I got into an interesting exchange just now. I tweeted a snide comment about Rachel Dolezal, and I got this response from a Facebook friend who hasn’t exactly been supportive of Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people in general:
If people can self identify gender why can’t they self identify race?
It was pretty clear my friend was trying to point out a perceived hypocrisy in those who, on the one hand, support Bruce Jenner’s decision to become Caitlyn, and on the other hand, mock Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be black.
Sure, I get the confusion. Why do we applaud one person’s transformation from a man to a woman, but we roll our eyes at another person’s transformation from a white person to a black person?
So here’s the answer: It’s not hypocritical in the least bit if you have any understanding of gender identity. And in fact, I realize now that much of the prejudice against Caitlyn stems from a core misunderstanding of the biology of gender. As such, I figured I’d post my reply to my friend here, in the hopes that it will clear up some of this misunderstanding:
Gender has a deep genetic and biological basis behind it — far deeper than just the visible body parts one is born with. Science is only now beginning to understand the biological determinants of gender, and it is in fact possible to be born with the physical genitalia for one gender, but have the underlying psychological traits for another.
Ethnicity and race, on the other hand, is mostly based on cultural differences. While there are underlying biological differences between, say, “whites” and “blacks,” most of them amount to superficial physical differences (skin color, hair texture, etc.).
Either way, it’s genetically impossible for a person of European descent to be born with African traits, which would be the case for Dolezal. It is, however, quite possible for a person to be born with a confluence of both male and female traits, which is the case for Jenner.
As such, any comparison between the two is inappropriate. There is a huge difference between someone who was born with male genitalia, but is psychologically female in every other way, and someone who was born “white,” but chooses to take on superficial “black” characteristics.
So that’s really what it comes down to:
One change has a sound, biological basis. The other does not. It’s as simple as that.