Americans have been distracted and bemused by two people, Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, who want to transcend the biological and social categories into which they were placed at birth. Caitlyn Jenner was born male and Rachel Dolezal born white. Jenner identifies as female and Dolezal as black. Both plainly believe that such transfigurations make them more fully who they are. There are clear differences between the two cases—most notably, Jenner has been open about her background while Dolezal apparently attempted to conceal hers—but there are parallels as well, and they're worth exploring.
Let's start with some pertinent definitions. Merriam Webster defines transgender as "of, relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person's sex at birth." Transracial, meanwhile, is simply "involving, encompassing, or extending across two or more races." On the basis of these definitions, Caitlyn Jenner is clearly expressing a gender identity that differs from the sex of her previous persona, Olympian runner Bruce Jenner. Dolezal's alterations certainly involve, in some sense, extending her personal identity to one race from another.
Why are such self-fashionings so controversial? In the International Business Times, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, got to the nub of the issue. Hunter, national director of the D.C.-based Trans Women of Color Collective, said, "We're dealing with gender identity, which is a social construct and is not hereditary; and race, which is also a social construct and is hereditary." Let's parse these claims more closely.
Many social scientists make a distinction between a person's gender and sex. "Most people assume there are two genders, male and female, and that both our sex and gender depend upon our genitals—whether we were born with a vagina or a penis," explain three scholars in the 2014 book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. "Today, our 'sex' typically describes our anatomical and biological characteristics. Usually, this means our genitals and our genetics. 'Gender' is most often used to refer to our social roles and behaviors." This distinction predates the modern trans rights movement, and anthropologists have long found it useful when discussing cultures that recognize three or more gender identities—the bakla of the Philippines, the xanith of Oman, and so on. Jenner certainly did inherit her sex and for most of six decades appeared as male to most of the world.
Race is a bit more complicated and fraught. Most geneticists and physical anthropologists reject the notion that race has any significant biological reality. Nevertheless, people still do commonly use the term, and it is inscribed in our national census forms. With regard to people, Merriam Webster defines race as "(a): a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock, and (b): a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics." Stock in this context refers to a group usually having unity of descent.
As we shall see, "unity of descent" is a tricky concept, because how the boundaries of any particular "race" are set is socially constructed. In any case, the first definition implies some kind of heredity and the second encompasses more of a cultural constructivist view. Dolezal does not descend from African-American stock. When asked if she's an African American, Dalezal notably avoids the issue of biological heritage and instead asserts, "I identify as black." In other words, she adopts cultural constructivism when it comes to racial categorization.
So what about heredity? Members of sexual minorities frequently say that their sexual orientation is inborn and not subject to change, a sentiment expressed in the popular "born this way" slogan (and Lady Gaga song). There have been numerous studies in which researchers claim to have uncovered genetic links to male homosexuality.
Similarly, many transgender folk report feeling discomfort with their gender as early as they can remember, suggesting that gender identity variance may be in some sense inborn. A recent review of research seeking biological or genetic markers for gender identity variance concluded that while "the mechanisms remain to be determined, there is strong support in the literature for a biologic basis of gender identity." Researchers have recently scanned the brains of trans- and cisgender men and women to test the theory that the brains of transgender males would be more similar to those of heterosexual women. A recent roundup of this brain research, collected by the TranScience Project, reports that the results are inconclusive.
Is race more "biological" than gender? In the broad sense of people deriving their ancestry from different "stocks," race can be considered hereditary. Geneticists can parse versions of genes that differ in frequency between various populations to reliably identify the continents of origin of any particular individual's ancestors. Using these markers, the Stanford geneticist Noah Rosenberg reports in the journal Human Biology that "despite the high levels of similarity across populations, the accumulation of small differences across large numbers of markers enables inference of geographic ancestry." In other words, people's genetic lineages can be traced back to certain ancestral stocks.
Why should this matter? Because the distinction between races in the United States has been culturally constructed. Owing to our history of slavery and segregation, who is "black" and who is "white" has always mattered. After emancipation, the majority of states had enacted anti-miscegenation laws forbidding white Americans and black Americans to marry. Jim Crow laws also compelled racial segregation in the South. To enforce these laws it was necessary to define to whom they applied.
Most states adopted the "one drop" rule, in which anyone with any amount of African ancestry was legally considered black regardless of how much "black blood" they had. The rule was not generally applied to Native Americans or Asian Americans. This set up a more or less binary racial situation, with blacks on one side of the color line and everybody else on the other. Since people legally defined as blacks were severely disadvantaged economically, politically, and socially, many sought and succeeded in passing for white. Dolezal, by contrast, is passing for black—a practice that is not unheard-of but much more rare. (As an interesting side note, Brazil's 2000 and 2010 censuses showed a substantial decline in the number of citizens identifying themselves as white. This doesn't just seem to be a matter of demographic changes—officials think a lot of people of mixed descent who previously did not identify as black are now choosing to do so. Mass transracialism!)
So what to make of Jenner and Dolezal? Jenner identifies as female despite her male genitalia and Dolezal identifies as black despite her white skin. Salient biological differences may account for gender identity variance and racial diversity, but both are also clearly constructed by culture. If people feel, for whatever reason, that they must cross the binaries (hereditary or constructed) of gender and race, who has the standing to object? I am basically a live-and-let-live sort of guy. If you say that you're one thing or another and you aren't bothering folks overmuch about it, I opt for amiable tolerance.