Bruce Jenner and Rachel Dolezal

Here’s a tale of two people on parallel journeys, struggling to discover who they are.

Bruce Jenner is a former Olympic athlete and TV personality, famous for winning the men’s decathlon in 1976. Although born a man, Jenner claims to have felt for much of his life that he is a woman. To that end, he underwent cosmetic surgery, changed his name to Caitlyn and started dressing as a woman. For his choices, Jenner has been portrayed in the popular media as an authentic and courageous hero.

Rachel Dolezal is a civil rights activist and former president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. Although born of white parents, Dolezal claims to have felt for much of her life that she is black. To that end, she altered her dress, makeup and hairstyle to pass as an African-American. For her choices, Dolezal has been portrayed in the popular media as a racist fraud who may be mentally ill.

Gender identity versus racial identity

The question is, why the drastically different response? In effect, both Dolezal and Jenner have taken a similar path, each attempting to redefine a core trait they were born with. Why then has Jenner been lauded for his actions and Dolezal vilified for hers?

Dolezal’s critics were quick to point out that she acted in bad faith, hiding her true background in order to gain her position with the NAACP. While that may be fair comment, it’s also a red herring. After all, it’s simply the fact that Dolezal wanted to alter her race in the first place that has people upset, not the degree of honesty with which she went about doing it.

Going a bit further, others objected that Dolezal is merely playing dress-up and engaging in superficial stereotyping. She does not – indeed cannot – enter into the genuine complexities of the black racial experience. Her actions, according to her detractors, betray a level of cultural insensitivity that borders on racism.

Once again, although this may be true, it’s hard to find a substantial difference from what Jenner has been doing. His well-known image on the cover of Vanity Fair portrayed him in a way clearly meant to evoke feminine glamour. In fact, a fair number of women have objected to the image on precisely those grounds. They’ve pointed out that Jenner comes across as a man who’s reducing womanhood to little more than clothes, makeup and physical allure. He cannot begin to enter into the complex realities of what it means to be a woman. If Dolezal is guilty of racism, then it’s not unfair to suggest that Jenner may be equally guilty of sexism.

A few of Dolezal’s critics have gone so far as to question her mental health. They would argue that a white woman who persistently claims to be black is likely suffering some form of pathological self-delusion. To be sure, this argument is not without merit.

At the same time, however, there is also literature to suggest that transgenderism is a psychological disorder marked by misconceptions about reality. Under this view, a man who sees himself as a woman (or vice versa) is analogous to a person with anorexia who thinks they are overweight when they are in fact emaciated. So yet again, the finger pointed at Dolezal can be pointed right back at Jenner.

Inconsistency and relativism in identity politics

The inconsistent reactions to Jenner’s and Dolezal’s respective situations may seem perplexing at first, but they really shouldn’t be. It’s certainly not news that our culture has increasingly pushed sexuality to the centre of human identity. It has taken sexuality, a good thing created by God, and tried to turn it into an ultimate thing, a basis for our entire sense of self.

In addition, our postmodern ethos has largely succeeded in relativizing truth, at least in the popular imagination. Objective reality – such as our genetic makeup, for instance – is considered irrelevant or even non-existent. All truth is seen as culturally conditioned and defined by the individual. In other words, reality is whatever I want it to be, based on nothing more than my changing feelings and the shifting fashions of society.

Within such a milieu, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that one immutable genetic trait (our gender) is viewed as fluid and open to change, whereas another (our race) is considered fixed and inviolable – for no other reason than just because.

Rachel Dolezal does not deserve our ridicule for her poor choices. Neither does Bruce Jenner deserve our affirmation for his. What they both deserve is our compassion, respect and love as God’s fellow image bearers. Like all of us, they’re broken people in a fallen world who have rejected God’s design in one way or another and sought their identity in the wrong places. They need the grace of the Gospel in order to find their true selves and their sense of worth in Christ. As do we all.

Sources and further reading

Bloom, Jon, “How should we respond to Caitlyn Jenner?Desiring God, June 4, 2015.

Bouie, Jamelle, “Is Rachel Dolezal black just because she says she is?Slate, June 12, 2015.

Davis, Sean, “No, the difference between Dolezal and Jenner is not ‘fraud’,” Federalist, June 15, 2015.

Duke, Alex, “Caitlyn Jenner and love in the future tense,” Gospel Coalition, June 2, 2015.

Fields, Leslie Leyland, “How we made too much of gender: Reclaiming an identity more meaningful than manhood or womanhood,” Christianity Today, July 7, 2015.

Hoffman, Miller Jen, “Jenner can. Dolezal can't. But why?Huffington Post, July 9, 2015.

Holmes, Jasmine, “We long to belong,” Desiring God, June 12, 2015.

Kruger, Michael J., “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots? How postmodernity has led to a culture of hypocrisy,” Canon Fodder, June 22, 2015.

Macdonald, Neil, “Why can't Rachel Dolezal be as black as she wants to be?CBC News, June 17, 2015.

McAllister, Denise C., “Why Bruce Jenner can never be a woman,” Federalist, June 4, 2015.

Robson, John, “Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal and the identity double standard,” National Post, June 22, 2015.

Stonestreet, John, “Bruce Jenner, transgenderism and the church: Thinking through the next tough issue,” BreakPoint, May 7, 2015.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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