey for years as she has lived in secret, was scrutinized by tabloids for not adhering to the type of gender expression we expect of a biological male, and as she eventually found the courage to come out in her interview with Diane Sawyer. She has brought a fresh voice to the transgender community and has started a conversation that will hopefully not end with her.
Laverne Cox, a trans woman who stars in the hit T.V. series Orange is the New Black, put it very nicely in her response to Caitlyn’s cover story: “Yes, Caitlyn looks amazing and is beautiful but what I think is most beautiful about her is her heart and soul, the ways she has allowed the world into her vulnerabilities. The love and devotion she has for her family and that they have for her. Her courage to move past denial into her truth so publicly.”
Both Laverne and Caitlyn have had a major impact, among many others, on how society views the transgender community. But even with them bringing to light the type of oppression the transgender community faces, there is an unrealistic expectation placed on the community at large. Laverne and Caitlyn have had the means to have the transition they wanted and the freedom to express the gender norms they feel most comfortable with. However, not everyone in the transgender community wants to express themselves according to these gender norms nor do they have the freedom to do so. Many do not have access to resources that would provide the type of transition Caitlyn and Laverne had.
Everyone is unique in how they express themselves and this community is no different. For us to expect transgender women (or any gender for that matter) to express their gender in a way that subscribes to our societies gender norms is oppressive.
We could see this at work as the media immediately placed Caitlyn into the role of a woman, comparing her to other women. Jon Stewart made an excellent point when he said, “When Caitlyn was a man we would talk about her athleticism and business acumen, but now that she is a woman, her looks are all we care about.” He drew attention to how we place gender in this box when it is actually unlimited. When Caitlyn was a biological male and expressed her femininity, it was made fun of and ridiculed. Now that she has transitioned and officially fits our small mold, the way she expresses herself is now okay.
I love this quote from Kingston Farady from Transgender Today: “To truly examine the state of this country’s relations with its own transgender community or even to begin understanding the real-lived experiences of transgender people, we must first examine ourselves. Asking, where are my edges? My judgments, hypocrisies, phobias, paradigms. We must sit with what comes up, even when what comes up is challenging to accept — rage, shame, disgust, hatred, confusion, fear. We must ask ourselves, where do these thoughts and feelings even come from.”
So, it seems what Caitlyn Jenner has brought to our attention is our interpretation of gender. Until we are able to identify our own expectations of gender and the varying forms of emotion that result when those expectations are not met, we will not be able to fully embrace the trans* community. (trans*: an umbrella term for the variety of gender identities)
As a way to help us understand gender, I would like to provide you with some terminology to help you on your journey. Sam Killermann has actually produced a helpful infographic to help in navigating the conversation. Many of these definitions I have obtained from his site It’s Pronounced Metrosexual.
Biological Sex: The sex that was assigned to us at birth. It’s universal. It’s cross-cultural. It doesn’t change over time. When we prescribe a gender identity to someone based on their biological sex, therefore making gender binary, this is hampering the limitlessness of gender.
Gender Identity: This is who we, in our head, know we are, based on how much we do or do not align with the gender options that are given to us. I was assigned at birth the biological sex of a female and identify as a woman so therefore I am cisgender. If I were to be assigned the sex of female and identify as a man I would be a transgender man.
Gender Expression: This is “the way we present ourselves, and what those things stand for”. We often think of gender expression as being a scale between masculine and feminine when it’s actually two scales, (masculinity and femininity) and a measurement on each of them according to our cultures gender norms. The way we express ourselves varies from day to day, from situation to situation.
I think what is important for us to remember is that these scales and this terminology aren’t meant to provide labels and categories to place people in. It is not meant to place people in a box and be judged by their appearance. It is meant to help us understand ourselves and who we are as people.
Kaitlyn Kohley is currently obtaining her Master of Public Affairs degree at the University of Missouri. She is interning with ASHA for the summer, assisting them in developing content that is more inclusive of the LGBT community. Kaitlyn has a passion for building bridges within conflicts concerning the LGBT community and developing policy that is inclusive of this minority within the area of sexual health and education. She blogs at Our Kaleidoscope Hearts.