Caitlyn Jenner Makes a Huge Splash, but What Does It Mean To Be Transgender?

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner photo Vanity Fair

Millions of Americans found out that the person once known as the greatest Olympic decathlete has had Gender Confirmation Surgery and reintroduced herself today as Caitlyn Jenner, thus lifting the profile and voice of people who are transgender all over the world. In an instant, transgender issues went from being perceived by mainstream culture as a fringe concern, happening to a marginal number of unimportant people, to something that was happening in the epicenter of pop culture: A member of one of the most famous families in the world, and a long-celebrated, world-class Olympic athlete, someone who, by all outward appearances, came across as the pinnacle of prolific masculinity is, in fact, a transgender woman named Caitlyn. However unjust it might be that it took someone as high profile as Jenner to elevate the transgender discussion to the forefront of mainstream consciousness, the fact remains, with the words, “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” the switch was flipped: America is talking about the transgender experience. But as a greater number of people dig into that discussion, does everyone know exactly what it is they’re talking about? The short answer: probably not.

In Vanity Fair’s much anticipated cover story, we read about Caitlyn’s struggles, her panic attack after a 10 hour facial-feminization surgery, and the second guessing about what she may have just done to her body.  She talks about misgendering herself in public, and how she is prepared for the criticism that will soon follow her and her new docu-series on the E! Network.

In a recent short interview I did with Jack Tomczak, host of the ‘Up and At Em’ Radio Show on Twin Cities News Talk AM1130, I asked him, “What is it about people who are transgender that the general public just doesn’t understand?” Tomczak summed it up in a single word, “Everything.”

Jack was correct: the general public doesn’t understand what it means to be transgender and how this adversely affects our lives and ability to function without the constant thought of suicide; that said, we at Planet Transgender will try to put this in perspective.

“A transgender person is someone whose sex at birth is different from who they know they are on the inside. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies. Some undergo surgery as well.”

This is the official definition of transgender. Not according to Wikipedia, The World Professional Association for Transgender Health [WPATH], or the American Psychological Association. This definition of transgender was well crafted from the Goodwin Simon Strategic Research company;  According to their website, “Goodwin Simon Strategic Research is a national public opinion research firm that uses cutting-edge research methodologies to unpack emotional reactions and develop effective message frameworks on socially sensitive issues.”

In other words, a focus group was used to craft a public palpable statement to define transgender. This definition was found to have tested well among a control group of participants across both conservative and liberal demographic lines and then was issued in report form to medical facilities, non-profit organizations and other entities that deal directly with people who are transgender.  In other words, the transgender experience has been put into a template and spoon fed to the general population in order for them to accept us as a person or a community.

The point about the focus group is that we as people who are transgender don’t even have control over how other people see us or how we want to be labeled, explained or represented.  If we don’t have control over our own identification, then how are we expected to drive the conversation about us?

Diane Sawyer asked a very interesting question during the first segment of the April interview, “How does it happen that thousands and thousands of people know with certainty that their real gender is not the same as their anatomy?”  The answer is simple,  “Gender is Biology” and proof of this began to appear in 2008 with Australia’s Prince Henry’s Institute Study on the DNA of transgender individuals lead by Dr. Vincent Harley. Previous studies had shown that the brain structures of Male-to-Female transgender individuals were more “female-like,” however the Prince Henry Study took it one step further and pinpointed the cause.

In this study, the DNA of 112 transgender people were studied against a group of 258 controls and found a longer androgen receptor (AR) gene in those who were transgender; this genetic difference resulted in weaker testosterone level in MTF transgender individuals. In an interview with The Telegraph, Professor Vincent Harley stated, “There is a social stigma that transsexualism is simply a lifestyle choice, however, our findings support a biological basis of how gender identity develops.”

Since 2008, multiple studies have also shown that an atypical gender identity is triggered by genetics and biology via a defective AR gene. These further studies virtually eliminate the clinical debate of whether being transgender is a “choice” while also discrediting critics talking point that DNA is not involved in gender expression.

Let’s remember that all humans are conceived as and gestate in the womb for up to eight weeks as female and the introduction of testosterone on the fetus becomes the first step in the de-feminization of the fetus. This occurs during the first 6-12 weeks of pregnancy, however, according to The Transgender Brain, “Brain development, however, does not occur in earnest until the second half of the pregnancy term, after the genitals have been developed, and the continued presence of male hormones results in a brain which has subtle, but critical physical differences from the female brain. (Bao)

“The fact that the brain and the genitals develop at different times in the womb mean that a misalignment between the genitals and brain may develop, leading to either an intersex condition, or a transgender individual.” The study concludes.

All human activity is activated by the brain and in 2008, transgender differences were caught on brain scans.  According to an article in New Science, “Antonio Guillamon’s team at the National University of Distance Education in Madrid, Spain, think they have found a better way to spot a transsexual brain.”

“They found significant differences between male and female brains in four regions of white matter – and the female-to-male transsexual people had white matter in these regions that resembled a male brain.” Guillamon stated that “It’s the first time it has been shown that the brains of female-to-male transsexual people are masculinised.”

We know that being transgender is based both on biology and genetics, but what is the result of a person being born in the wrong body? Gender Dysphoria. Previously referred to as “Gender Identity Disorder,” Gender Dysphoria is a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.

“This mismatch between sex and gender identity can lead to distressing and uncomfortable feelings that are called gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a recognized medical condition, for which treatment is sometimes appropriate. It is not a mental illness.

From personal experience, I can tell you it’s debilitating and many people who are transgender, including myself, turn to suicide as a solution to their dysphoria. Suicide within the trans community is running at 41% compared to the national average of 4.6%. In 2015, the Williams Institute release some startling statistics relating to people who are transgender. According to the study:

  • Discrimination was pervasive throughout the entire sample, yet the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating. People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African American transgender respondents faring far worse than all others in most areas examined.
  • Respondents lived in extreme poverty. This sample was nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000/ year compared to the general population.
  • A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%)

PlanetTransgender reached out to Greta Gustava Martela, founder of the Trans Lifeline, the only suicide prevention hotline staffed 100% by trans people. Currently operating with over 200 trained operators, Trans Lifeline has another 500 people going through the training process. Full disclosure, I have called Trans Lifeline and the questions they ask are ones that only people who are transgender would understand making the call-in experience instantly identifiable and specific to my dysphoria.

Trans Lifeline booked over 513 calls in the month of January and they are currently averaging 60 calls per day. During the 20/20 interview, there was a significant bump in calls from 8:00 p.m. to midnight, proving that the dysphoria people are feeling is real and at crisis level. On Wednesday the 22nd of April, Trans Lifeline began to trend up in calls and received 85 that day.

The good that came from the Vanity Fair article is that the transgender experience is carefully laid out on the table for the public to see, to digest, and to think about when attempting to legislate or discriminate against us.  Millions of readers are allowed to hear a story that so many of us have told our friends, spouses, parents and siblings; a story of grief, heart break, struggle to identify and to fit in, and a story that for most has never been believed.  That we “choose” this lifestyle, that it’s a phase to outgrow and that we should just be happy with who we are, but biology and genetics do not work by choice and we are born this way.

Atticus Finch, the main character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, may have said it best: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Claire-Renee Kohner

My name is Claire-Renee Kohner and in January of 2014, I came out as transgender. My family fully supports my transition and, along with the Minneapolis trans community, my transition has been extremely positive. My journey should be fun, so keep your arms and legs inside the cart, it's going to be a wild ride.

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