In 2015, transgender issues propelled to the forefront of discussion when former Olympian and renowned member of the Jenner-Kardashian family Bruce Jenner revealed that, despite her anatomical appearance, she had always been mentally a woman. Since then, Jenner has undergone sex-reassignment surgery and released her memoir, titled “The Secrets of My Life,” in which she reflects on her long battle with her identity.
Just two months after Jenner’s reveal back in 2015, Rachel Dolezal, former president of the Spokane NAACP chapter, professor of Africana studies and civil rights activist, made countless headlines when her parents publicized a shocking piece of information; she was born Caucasian and had been passing, with the help of perms and self-tanner, as an African American woman for nearly a decade.
While these stories differ largely, proponents of a transphobic agenda continue to conflate them, proclaiming that there is one ostensible similarity between the two: deception. Attempting to invalidate the transgender identity, advocates of a rigid gender binary have, mockingly, applied the term “transracial” to describe Dolezal’s facade in order to draw parallels to Jenner’s infamous transition to womanhood.
A subgroup within radical feminism has also expressed vexation toward a liberalized perspective on transgenderism, claiming that male-to-female transgender individuals are fetishizing and commodifying the female body. They also believe that these transgender individuals disregard the centrality of womanhood, which entails the experience of sexism and inequality in almost every aspect of life. This argument may seem similar to the argument used to denounce Dolezal’s new identity as a black woman, affirming that the African American identity cannot be separated from the experience of racism. Physical transition between the boundaries of race and gender, however, are fundamentally different in nature.
In modern academia, both race and gender have been acknowledged as social constructions meant to advance and sustain an androcentric or Eurocentric agenda. That is, disparaging ideologies pertaining to both women and people of color have been intentionally devised, in order to curtail mobility between the oppressed and the privileged.
Race and gender differ, however, in that pigmentation is biologically assigned while gender is not. In fact, the term sex has come to denote physiological composition, while gender involves self-identification upon a spectrum. While Dolezal, now legally Nkechi Amare Diallo, has attempted to appropriate the female African American identity, Jenner and the estimated 1.4 million transgender individuals within the United States have simply transitioned into an outward reflection of themselves.
With recent studies indicating a 40 percent suicide rate for transgender individuals, it should be acknowledged that satisfying one’s gender identity by means of physical alteration is often essential to ensuring psychological and emotional liberation, and obligatory to those who seek it. The difference between the transgender individual and the so-called “transracial” individual is the element of choice. Transgender men and women do not choose to be transgender, much like one does not choose their sexual orientation. It is simply felt. Affirming this concept is Jenner’s words in Vanity Fair: “I wish I were kind of normal. It would be so much more simple … the uncomfortableness of being me never leaves all day long. I’m not [transitioning] to be interesting. I’m doing this to live.”
Ties drawn between Dolezal and Jenner are only a recent jab at the transgender identity by conservatives, a long history that includes equating being transgender with mental illness and promulgating a predatory rhetoric. Nonetheless, Dolezal’s claims to the so-called pan-African identity as well as her recent book “In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World” have sparked complex conversations about race and gender that were notably absent during the 20th century.
As the fight for transgender rights proceed, we must distinguish the inherent from the chosen, the authentic from the learned. While the term transgender and the scientific advancements that enabled the possibility of gender-affirming surgery are new, being transgender itself is not. Breaking away from the constraints of strict gender binaries and sexualities, as well as stereotypes, is essential for the advancement of liberty.
Sophia San Filippo is a junior majoring in English.