Monday, June 1, 2015

Some Thoughts About Caitlyn Jenner

After what felt like endless speculation, today the Gold Medalist in the 1976 Olympic Decathlon announced via twitter that she will now be known as Caitlyn Jenner. She also revealed that she looks pretty damn awesome, particularly for a woman in her 60s. 

I've written about her multiple times, and I'm sure I'll continue to write about her as events warrant. As I've said before, I think that her vast wealth and privilege makes her experience vastly different from that of most other trans women, and I am deeply disappointed by her continued support of the Republican Party and their anti-trans agenda. However, those aren't the issues I want to focus on today. 

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Caitlyn's journey has been observing everyone's reaction to it. The bigots are outing themselves, and while that's annoying and painful to watch, it also lets us know who to avoid, ostracize and expose. Thankfully, the reaction has been largely positive, and Jenner's coming out gives us an opportunity to educate people who are open to it. So here's some knowledge I'd like to lay out for all y'all cis folks... 

Please avoid describing Caitlyn Jenner as being "born a man" or "born male." Caitlyn Jenner was coercively designated male at birth, but that wasn't a decision she had any control over. She was always a woman- It just took her some time to figure that out, and some more time to start, as we say, "living authentically." As a "late transitioner" myself, a male identity was something I was never comfortable with. Even before I had any inking that I was actually trans, I chafed against manhood. I did the absolute minimum to "pass" as a "normal" straight guy, and I was still miserable. I tried to rationalize away my feelings of gender sadness, but they just got more intense as I got older. Finally, in my 30s, I took steps to align my appearance and my physiology with my true identity. I was always a woman- I was just DEEP undercover for a long time, like a Directorate S Illegal from The Americans. 

Please refer to her with female pronouns (and as Caitlyn), even when discussing her life pre-transition. Intentionally misgendering a trans person is a form of violence against them. It is beyond rude- It denies their basic humanity. Cis people often wonder "what's the big deal" when it comes to misgendering. Well, you've never had people constantly referring to you with the wrong pronouns, have you? 

Yes, we know that you might "slip up." I for one feel like I can tell the difference between being tripped over and getting kicked. However, most trans people have had the experience of people in their lives reverting to the incorrect pronouns or their pre-transition name (deadname) when they are upset with them. Calling us by the right name and using the right pronouns aren't privileges that are OK to revoke when you are mad at us.

 Just last week a clerk at Ulta referred to me as "he" to a manager while I was trying to return an item, and it knocked the wind out of me for the rest of the day. It's easy for anyone to say that I should get a "thicker skin," but every social interaction I have is potentially hazardous and fraught with psychological peril. Even in Columbus, a relatively trans-friendly city, I sometimes feel like the air and the soil are radioactive to me. Unfortunately, they don't make dosimeters for transphobia yet.  

Coming out is a terrifying process for any trans person, and Caitlyn Jenner has done so in the most public of manners. Yes, that fear is cushioned by her vast wealth. Yes, her transition is being commodified and monetized in a manner that makes me more than a bit queasy. However, I still applaud her, because I know first hand how absolutely overwhelming fear becomes when you are on the cusp of coming out. 

Like many trans folks, I came out in stages to increasingly large numbers of people over an extended period of time. The "coming out" moment that scared me more than I expected? Coming out on my Seahawks blog. I was convinced that I'd be buried under an avalanche of hate mail, and that my readership would plummet. When I finally took the leap, it was around the same time that I started going out in public "presenting as a woman." I had been on hormones for a year, and "going full-time" was still six months away. 

Here's that original "coming out" post. The comments floored me, because they were overwhelmingly positive and supportive. If I had to put a percentage to it, I'd say only 5% or less of the reactions on social media were overtly hostile or hateful. Even better- My readership didn't dwindle. It GREW. I had reason to believe that it WOULD get better. 

I believe that Caitlyn Jenner's transition and the public's reaction to it, despite all the caveats thoughtful folks can rightly apply, should be cause for celebration. Even in the face of backlash from the Christian Right and the Fox News crowd, the momentum for trans rights in the United States continues to grow

One fresh example? In 2014 Democratic Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed into law a bill protecting trans folks from discrimination based on their gender identity. He's now running for President, and his support of trans rights is unlikely to be an issue for him in his pursuit of the Democratic nomination. In fact, all three current Democratic candidates for President have openly stated their support for transgender rights. Would any or all of them expand on the massive gains made during the Obama Administration? Who knows? But this sort of open support for trans rights would have been politically self-destructive just a few short years ago. The only people attacking O'Malley's support for trans rights seem to be coming out of the transphobic Fox News Fever Swamp

The struggle for trans rights is far from over, and I think it's important to remember that our fight needs to include those who fall outside the gender binary, too. In the same manner that the fight for gay rights won't end with victory in the war for marriage equality, the fight for trans rights won't end with recognition/protections that only apply to binary trans folks. Us binary folks need to educate ourselves on the issues facing non-binary folks (especially older people like me), and we need to work hard to make sure our movement doesn't leave them behind. At the TransOhio Symposium this past weekend, I was struck by how many younger attendees fell under the non-binary "umbrella." As tough as the issues I face as a trans woman are, non-binary folks face different/additional problems of their own. If our cause is one in pursuit of individual autonomy and social justice, we must include our non-binary friends. 

I hope that Caitlyn Jennner uses her fame and fortune to make a tangible difference in that fight. "Visibility" is important by itself, but it definitely falls into the "necessary but not sufficient" category.   

What does everyone else think on this momentous day?