The Problem With Transgender Generality

06/22/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

If the sensationalism that followed Caitlyn Jenner's revelation of herself as a transgender woman has something to teach us, it is not about the particulars of what it means to be transgender. Jenner, like each of us, has a gender identity that is too complex and individual to generalize about, and neither she nor anyone can be made to stand for the entirety of a diverse social category. More important than a lesson in identities, Jenner's announcement and the media frenzy that followed has provided an important diagnostic tool, a moment to pause and do what we anthropologists love to do: pull back from the tight focus on Jenner's smiling face and corseted waist, and locate her story and its massive media response within a broader context.

If we keep our faces pressed up against the TV screen or our noses buried deep in the crease of Vanity Fair, we'll certainly find well-packaged answers to the endlessly repeated question what is transgender? But those answers will aspire to generality. To answer fully, perhaps a better question might be, What does "transgender" look like in America today? And, perhaps more pointedly, of what broader contemporary American realities is the crushing focus on Caitlyn Jenner an example?

First, a big step back. While the term "transgender" is of recent vintage, becoming popular in the US in the 1990s, the variation from dominant gender norms that it aims to describe is not new at all. It is not uniquely modern, nor uniquely American, and while celebrity publicity seems to have been its main engine recently, it is not born from the hot lights of a television studio or the dark expanse of the internet. Ancient Greek and Hindu mythologies tell us that before it was a human practice, altering one's sexed body or gendered social role was the stuff of gods. From the 15th century to today, the anthropological record is filled with accounts of peoples from around the world who we might now label "transgender," those whose ways of being depart from the polar notions of male/masculine and female/feminine that many Americans take to be timeless and indisputable facts. These are simply our own received way of understanding people and bodies. And so our way of doing "transgender" is particular, too.

The most notable thing that Euro-American culture has contributed to the long history of gender variation is to set it off as a psycho-medical pathology. It was in the clinical practice of mid-century American sexology that "transsexualism" was first conceptualized as a disease, with surgical transformation of the body its prescribed treatment. It is because of this legacy that I have cringed my way through media stories in which commentators mused about whether Jenner had had "the surgery," referring to the obsession with her genital form, as though any of us move through the day proving our sex by displaying our genitals for the judgment of others.

Even the uniquely American framing of the "transsexual," has not been as durable as popular commentary seems to demand. I recently completed a research project with trans-women undergoing facial feminization surgery. For many of these women, altering their facial appearance to be recognized as women in everyday life was far more important than the transformation genital surgery might have accomplished. For these women, gender is more a matter of social recognition than of genital form.

Jenner's celebrity has allowed her to push through a host of indignities that most trans-Americans experience in a way that only celebrity can. Jenner is an example of no one but Jenner. After all, she is a part of the Kardashian Kingdom and an Olympic marvel. While hers is not a common life, Jenner's story reflects more than her own experience. If we look to her for a lesson in transgender identity, we may be left wanting. But if we scale back to put her unique story in its time and place and in a wide and rich history, some valuable things come into focus.

Eric Plemons, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, is a medical anthropologist focused on trans-medicine and surgery in the US.