America in Transition: Your Thoughts

Readers grapple with the mainstreaming of transgender identity punctuated this week by Vanity Fair’s profile of Caitlyn Jenner.

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The transgender movement got a big boost this week with the instantly iconic image of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. My colleagues Spencer Kornhaber covered the cover story, Megan Garber sized up the media reaction to Caitlyn’s debut, and Emma Green gauged the Christian backlash. Those pieces got a lot of attention from commenters—some supportive of Jenner, some rude, some simply confused. A long back-and-forth between Jordan and JohnnyReason was among the most constructive, as far as bridging divides. Here’s Johnny:

The idea of a transgender man or woman getting their parts cut on horrifies me, blows my mind, and makes me question their sanity. (Just being honest—nothing against Caitlyn Jenner.) …

I'm not a transphobe, but language matters, especially to journalists. If Jenner still has the parts of a man, then he is, using the dictionary definition, a man. So the pronouns “her” and “she” are, technically, inaccurate. (No such rules apply to the proper noun “Caitlyn,” however.) ...

I have no issue with trangendered people. However, I'm having a hard time separating biology from language. I like to be precise about language, but I also don't want to be a jerk.

Jordan responds with a key distinction:

I think the problem stems from people inherently linking sex and gender, when they are really two distinct things. At birth, we are assigned a sex based on our parts and chromosomes. Even our genitals have the potential to be a combination (hermaphrodites), so it's not exactly black-and-white.

Gender, on the other hand, is how we feel and identify as a person. A transgender person is born with certain parts and chromosomes but “feels” and identifies as a particular gender. The problem is many people equate sex assigned at birth with “gender.”

Johnny nods:

That makes sense. OK, I'm cool with using "she" then. That still leaves room for the reality of Jenner's sex, if it should ever come up in a technical way.

Back to Jordan:

My trans friend explained that part in a pretty good way, because I wondered the same thing. He said, “When I go to the doctor, why should I have to tell him 'I used to be a girl'? Why can't I just say I'm a man with XX chromosomes?” I thought that was a good point.

We have more or less accepted a non-binary spectrum for sexual orientations (as a bisexual, though, I still encounter a fair share of black/white gay/straight binary absolutism). Why can't we accept the same for genders?

Millers3888 also compares the two social movements:

I do think the trans movement is totally different then the gay movement, in that all people really had to do to accept gay people is accept that some dudes like other dudes and some chicks like other chicks. Not too hard to wrap your head around that.

With transgender folk, there IS all this worry about titles and “misgendering” and not offending and getting it right and what name to use. It gets confusing, annoying, and frankly just isn't as appealing as the “live and let live” mantra of the gay movement.

Adjusting pronouns isn't the problem; it's that when you get it wrong (and God help you if you are a journalist or famous person), you will be reamed from here to kingdom come for being ignorant. Again, accepting a gay person carries a lot less baggage than accepting a trans person, but I'm willing to try. I just don't want to be criticized for something I don't fully understand.

Thomas R looks to history for perspective:

In many ways this trans movement is much less new than same-sex marriage. Christine Jorgensen was a “thing” in the 1950s and they had drag acts that didn't do surgeries. Although "One Magazine" had an article on "homosexual marriage" in 1953, I think it was much less in the public radar than Jorgensen.

So I feel this is a lot less new than people are acting like. The TV show "The Education of Max Bickford" had a trans character, granted played by a woman, back in 2001. And years before that there was “The World According To Garp” and many other things. Many indigenous American cultures had transgendered people as a matter of course.

I'm not saying there is nothing new here. Perhaps most significantly, the thinking now is more that the person was “always the other gender.” In the past I think people more had the idea that the male “became a woman” or "realized that identity.”

Hezekiah Stephan Shabazz is on the same page:

I think what is inescapably difficult about the transgender pitch is the notion of “born this way.” Because in order to be who they truly are, transexual folks have to lop things off or sow things on to their bodies. In order to be psychologically whole, they need to do things to themselves that were impossible until this moment in medical history, starting about 40 years ago.

TwoHatchet invokes a tricky part of Jenner’s transition—how to refer to her past:

I hope the International Olympic Committee is working to strip Caitlyn of her medals, for it's now clear that she cheated—those events were restricted to male athletes. Women were barred from competing with men. This will be terrific news for the silver medalists who now get their long-delayed gold medals and the acclaim that come from being the best men in the sport.

On the other hand, Caitlyn can now claim all sorts of world records in women's sports, thus knocking many other female athletes off their world-record perches. There are now edit-wars raging on Wikipedia in order to set the records correctly: “However, Caitlyn Jenner is the fastest woman's performer of all time, running a time of 47.51 in 1976 while competing under the name Bruce Jenner.”

