Long before Transparent or the real-time on-camera metamorphosis of Bruce Jenner, there were plenty of accounts of gender identity bending. Although this recent trend – of brave men living publicly as women – is relatively new. On the other hand, for women to live as men and hide their femininity in a world dominated by men, could be understood differently – it could be driven by other motives and therefore the truth was ignored.
The centuries old practice of “Boston marriages” – or “female husbands”- help to shed light on society’s view of identity and marriage. Until the 1860’s in the U.S. there wasn’t much legal concern for marriage. I mean, couples were assumed to be married if they lived together and claimed to be wed, and officials rarely checked any registration documents. But after the Civil War, women came to regard men as the less refined of the sexes – perhaps a growing discontent occurred because men were absent and dying in mass numbers. Whatever the reason, women started pairing with women in what were called “Boston marriages”. It was natural for women to openly show their lady-crushes in those times, so sexual relationships were often disguised in layers of admiration and friendship.
No one thought any differently until the 1920’s sexual revolution when homosexuality actually emerged as a thing to isolate and judge. Sarah Nicolazzo, a literary history professor at University of California, has studied many of these 19th century female husband stories and has made some suggestions about the true nature of these same sex unions. She says that anatomy did not always necessarily indicate gender. Also, she adds that some of these arrangements were actually what we would consider lesbian, yet the language and appearance of heterosexuality was used to enhance the social standing of these relationships. And so the divide between physical maleness and social maleness began to be drawn.
Today, the plight of Bruce Jenner, whose image underwent a pendulum-swing of sexual opposites – from the pinnacle of male beauty to the feminine re-imagining of his outer self – can be viewed in the same light. Sex and gender are such confusing concepts that most of us tend to isolate them into opposites and deny anything in between their civil rights. Gays and lesbians began to gain rights when people saw that some family members were gay. Research at the University of California at Los Angeles implies that while 3.5 percent of American adults identify as gay, only 0.3 percent are transgender. This uphill run is coached by the courage of people like Jenner. Far from the cash-driven sensationalism of the news media, his strength to stand up to the discrimination faced by transgender people means there can only be one motive for his journey: truth.