In the last few years, the issue of gender identity has come into sharp focus in the public mind, thanks to a groundswell of activism and speaking out as well as films like “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl,” not to mention the highly publicized transformation of former Olympic athlete and television reality star Bruce Jenner to her new identity as Caitlyn Jenner. We even have a new word, cisgender, to delineate “those whose experiences of their own gender agree with the sex they were assigned at birth” from those whose experience is at variance with their assigned identities.
This has nothing to do with sexual preferences; many gay and lesbian people are perfectly happy with their body identity. A friend of mine who has been “out” for a long time was a bit taken aback, but also amused when some younger people recently informed her that she should call herself a cisgender lesbian.
For it’s becoming apparent that a surprising number of people, regardless of sexual orientation, do not consider themselves “cisgender.” This isn’t restricted to those who say they have always felt like they belong to another gender, like Lili, the Danish girl, and Caitlyn Jenner. Many people are now speaking out against any kind of gender profiling, including the use of gendered pronouns. (Putting on my hat as an editor who tries to keep up with language trends for a moment, I can assure you that “they” and “them” are now considered by authorities to be perfectly acceptable singular pronouns. Whether some of the new proposed pronouns, such as “ve” and “vem” or “zhe” and “zhem,” make it into common usage remains to be seen.)
In my own circle of acquaintances there are quite a few young people—most of them in their early teens—who have announced that they are the other gender and want to be called Georgia instead of Greg or Miles instead of Emily. Their families are, for the most part, okay with this, as are most of the people in their larger social sphere, which is pretty amazing & heartening.
I am watching this trend with great interest. I myself have always chafed at being “profiled” in any way; “Don’t Fence Me In” could be my theme song. I was a “tomboy” as a kid and a “jockette” who could ski faster than most of my male friends in high school. I was one of the first women hired to fight fires by the Forest Service while I was in college, and despite my small size, soon proved that what I lacked in strength I made up for in endurance (as did the other women on the crew). When I was 30, a boyfriend told me “you come across like you think of yourself as a person, not a woman.” (Isn’t a woman a person? The relationship didn’t last.) I guess I’m a cisgender tomboy . . .
Hence, I have a lot of sympathy with this desire to be more than we are told we can be, to break the gender rules. But I think there’s more going on here than that. I think this is all expressive of a stronger desire: the desire to be whole.
We are barely born before the gender profiling begins. I recently attended a workshop on “the feminine” facilitated by Chris Downing, my favorite professor from graduate school. In one exercise she asked us to remember back to our earliest memories associated with our gender identity. Person after person talked about incidents in which they were told “you can’t play the drums; only boys play the drums” or “you can’t cry; only girls cry,” etc. Our first experiences of gender identity are not about who we are supposed to be, in other words: they are about who we can’t be. Chris, who enjoys challenging Jungian groups with the wisdom of Sigmund Freud, pointed out that Freud knew this: he said that “femininity is acquired as a renunciation of masculine traits” and vice versa.
Freud wondered just exactly when in life gender becomes part of our psychological makeup. We are neuter, in effect, until puberty, and if we are lucky, we are allowed to be essentially androgynous as well. The acquisition of psychological gender identity for most of us is, as Downing says, “traumatic, tragic, involving loss and limitation–a sense of being cut off from part of ourselves–from wholeness.” We have a sense of a “before” during which we were not limited, not cut off from any part of our potential being, and many of us grieve that loss and long to return to that time. (Sadly, many others are so fearful of being what they are told they should never be that they don’t just repress the “other” traits but project their fears onto those who have them and “hate” them for it, often resorting to violence to try to destroy what they fear in themselves.)
Carl Jung said that the goal of life is to “individuate,” by which he meant to reclaim and re-integrate all those cut-off parts of the self so we can finally become who we were meant to be all along. I think many of the young people who are saying “don’t tell me who I can be” are really saying “acknowledge my wholeness–don’t try to limit me!” We all need to do this, and the good news is that for most of us it doesn’t involve anything so drastic as having gender confirmation surgery. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s a long road for most people, especially the older you are, to identify and reclaim that which you were told you must not do or be oh so long ago.
I’m heartened by this trend among young people not to be pinned to a particular identity, because I hope it means they won’t lose so much of themselves that they later have to work to regain. Freud thought most neuroses came from this societal denial of our true selves. If that’s true, this is a healthy trend, and I hope I live long enough to see what these kids do in the world as adults.