Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On Caitlyn Jenner

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that one of the biggest popular culture stories of the past 24 hours has been the Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.  It has created, I believe, an even bigger discussion on the subject of gender identity and transgender people than her original announcement that she was a transwoman.

Photoshop courtesy of Matthew Wright

I am not trans but I have many friends who are, both male-to-female and female-to-male.  I also have several friends who don't fit well into gender binary categories at all.  So I have had a lot of time to see, think and talk to people to whom this is very important and in the process have developed my own opinions on the subject.  I hope this doesn't come across as cis-malesplaining.

I used the delightful Wheaties box photoshop above rather than the actual Vanity Fair cover to prove a point.  To people of my generation, Caitlyn Jenner is not a C-list celebrity on Keeping Up With The Kardashians (a program I am very proud to say I have never watched) but rather the person who won the decathlon at 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.  I distinctly remember watching those games on TV and they were the first Olympics to really enter my memory and consciousness.

There is still a large perception in the general public that transwomen are usually very effeminate males before they transition, not macho athletes and national sports heroes like Caitlyn became at the time.  It was one thing for her to say publicly "I am trans" and quite another for her to appear in a dress and make-up on the cover of a fashion magazine.  It directly challenges the M-to-F stereotype. And to my mind, that challenge is a good thing.  Our culture needs to come to terms with the fact that anyone can be trans and more importantly the average person has no say in what gender any other person is.  To quote my friend Missy Ciavarelli:

News flash - you don't get to have an "opinion" on what someone else's gender is. Your "opinion" doesn't matter. You don't get to decide that for someone else.Whatever your "opinion" on gender, respect the other person and their identity and educate yourself, because sex and gender are not the same thing.

Also it is a matter of simple politeness.  What harm comes from referring to any person by the name and pronoun that they prefer?  Anything else is trying to assert your gender norms on another person.

Another issue that came up in several places yesterday was the idea that Caitlyn's transition is somehow less authentic than another transperson's because she is a celebrity and relatively wealthy compared to most other transfolk.  I know from my friends that being trans is very hard and the decision to come out and transition is even harder.  Being a celebrity has nothing to do with it.  And while Caitlyn's wealth means she will be able to afford the surgical and material needs of transitioning better than many (or even most) other transpeople it still does not make the process easy.  Quoting Missy again:

Every trans person's experience is going to be different. And it's going to be difficult to come to terms with the decision to transition *within themselves*. Never mind doing it front of other people. Caitlyn has done this in front of a public that has only ever thought of her as a macho athlete. She may have more money than most, but that's about it. The mean, ignorant replies on Twitter, and I'm sure other places as well, mean she doesn't have this easy by any means. I think it's taken a great deal of courage to come out the way she has, or even at all.

If Caitlyn's very public transition makes it easier for even one other transperson to come to grips with who they really are and make that choice to transition themselves then she is an even bigger hero than she was for winning a gold medal in 1976.

Which leads me to my final thought.  I am very curious to see how the International Olympic Committee is going to handle her transition in the record books.  Yesterday I looked on the official Olympics website and it still said the 1976 decathlon was won by Bruce Jenner, though considering it has been the day she announced her new name I really hadn't expected any change.  I suspect there are going to be some very high level discussions at the IOC about how this is going to be addressed.  My hope is that they will credit that gold medal as being won by Caitlyn rather than Bruce and if they have to stick an asterisk next to it to explain to future generations why a woman won an ostensibly male event, so be it.

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