The first day of my first anthropology class, my professor said that he needed for a moment to make us the most uncomfortable we’d ever been made. It was cultural anthropology, and in the process of that class we’d spend a lot of time talking about cultures that didn’t remotely resemble our own. Our professor instructed us that we’d have to accept the reality of these other cultures wholeheartedly and not try to rationalize it against our own experiences. “If you’re dealing with a society that believes the sky is an ocean and the stars are fish and rain is a leak in the heavens, you accept that. You don’t try to explain to them that their god-fish is really a big ball of gas. You accept their belief, and accept that it does for them the same thing that your God does for you. In anthropology there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” society, there are systems of belief that work or they don’t, and if it works for that culture, it is the right belief for that culture. By depriving a culture of belief, you deprive them of their way of being human. No one gets to make that choice for other people.”
That lecture, in and of itself, was upsetting for many people, who believed that there was absolute truth and to “accept” the reality that in certain cultures illness was the result of the curses of other tribes, and sacrifices had to be made to out-curse the other tribes in order for a person to get better was somehow inherently wrong. But my professor held his ground, explaining that for those cultures witchcraft works. “They believe it works, and it works, and if you want to understand who they are, you must accept that it works. You must participate in their lives not as an authority, but as an equal.”
Not as an authority, but as an equal.
You may be wondering why I’d introduce a blog post about Caitlyn Jenner with a seemingly innocuous story about anthropology. Let me tell you another story, this time about the section in the big book of anthropology that talks about gender. “Male and female anatomy exists, that is undeniable. And that the anatomy of male and female is proscriptive of our lives to some degree is also undeniable. Only women can become pregnant and give birth, and in many cultures that by necessity defines a certain aspect of their lives, because we need children to survive,” my professor said, “but beyond that anything you think of as male or female is as much a figment of your culture as stars being the spirits of flying fish in an ocean you’ll never touch.”
In many cultures, male and female roles are defined by what the society needs men and women to do. That doesn’t mean that in every society women stay at home and give birth and don’t otherwise contribute. In many cases, women have roles that are just as crucial to moving the society forward as men do. In some societies, for a man to try to overpower a woman or boss her around is seen as a grave sin, which is interesting. What is even more interesting is the amount of societies in which men’s and women’s roles are seen as fluid and changeable. A man can “elect” to become a woman and care for his children, or a woman can “elect” to become a man. If this happens, it is treated as a good thing. One story is of a woman whose husband died when her children were still young. She could either remarry, but then her children would be denied the inheritance of their biological father, or she could choose to “become” a man and never marry again, preserving her children’s inheritance and allowing her to provide for their needs. (Recently a woman who did this in Egypt was honored for her sacrifice.) In some cases women who do this take on identities as male and “become” men, in other cases such as the Egyptian woman, it is something they add to their female identity.
In any case, there are many cultures where “male” and “female” are seen more as descriptions of who someone is, based off of how they dress and act and operate within the culture, rather than proscriptive orders about who they can and should be based off of the presence of certain genitalia.
After all, when we start to sit down and define who is “male” and “female” based off of physical characteristics, things get muddy.
What makes a man a man or a woman a woman? Is it the presence of external sex organs? Because those can be removed, modified, or even created. Back in the day when castrating boys was still common practice, did those “boys” become a third gender based off of their lack of either male or female sex characteristics? Were they male because they were born with a penis, or were they female?
What do we call the women who are born without functioning ovaries or uteruses? They cannot give birth, thus are they no longer female? Do we define gender based off of what specific gender roles someone is capable of fulfilling? Or do we look at DNA? What about people who are born with one set of female chromosomes and one set of male? Are they simultaneously male and female, or are they neither?
This is one of those cases where I don’t believe there is a single, correct, answer. While we may be able to define a set of physical characteristics that mark “male” and “female”, then the argument becomes what happens when those change. If the characteristics define the gender, then if I ceased to have a womb, or breasts, or a vagina, would I cease to be female? And these questions cannot be taken lightly, as women who experience uterine or breast cancer often have to face these thoughts. If I lose what defines my role, my gender, do I lose my self? Or is the gender, the role, based not off of the body but off of some harder to define, more intangible thing?
Men lose their gonads. Sometimes their penises fail to function. Do they cease to be men?
“Ah-” someone may interject, “it is what you are born as.”
I find that hard to stomach. One’s role in society isn’t defined from birth. At birth it wasn’t decided that I would be a wife or mother or teacher or Christian or anything else. Those things that I have become, I have become as a result of my choices and actions. And while I can say that I feel like a mother, and a Christian, and a woman, I cannot say that when I was younger I even understood what any of those things meant or what it felt to be them. In many of those cases, those feelings had yet to even be birthed.
I will never be a woman who wears a certain kind of clothes, because when those clothes hit my body I feel instantly uncomfortable. As an infant, I could’ve been dressed in them against my will. I would hate for people to point at pictures of me in frilly pink dresses as an infant and say, “see, that is who you are.”
