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The battle over him and her

The battle over Him and Her

The treatment of transgender people has become a highly inflammatory issue on campuses and in legislatures across the US



What has brought it to a head?

Last year Time magazine declared that America was reaching “The Transgender Tipping Point” after Laverne Cox, an actress, became the first transwoman (somebody who used to be a man but now identifies as a woman) to win an Emmy. Earlier this month, Bruce Jenner, the former US Olympic decathlete and reality TV star, made headlines when she reintroduced herself as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair. Their elevation to a sort of cult status marks a turning point in a long and increasingly acrimonious campaign for acceptance and equal rights that has been going on since the 1950s.

Why has it been so acrimonious?

Because it has huge implications for the way the world is organised and for our conception of what it means to be a man or a woman. In almost every activity – in our sports, census forms, toilets, changing rooms, jails – an uncomplicated binary divide between male and female, based on elementary physical differences, is taken for granted. But for transgender activists, gender has to do with feelings, not physiognomy. If you happen to be “cisgender” – a word coined in the 1990s to describe the gender of the vast majority – then your feelings about your gender will be aligned with your “birth sex”. If you’re transgender, by contrast, you feel your gender is different from your “birth sex”. You may (as a few do) have undergone surgery or hormone therapy (or “physically transitioned” in the jargon), but the physical isn’t what’s essential. Indeed, a more expansive category – “genderqueer”– has come into vogue to denote people who feel the terms male and female aren’t adequate to describe their feelings about gender, whether because they identify themselves as both genders… or neither.

Is the manifestation of this a new phenomenon?

Not at all. There’s a long history of people (see box) saying they believe they’ve been born in the wrong sex, or wishing to assume a different gender identity, though it was only in 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association coined the term “gender identity disorder”. And there’s nothing remotely bogus about people feeling intensely stressed about their biological status. In Louis Theroux’s documentary Transgender Kids, a six-year-old called Camille, who’d been born a boy, stopped being deeply unhappy, angry and unsettled only after, at the age of four, he asked his parents “to become a girl”.

How many people feel this way?

Hard to tell, given the taboo that still surrounds the subject. Transgender groups claim between 2% and 5% of people experience some doubt about their assigned sex; there are said to be up to 500,000 transgender people in the UK. If relatively few in number, they’re highly vocal in their attacks on “cisgender privilege” (defined in the academic literature as “the set of unearned advantages that individuals who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth accrue solely due to having a cisgender identity”) and on transgender discrimination.

Where does discrimination occur?

In the army, for a start. The US military bans transgender people from serving openly in the armed forces (though the National Centre for Transgender Equality claims more than 15,000 transpeople are now doing so). Another critical area is bathrooms. In California, a “cis” group has proposed a 2016 ballot measure, the Personal Privacy Protection Act, that would restrict which bathrooms transpeople can enter, by requiring everyone “to use facilities in accordance with their biological sex”. In Canada, by contrast, a so-called “Bathroom Bill”, currently the subject of bitter debate, would allow transmen and transwomen to visit the toilet of their choice.

And are things changing in the US?

Yes, especially on the linguistic front. It’s now common for American university students to be able to choose to be addressed as “they” and even “it”, “ze” or “hir”, rather than “he” or “she”. Facebook in the US now offers users 56 different gender identities including “Agender/Neutrois” (those who don’t identify with any gender at all) and “Two-spirit” (to denote gender-variant Native Americans). Some single-sex US universities – the prestigious Smith College, for example – explicitly welcome applications from transgender women. And in 2009, President Obama appointed the first openly transgender federal officials. In the UK, too, there have been moves to make life easier for transpeople. Since 2004 they’ve been able – once they’ve lived in their new identity for at least two years – to get a “Gender Recognition Certificate” and order a new birth certificate with their new gender. And the NHS now offers drug and hormone therapies to block the onset of puberty, to children as young as 12 (even though it has been estimated that up to 20% of transgender people regret undergoing therapy).

Has there been a backlash?

Yes. For example, there’s now an online petition demanding that Caitlyn Jenner return the Olympic gold medal she won as a man in 1976. It’s not just from conservatives. Some radical feminists accuse people like Jenner of exercising “male privilege” in choosing to become women. Jenner’s idea of a woman, wrote the feminist Elinor Burkett in a furious article in The New York Times, is “a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and make-up” – an image that feminists have for so long fought to destroy.

And the reaction to that?

Progressive politics in the US is now convulsed by a bizarre culture war in which feminists like Burkett are reviled by the trans lobby as “terfs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). The actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion rights activist, was even accused of being a terf for dubbing an event in Texas in aid of abortion-funding “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas”. How can you “expect transfolk to feel included”, tweeted one indignant activist, “by an event focused on a policed, binary genital”.

The original C.J.

The very public transition of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner made her the latest in the Kardashian family to “break the internet”. (Caitlyn used to be married to the mother of reality TV celebrity Kim Kardashian.) However, it was another C.J. – Christine Jorgensen, born George, a photographer who also had a stint in the US army – who first became world famous for her “rare sex-conversion”, in 1952. “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty,” read the headline in the New York Daily News.

A year of relentless press coverage followed for Jorgensen, who had undergone surgery in Denmark. She “tossed off a Bloody Mary like a guy”, said one paper. She had a “hipswinging” gait, “slender, trembling fingers” and a “girlish blush”, said another. “Next to the recurrent hydrogen bomb headlines, reports of sex changes are becoming the most persistently startling world news,” wrote People Today in 1954. Jorgensen appeared in a few films and toured the US speaking about gender. Two attempts to get married were thwarted by her birth certificate, which listed her as male. She died in 1989, aged 62. “It was the sexual revolution that was going to start with or without me,” she said. “We may not have started it, but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants.”

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