“When a little baby is born, the doctor looks at the genitalia and says, ‘It’s a boy!’ Well, don’t be too quick on that one,” said Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender reality star and former Olympic athlete, on Sunday at Spotlight Health, a conference co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
Jenner’s interview with her Vanity Fair profiler and co-author of her memoir, Buzz Bissinger, was the finale of Spotlight Health , in which gender, and what it means, was a prominent theme.
Jenner recalled the time an interviewer asked her daughters, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, “When did you know you were a girl?”
“Kylie says, ‘No one has ever asked me that question before.’ That was the first time my kids ever thought about gender and about who they are. And that same thought goes through a trans person’s head 24 hours a day, 365 days out of the year.”
At the opening session three days earlier, Mona Eltahawy, a columnist for The New York Times and author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, got up on stage as part of a rapid-fire presentation of big ideas. “My big idea is: Fuck the patriarchy!” she shouted.
Over the course of the festival, I heard people talking about this constantly. On shuttles to and from town, lounging on lawn chairs, standing in line for hot dogs, people would ask each other, “Did you hear that woman say ‘fuck the patriarchy?’”
Eltahawy was also on a panel called “What is Gender?” and the audience there was packed Friday. This is a major question on Americans’ minds lately, thanks in no small part to Jenner coming out as a transgender woman in 2015, and becoming one of the most prominent transgender celebrities. Much of American society still has very rigid notions about what it means to be a man or a woman, as evidenced by a recent study showing that gender stereotypes have not changed noticeably in the U.S. in the past 30 years.
Even very small ways in which people choose not to conform to traditional notions of masculinity or femininity are often scrutinized and stigmatized.
“I remember the first time I walked into the salon to get my nails done, I felt like I had to explain to everyone why I’m here,” said Bisi Alimi, a gay-rights activist and the first gay man to come out on television in Nigeria, at the gender panel Sunday. “I’ve come here to actually look beautiful. It was interesting that just the paint on my nails automatically put me in a box of how less of a man I am. People start questioning who you are, and this puts a lot of pressure on men to explain and express their gender.”
The pressure of nonconformity can be especially hard for transgender people, who may feel blocked from expressing their gender identity. The fight over access to bathrooms in North Carolina and elsewhere has brought this to the fore—with people arguing over whether transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom consistent with their gender, or be forced to use the one that corresponds with their biological sex at birth.
“I have never in my life seen any country where the toilet is such a big deal,” Alimi said. “It’s funny that’s happening in the land of the brave and free. What the fuck are you afraid of the toilet for? You go there to have a pee.”
At the heart of this are opposing views on what it means to be men and women, and how fluid gender can be. As my colleague Emma Green put it, “America is experiencing a period of profound gender anxiety.” But if nothing else, people are starting to think about it more deeply, considering not just gender, but how it intersects with race and class, and sexuality.
“This idea that white America is post-racist or post-sexist or post-feminist… white America is post-nothing,” Eltahawy said.
Jenner spoke about her years of secrecy, and how she dealt with not being able to show her authentic self, mostly by “running away from it—literally” (back when she was an Olympic decathlete known as Bruce). She mentioned the high rates of suicide among transgender people (41 percent attempt it at some point), and the higher rates at which they are murdered.
“Mental health by far is the biggest issue. It’s pretty amazing what the doctors have been able to do [for physical transitions],” she said. “That is the easy portion. The bigger problem is the psychological part of this, especially for transgender youth.”
Jenner says that she feels her transition could be her way to, “in God’s eyes, make a difference” for other transgender people.
“This is how I explain myself,” she said. “God’s looking down and he’s making little Bruce. He said, ‘What are we gonna do with this one? Let’s give him good looks, make him intelligent, make him athletic, that’s kind of cool. Let’s make him really athletic that’s even cooler.’ He gets to the end and goes, ‘Look at all these wonderful qualities we’ve given this one. But everybody’s got their stuff, what are we going to give this one to deal with?’ He sits back, chuckles, and says, ‘Let’s give this one the soul of a female and see what happens.’”