Bruce Jenner’s recently televised interview with Diane Sawyer is a forceful reminder that, though overwhelming numbers of us are born with male or female plumbing and the gender identity and sexual orientation to match, not all of us are.
For all intents and purposes, I’m a woman.
Seriously? The Olympic gold medalist and guy on the Wheaties box?
The gist of it seems to be that sexuality has multiple components: The plumbing, the gender identity, and the sexual orientation; plumbing is straighforward, gender identity is how one perceives oneself, and orientation is the gender one finds sexually interesting. Any combination of those three elements might be encountered in different individuals. A person with male parts might perceive himself as female, for instance, and desire females — might be a lesbian in a man’s body, that is.
But regimentation on gender, the binary thinking, is enforced from a very young age. From grade-school onward we are separated according to gender — rest rooms, locker rooms, activities, religion, the whole of culture — and by the time we encounter nuances the separation is so embedded that coming to terms with a more complex reality requires a difficult paradigm shift.
How does this happen? Nobody knows, but virtually the entire medical and scientific world accepts that human sexuality is more complex than our plumbing, and are converging on the view that gender identification and sexual orientation are an innate part of our individual operating systems, shaped by the chemical environment of the mother’s womb — and isn’t susceptible of change. This may explain why no ‘gay gene’ has ever been found; the matter is not our genes, exactly, but how our genes express themselves in response to the unique chemistry of our mother.
It’s an interesting puzzle, no? I imagine it will all be sorted-out some day.
For those of us born with components that are in sync, I suppose life is relatively simple. We might become involved in satisfying or dissatisfying relationships, that is, but our preference in relationships does not raise eyebrows or put us on the outskirts of society. For those in Jenner’s situation, the reality must be vastly more difficult — he is, after all, an Olympic champion, paradigmatically male in a binary culture.
But he thinks of himself as female, and that is bound to set up exhausting internal tensions. Surely, rather than disdain, we owe respect to those who have lived with those tensions and thrived in spite of them.
As I mull this over, something else occurs to me. Jenner has expressed a desire, for now, to be referred to as a male; presumably, that will change at some point in the future, and he will ask that he be referred to as a female, and by whatever new name he gives himself. As an editorial matter, and mindful of the difficulties he has overcome along the way, I see no reason why his wishes should not be respected.
But here’s the thing: After all of Michael Jackson’s famous bleachings, could it ever be appropriate, if it were editorially relevant, to speak of him as a ‘white man?’ Something about that bugs me, though I can’t say what exactly, and I think I would resist doing it, though I can’t say why exactly. A binary block of my own? Dunno.