No. Who I am, I am because I took the time to explore my self and get to know it. I made deliberate choices about what I wanted from my life, and who I wanted to be. I am the kind of woman I am, because I feel this is the person I am meant to be now, even if then I could not have understood or expressed that.
When I was younger, I had a female friend who had never felt like a “girl”. I remember her crying in my arms and saying that she hated her female body and wanted for it to die, it didn’t feel like it belonged to her. I cannot confess to knowing or understanding how that would feel, but what I do know and I do understand is that I had no right to correct her. She felt what she felt, and if she had told me that she wanted to be referred to as “he” I would have done it in a heartbeat, because she was the one living in that body. She was the one whose responsibility and right was to decide how to live with those feelings.
Commanding someone to live with those feelings in a specific way too often leads to death.
The suicide rate for transgender people is very high, and it is even higher for transgender youth. Some statistics estimate as high as 45% of transgender youth attempt suicide. The rates of violence experienced by transgender people is also much higher than the population at large, and that number also skyrockets for transgender youth (especially in ethnic minorities.)
This feeling, of being stuck in a body that doesn’t belong, can be a death sentence in too many ways.
So, to paraphrase my anthropology professor, “if you’re dealing with a person who feels like they are the wrong gender for their body, you accept that. You live with them not as an authority, but as an equal.”
The first day of kindergarten, we all faced a big sign on the wall, usually a nice golden-colored one, that said “always treat other people the way you would want to be treated.” That is a very basic law of reciprocity in our society: if you want respect, you show respect. If you want kindness, you first must be kind.
When people get very belligerent about the fact that Caitlyn Jenner is really a man named Bruce, this is how I respond:
Man: “He’s not a woman. He’s just not.”
Me: “What gives you the right to decide that?”
Man: “It’s just the truth as I see it.”
Me: “Well, the truth as I see it is that you’re a woman named Susan. And I don’t care that you can show me male genitalia and that you feel like you are a man, you are a woman named Susan to me now.”
Man: “No I’m not.”
Me: “We’re just having a difference of opinion, lady, don’t get your panties in a wad.”
Who decides who Caitlyn Jenner is? Well, there are two people. The first is Caitlyn, and the second is the law. In terms of the law, a person seeking gender reassignment therapy who is taking hormones and undergoing changes to their physical characteristics in order to reflect a different gender than the one on their birth certificate is legallyable to fill out paperwork as the gender they want to be assigned. So, Caitlyn may legally be seen as a woman and may legally be entitled to treatment as a woman. If she can check the female box on paperwork and her driver’s license says “Caitlyn Jenner” and “Female”, then I say the least we can do is give her the correct legal name and legal pronoun.
But even so, who decides what is the fair way to treat someone?
Let me tell you another story. I was fighting with someone I was in a relationship with. That person told me, “don’t be such a bitch about this.” I told them that I was really offended they’d use that word to describe me and I didn’t feel like I was being a bitch, I was just expressing my needs. They persisted in calling me a bitch.
That relationship didn’t last long, because feeling loved and valued as a human being walked hand in hand with feeling respected, and part of feeling respected was knowing the other party understood the ways their word and attitude effected me. To put things simply, they had to treat me in a way I was comfortable being treated, or they had no place in my life.
Who defines what is loving treatment? Who defines what is respect? These aren’t things that you can turn to a dictionary and get step-by-step instructions for. In every relationship, to know and to love and to respect are things we learn from each other through communication. Caitlyn Jenner has expressed that she wishes to be seen and treated as a woman, to do anything less is to disrespect her terms for having a relationship with the world.
Now, this note is especially to Christians: Do we believe that Caitlyn Jenner, that any transgendered person, is a person that God loves? If we do, that means we have an obligation also to love. And if we have an obligation to love, that means we cannot do things that disrupt relationship. And if we must do that, that means we must start with accepting the person not on our terms, but on their terms. This is where the Church too often falls woefully short, because we think that we have to accept people on God’s terms and thus we feel obligated to decide what God’s terms are.
It doesn’t work that way. We express love, others respond, others become open to love in their own lives, and by a very simple reaction that love changes everyone. It’s hard to be cruel when you love, it’s hard to lie when you love, it’s hard to sin when you love. Because that love is something we wish to preserve, and that love cannot grow in soil that is poison to it.
So when you are openly disrespecting someone, openly condemning them, openly shutting the door to any conversation with them, you aren’t loving. You are doing the opposite. You are destroying the soil that love needs to grow.
What does that matter? Many readers may say, “it’s not like I’m friends with Caitlyn Jenner.” Yes, but you’re friends with other humans. And chances are, at least one of them is transgender or is friends with someone transgender or you have friends who simply care about the human rights of transgender people. And you know those friend? Those friends you are injuring by extension.
Our words matter. Our attitudes matter. Whether or not we respect other people’s way of being human matters.
We don’t get to decide that Caitlyn Jenner is a man named Bruce.