Gender and sexual identity struggles are transforming society

January 22, 2016

Humans have long explored changing their sexual or gender identity through art or literature, but it is only in the past few years that such transformations have started to be seen as acceptable in the real world.

We are used to artists such as Grayson Perry and Eddie Izzard who cross-dress with aplomb, and even use it to make political points. Now we hear of young people who are confidently asserting their right to be the gender they choose, not necessarily the one that they were born with. We have also seen the rise of transgender celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner.

It seems to me that society itself is making a transition from fearful and closed off to open and embracing. It is a fascinating time for us to live in, and one can only hope that it augurs well for those young people whose conflicted sense of self has been so troubling for them.

If we want to remember how painful and dangerous the recent past was for those whose gender was in flux, we have only to go to the cinema. I was immensely moved watching the award-winning film The Danish Girl, which tells the true story of landscape artist Einar Wegener (played by actor Eddie Redmayne) whose identification as a female named Lili Elbe was revealed through a painting.

Lili was one of the first recorded cases of gender reassignment surgery; she died following complications caused by the operation. Now fast forward to the 21st century and we see reality star Caitlyn Jenner posing on the front cover of Vanity Fair, seemingly the toast of the world for her courage.

But is this a problem solved for the human race, a done deal?

No. I worry that for many young people, conflicted by their sense of identity, such high profile transgender examples – cushioned as they are by celebrity and high incomes – are too far from their ordinary life to offer more than a glimmer of hope. Could Caitlyn represent something unattainable?

Caitlyn, it should be noted, is cautious and thoughtful about her transformation, saying: “First, I want to be a good role model.” So it is important to remember – even as we celebrate living in a more open-minded world – that we must continue to extend our compassion to all humanity, regardless of their sexuality or gender, status or beliefs.

We can choose to celebrate those qualities in humans which are so essential to us all: the capacity for introspection and tolerance of us; our natural ability to be conscientious; our shared personality trait of agreeableness. This current, very public, flowering of diversity can only help further our understanding of what humans mean by gender and sexuality: it points us towards our wider commonality and what unites our true selves.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation