My hometown’s weekly publication, the High Plains Reader (HPR), is locally known as an alternative and well-researched paper. Or at least, that’s always been my understanding of the paper. One of the opinion columns is called Gadfly and written by Mr. Ed Raymond, and this has always been one of the highlights of HPR for myself and my family. It has always been an informed critique of the goings on in society, and has focused on a wide number of issues both commonly seen in the public eye as well as those issues we’d all rather ignore.
My father has this adorable habit of cutting out newspaper articles, sticking them in an envelope, and mailing them to me to show his support of me. Where other families might say, “Wow Brannen, you’re living such an authentic life and I couldn’t be prouder to have you as a child,” my family sends academic articles, newspaper clippings, and links to news reports or well-written blog posts.
And so imagine my pleasure when I opened my envelope to find a recent Gadfly article entitled “Bruce and Caitlyn and Friends”. Knowing HPR, I thought it would be both informational as well as, you know, informed. I read in horror as the first paragraph contained the phrase
Although he felt the pressures of the female brain as early as age six, it took him 59 years to transgender to female to satisfy those yearnings.
This was unfortunately not the end of the errors contained within the article, and so I decided to write Mr. Raymond an email delineating the points I felt were most salient:
I’m a grad student at UW-Madison, but a Moorhead native, and my father sent me your article “Bruce and Caitlyn and Friends” to read. I did enjoy the sentiments you expressed, especially regarding theology, but I did take issue with a few of your overlying themes. I wanted to clear up a few points that you might not have been to clear about.
In your first paragraph you described Caitlyn Jenner as “transgendering from male to female.” I wanted to bring to your attention that the word “transgender” is not a verb — for example, as a transgender person I cannot “transgender” from one sex or gender to another — but the term is an adjective. So I am a gender neutral, non-binary transgender person.
Secondly you seem to conflate sexuality, sex, and gender identity, although granted the concepts are closely connected. Sex is what we’re designated at birth based on our genitalia — male, female, or intersex — although as you reference with Nicole, this can be a confusing area for religious reasons as well as medical and social reasons. Sexuality is who you are or are not attracted to romantically or sexually. And gender identity is your internal feeling of yourself and where you stand, or don’t stand, within a typically gendered society.
You ask, “What makes us think that when it comes to sexuality each human has received exactly just the right amount of testosterone and estrogen to put us in a narrow ‘normal’ heterosexual range?” This question makes no sense; hormones point to our sex assigned at birth, but heterosexual is a sexual orientation, part of our sexuality, and I don’t know that hormones play any definitive role in determining our sexuality.
The last concern I had regards your section on non-binary individuals, which really hit close to home for me. “Non-binary” and “agender” are two completely different gender identities. Non-binary is more of an umbrella term for people who do not subscribe to the notion of only two genders (the man/woman dichotomy). Thus a non-binary person would not necessarily say they are male/female, as this connotes more of a feel of being intersex than it has anything to do with gender. Some non-binary people do identify as bigender, however, and might say they are both a man and a woman. Being agender involves not identifying with any sort of gender at all, or having a neutral gender identity, or even just not having any proper terminology to describe their gender. This does not mean androgyny, as this is defined as being in between masculinity and femininity on that binary scale I mentioned above, and typically involves gender presentation (i.e. how you dress, behave, etc.).
(As an aside, being non-binary or agender does not involve “not choos[ing] a gender.” People under the transgender and non-binary umbrellas don’t “choose” their gender any more than cisgender people do. By the way, thank you for including that term in your piece!)
This is a handy site I’ve found that helped me clear up a lot of questions four years ago, when I first started coming to terms with my own gender identity. The link is http://gender.wikia.com/wiki/Gender_Wiki. I eagerly anticipate your response.”
I will readily admit I censored myself when going into the sex≠gender≠sexuality bit. I did not want to inundate the email with a description of exactly how sex is determined by the body, but simply described how doctors assign us a sex. And perhaps I hadn’t been as eloquent as I would have liked, but I felt that I had composed an overall good commentary before clicking “send.” I was excited that instead of writing musings on my blog I had taken a step farther–to actually educating someone in a profession which I greatly admire. I waited on tenterhooks, excited to hear what Mr. Raymond might reply. And the next day or two I found this in my inbox: