Today Bruce Jenner revealed his new female identity on the cover of Vanity Fair. From now on, “Call me Caitlyn,” the cover reads.
The process of Bruce-turning-Caitlyn has been at the center of social support and controversy for the past several months after revealing her identity as a transgendered person. She spent months receiving treatments and undergoing what must have been a painful process, most recently a 10-hour surgery, that ultimately changed her gender.
But can we really change gender? What does that mean?
Caitlyn has shown an enormous amount of courage in her willingness to share this transformation story. Our culture has become increasingly supportive of stories that don’t fall within the two-gender identity, but rather a gender-spectrum.
As a Christian and a worker in the Behavioral Health field, I think hearing someone’s story is an essential part of knowing them and helping them heal. Our story is our identity. And for Caitlyn, her story is one of a person who has lived in a man’s body and, for much of her life, felt an enormous amount of angst and dissonance with the male gender, which she was assigned.
I don’t know what Bruce or Caitlyn have gone through. I can’t imagine how horrible it would feel to trapped in a body that didn’t feel like yours. Caitlyn expressed feeling like a woman as far back as the 1976 Olympics, a feeling she wrestled with for the next several decades. This must have been absolute agony, and although I cannot relate to this struggle, I can relate to feeling trapped in my mind during my stint with anxiety and paranoia.
Being your own enemy is a terrible feeling – there is no escape. And for Caitlyn, I’m sure the promise of finally looking on the outside how she felt on the inside offered hope.
But there has to be more to the restoration process than simply an outward physical change.
I want to zoom out of Caitlyn’s story for a moment and ask a bigger question that came to me when I heard Bruce say he “felt like a woman” for a long time. While I’ve felt compassion, I also felt some indignation at the fact that he said he “felt like a woman”. I mean, what does it mean to feel like a woman?
To be honest, sometimes I’m not even sure what it feels like to be a woman. But I know that my identity as a woman is much more than dresses, bosoms and big hair. It’s something I know about myself, but it’s beyond that.
Is it my desire to be beautiful and pursued, my gentleness and strength, my longing and ability to give birth? Maybe, but it has to be more. I can’t really pin down what “being a woman” feels like.
So how did Caitlyn Jenner know she felt like a woman?
How does anyone define the essence of the male and female genders? How can anyone know with certainty which gender he or she actually is versus who he or she feels he or she is?
The tone here is not to be condemning. Commenting on someone else’s experience can quickly become presumptuous and unkind. I will not be a stone-thrower.
Yet I want the permission to ask my question too. I believe the feeling of being a man or woman has more to do with an internal state of heart and mind that cannot be resolved by an external, physical transformation. By saying, “If you feel like a man/woman, you must be,” we reduce the experience of gender to a feeling. And isn’t there more to it than that?
Again, how do we know who we truly are and who we are to be? Is it true that our deepest self is found in a gender or is there something in our personhood that transcends even that? Feelings are at best distorted and at worst deceitful. I would like to suggest we need something beyond feeling to determine ourselves, a source outside ourselves to help us know ourselves.
By no means do I want to dilute the transgender struggle to a trite religious sentiment. But as a Christian, I believe in a God who is still speaking, a God who adopts us as son or daughter. He knows exactly who he made us to be, and if we listen closely, I believe he will tell us. I know I need to hear it. Because without our Father’s voice, I don’t know how any of us can know the truth.