(Photo: Flickr / Mike Mozart)

(Photo: Flickr / Mike Mozart)

Is Caitlyn Jenner “posing as a woman” for Vanity Fair magazine, as a recent USA Today headline claims? Or is she a woman posing for pictures for Vanity Fair magazine? The syntax is important.

My guess is that USA Today chose its wording very deliberately, showcasing a misleading double entendre that perpetuates harmful myths and confusion about transgender people.

Let’s clear up the confusion here: Caitlyn Jenner is not “posing as a woman.” She is a woman.

From what Jenner has said in her much-publicized 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer, she has always been female. What makes us feel like and identify as a certain gender or genders is in our brain, not between our legs.

We need to understand this: Some females are born with penises and some males are born with vaginas. Some people are even born with both or with ambiguous genitalia. That’s just how biology works. That’s just human. It may not be the majority, but it’s not wrong or bad anymore that being left-handed or having green eyes.

Science suggests that people like Jenner are not “males transitioning to females.” Transgender people identify as a gender that conflicts with the gender assignment typically associated with their reproductive organs. They are who they say they are from birth.

We use the term “transgender” for people whose bodies and brains (or felt identities) differ because their reproductive organs are typically associated with a different gender. And we use the term “cisgender” for people whose brain, felt identity, and reproductive organs match the typical pattern.

But we really don’t even need the labels. We just need to understand and accept the fact that people are born the way they develop in utero and there’s much more variation than previously understood.

Babies’ reproductive organs and brains develop at different times during pregnancy. The reproductive organs develop in the first half of pregnancy and the parts of the brain involved in gender identity develop in the second half of pregnancy. Much happens in between with hormone production and absorption so that great variation can result. Our gender identity is hard-wired in the developing brain. And all the variations are normal and natural and exist on a spectrum.

Many believe that most of the time brains and sexual organs “match” the typical pattern of male and female. But a lot of times, they don’t. And even sometimes they sort of do and sort of don’t. So even when we see what appears to be a typical male gender identity with a typical male reproductive system, that male gender identity may be more or less inclined toward a feminine gender identity, no gender identity or a fluid gender identity. In other words, even “matching” gender and reproductive systems may not be within the traditional understanding of gender binaries.

And some queer and transgender people feel they actively choose their gender identities. We need to respect that too. Only we know how we feel inside.

Finally, whether transgender people choose to have their genitalia “typically” match their born gender/felt identity is a thoroughly private matter and has absolutely nothing to do with their gender. It’s not your business. Don’t ask.

Caitlyn Jenner isn’t “posing as a woman,” rather she has been posing as male all of her life because cultural and scientific ignorance have forced her, and millions of others globally, to do so. Jenner is finally feeling safe to live as she was born.  Support others who are brave enough to do the same.

Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Poverty project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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