Understanding Gender Identity

by Maria Christina, MS

Counseling and Therapy Pittsburgh PA

Caitlyn Jenner was treated to two standing ovations as she received the Arthur Ashe award for courage at this year’s ESPY awards [view the ESPY presentation here ]. The film shown prior to the award presentation traced Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner’s struggle with gender identity, and his ultimate transition to Caitlyn. This provided the framework to help many viewers understand that Bruce Jenner and Caitlyn Jenner are one and the same person. Caitlyn is the authentic gender expression of that person.

Jenner is but one individual identifying as transgender within a broad and diverse community, and the publicity surrounding Jenner’s transition has prompted many questions.  For example, do all in the transgender community elect to undergo surgery?  The short answer is, no. Others try to make connections between gender identity and sexual orientation: if a girl who is attracted to girls transitions to being a boy, was she gay and now “straight?”  As much as we try to arrange things into neat categories, often humans defy categorization.  Our understanding of gender is evolving and, simply stated, our expressed gender and our attraction to others are two separate, unrelated, fundamental parts of who we are.  Now that same-gender marriage is recognized as legal across the country, perhaps we can move away from terminology that serves to separate us.  Instead of “gay marriage,” there is simply marriage.  Couples are couples, families are families, people are people and we present ourselves in myriad ways.  Jenner summed this up during her acceptance speech: “We’re all different. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

In addition to the usual issues that bring people to counseling, many who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming experience significant amounts of depression and anxiety because they are living inauthentic lives. Counseling and treatment lessen depression and anxiety, help individuals understand their gender identities and gender expression, and assist them as they work through complex social and relational issues.  But there is a special risk for those in the transgender community: 41% of those who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming attempt suicide at some time in their lives, according to a survey released by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  This is nearly nine times the national average for all Americans.  Additionally transgender youth are at high risk for being the victims of violent crime.

Jenner has enormous wealth, and what appears to be a loving and supportive family. In spite of these resources even she could not escape the pain of keeping secrets and living an inauthentic life. She admits to considering suicide in the past.  Jenner is stronger now and can withstand criticism and disapproval, but thousands of transgender children and adolescents in this country cannot. They are vulnerable. If you or someone you know identifies as gender nonconforming, remember there are resources available to assist individuals, couples and families as they work through many complex issues. Caitlyn Jenner stated it clearly: “This is an issue we can deal with. This is not something that people have to die over.”

The Trevor Project operates the nation’s only 24-hour toll-free suicide prevention helpline for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth (1-866-4-U-TREVOR or 866-488-7386).