The Wide World of Gender Diversity
What began as wild speculation stirred up by the paparazzi has become the story of Caitlyn Jenner's gender transition, which will now be told via a reality television show documenting her journey to being a woman. Members of her family have made supportive public statements and media coverage appears to be emotionally neutral, although sensationalized as the media tends to do. In many ways, the spotlight on gender diversity may be positive for the transgender community as it increases visibility of their unique issues, gives the community a familiar face (at least familiar to those who are Olympic history buffs or fans of Keeping Up with the Kardashians), and educates the public on the process of gender transition. The potential problem is that all of this media coverage of one person's experience may make Caitlyn's transition the poster for all people in the transgender community, a community which is extremely diverse. It is important for us to understand that although many people under the transgender umbrella share some experiences, many also have a unique background that does not match the unfolding of Caitlyn Jenner's transition.
To illustrate the complexity of what it means to be transgender, it is important to understand the difference between sexual orientation (the gender(s) of the individuals to whom one is attracted) and gender identity (the gender with which one identifies). Oversimplified, individuals who are transgender have a gender identity that does not match with their biological sex (what their chromosomes and internal/external reproductive organs say they are: male or female. Some people who are born with intersex conditions are difficult to place into one of these categories, which may or may not lead to gender identity issues later in life). For most people whose gender identity matches their biological sex, the gender identity is often taken for granted or not thought about because there is never a NEED to think about it. If one identifies as a man and has male genitalia, all is right in that person's world and they never need to think about identifying as a man vs. a woman. Now take a minute and try to really imagine what it would be like, given your own gender identity, if your biological sex were the opposite. In this case your gender identity would not match your biological sex and you may consider yourself transgender. This is a very uncomfortable feeling for most people and is the source of the "gender dysphoria," or depression and anxiety related to being transgender, many gender diverse individuals face. Working with a therapist can help individuals find ways to alleviate gender dysphoria and cope with the associated stigma.
Not all individuals who are transgender need to "transition" in the same way Caitlyn is transitioning. Some choose to live "full time" in the gender role that matches their gender identity. Some of these individuals may choose to engage in Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) or undergo gender confirmation surgery (previously known as sex reassignment surgery), and others may feel medical interventions are not necessary for them to express their gender comfortably. Some may find that all they need is the weekend or wearing an item of clothing representing their true gender identity underneath their regular clothes is enough to relieve their gender dysphoria. Still others may identify with neither gender or both genders, and may express these in unique ways. Some may choose to deny and not express their true gender identity at all, possibly out of fear of stigma, lack of support, or to maintain the status quo, which often leads to increased gender dysphoria.
Briefly, sexual orientation is about attraction to others whereas gender identity is about the self. It is important to separate the two as gender identity does not dictate sexual orientation and vice versa. Someone who is biologically male and identifies as heterosexual may also identify as transgender. Through his transition to being a woman he may maintain his attraction to women and change his sexual orientation to lesbian or bisexual or he may discover his attraction to men and maintain a heterosexual orientation. Conversely, just because someone identifies as homosexual does not mean that they want to take on attributes of the opposite sex.
I hope that I have confused you enough to effectively make my point that there is not one type of transgender person, and the transgender community is filled with personal experiences that are as diverse, if not more so, than those who are not transgender. So if you continue to follow Caitlyn through her transition, do so with the awareness that his story belongs to her and is not necessarily representative of the stories of all who fall under the gender diverse umbrella.