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Is Gender Transition in the Eye of the Beholder?

By June 3, 2015May 29th, 2019No Comments

A Blind View

The news media this week is buzzing with the orchestrated “coming out” of Caitlyn Jenner, publicly emerging fully formed and Hollywood beautiful from the body and psyche of Bruce Jenner. Every pundit and talk show host will have to weigh in on this issue, but so will any expert on gender. I do not want to disappoint, but I do want to consider an overlooked angle, one that I discuss in more detail in my new book, Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes and that is the centrality of vision in defining gender and, so, transgender.

We who are sighted often do not realize that we judge gender mostly by visual cues. Remember for a moment the awkwardness of meeting someone whose gender is not obvious to your eyes. We are visual creatures in an increasingly hyper-visual culture and gender identity does not escape the “cultural male gaze,” but is largely formed by it.

There are many subtle variations on gender that have had to be collapsed into the two available choices. This dichotomy is not scientific, but cultural, and those who do not fit have typically been “assigned” one or the other gender by the obstetrician in attendance at birth and then compelled to fit. Entire industries also deal in making products that assist in creating the false illusion of dichotomy because most of us do not fit. Most of these products are designed for women to change the shape of facial features, remove hair, apply makeup, change body shape and size, etc., etc. Notably Jenner even sat in the “masculine” position when appearing as Bruce and in the “feminine” one as Caitlin.

This case of transition certainly highlights the centrality of vision and, as well, of the impact of the visual media. It is a transition focused on the mirror and on appearance. This definition of gender can remain hidden from the sighted, but, if you are blind, transgender is no transition at all. For a blind person, all the cues to gender remain the same. Only qualities available to the eye are changed, although vocal inflection can sometimes be changed a little through practice.

More than one blind individual told me that transitioning had no meaning in their world without visual cues. Not only is gender transition largely or entirely a visually focused phenomenon, it has also developed to privilege mind over matter. Psychological identity is deemed “real,” while the material or physical is deemed “wrong,” as in “I was born in the wrong body.” The body is then altered to conform to the mind’s ideas. This raises the much deeper questions, “What is a woman?” and “What is a man?” Are they psychological or physical or something else? And this is an issue that deserves more serious and thoughtful discussion than we have had.

If we were different creatures with slightly different eyes, what would gender look like? It would definitely be different, depending on what those eyes saw. Only our human eyes see what we see. Caitlin fits right in to the gendered ideas of the mid 20th century and has made herself over to appear like a starlet of that era. Perhaps it is time, in the 21st century, to open up new categories rather than reinforcing those of another century. Don’t we want to think more deeply about such important issues rather than just responding to the superficiality of sight and the (dis)comfort of the traditional dichotomies?

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.