The Washington Post, in a much less churlish way than TwoHatchet, also addresses such revisionism:

Could Bruce be Caitlyn before he knew he could be Caitlyn? Further complicating the question were Jenner’s own statements about her transition. Jenner told Diane Sawyer to use pronouns such as “he” and “him.” But in Vanity Fair, she implied that Caitlyn — or a version of Caitlyn — was there all along. …

Of course, terabytes of Internet space have been filled with writing about the appropriate use of pronouns when referring to transgender people. GLAAD’s media reference guide is particularly handy. Except when it comes to referring to transgender people in the past.

“Ideally a story will not use pronouns associated with a person’s birth sex when referring to the person’s life prior to transition,” the organization wrote. “Try to write transgender people’s stories from the present day, instead of narrating them from some point in the past, thus avoiding confusion and potentially disrespectful use of incorrect pronouns.”

The problem: Caitlyn Jenner is an American legend, and her story began decades ago.

Judge Holden brings up a much more recent part of Jenner’s story:

She killed somebody the other month and now we are praising her as the most courageous, honest human being on the planet. Jenner killed someone and is now going on a big publicity tour looking for sympathy.

The details of that death:

Kimberly Howe was driving her Lexus on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California, when Jenner struck the rear of her car, “propelling her vehicle into the opposite lanes of traffic,” according to the lawsuit filed by her stepchildren, Dana Redmond and William Howe. “Ms. Howe's vehicle was then struck head-on by another vehicle, killing her.” … Reached by CNN on Friday, May 1, Jenner publicist Alan Nierob said he had no comment regarding the lawsuit.

Normankelly can’t stand all this celebrity news:

It's not “awkward” for me to talk about her; it's boring to have to pay attention to another conspiracy to make people care about the Jenner-Kardashian-West posse's interminably cynical media manipulations. You can't even escape Kim in the netherworld of porn. Her selfies were being touted as art two weeks ago. What time of day is West not proclaiming himself to being the Messiah? Now Jenner rolls out the latest iteration of a celebrity's ego.

The next iteration will be “I Am Cait,” the upcoming docu-series whose trailer just came out:

Meanwhile, Val turns to the notions of beauty raised by the Vanity Fair shoot:

The "official" or "final" photos were selected to show Ms. Jenner in the most youthful, flattering manner possible. It's evident that makeup and hairstyle professionals were involved, and I have to believe that the photos underwent significant Photoshop work.

Why was the choice made to present what is truly a fantasy instead of a real, live person at age 65 who has wrinkles? I find it sad that anybody, female or male, can't simply own who they are and say to the public: This is who I am.

Gastonb considers the cover too racy:

So now Caitlyn can join the thousands of aging women who are trying desperately to look young and sexy, posed like a 1940s pinup gal with her lingerie and come-hither eyes. Is this what being a woman means? Sad that with her high-profile celebrity, Caitlyn she couldn't aim for something beyond the faux-feminism of her Kardashian klan.

How one prominent older woman puts it:

Juliagrl further illustrates the divide on the left:

Will there be no serious discussion of the dismissal of older women, and that being an older woman is the last thing anyone would choose to be? From my uninformed vantage point, it looks like gender reassignment does involve changing genders, but that's not the main point; it's that those going through the process want to be beautiful in a feminine way.

Another transgender icon who aims for a very conventional ideal of femininity is actress Laverne Cox:

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Cox addressed these tensions in her response to the Vanity Fair cover:

A year ago when my Time magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am “drop dead gorgeous” and that that doesn’t represent most trans people. (It was news to be that I am drop dead gorgeous but I’ll certainly take it). But what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards.

Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves. It is important to note that these standards are also infomed by race, class and ability among other intersections. I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people. No one or two or three trans people can.

Tilly Vacher points to a very different trans person:

(Paul Yeung / Reuters)

Google Jan Morris (British writer) if you want to see a more normal representation of a successful transexual, and a lovely person as well. There are so many people out there who are trans without all this sort of nonsense. I know a young man who is now a very convincing young woman who dresses as a perfectly normal girl—you really wouldn't know until she speaks.

Those who go all out for the high heels, make up and revealing dresses look rather pathetic and draw too much attention to themselves I feel. It is not what being female is about. I am a woman and I wear no make up or high heels and rarely did even in my youth. I find the seeming need for some to go down the over-sexualised route really sad.

And Scott Ogden spotlights an extraordinary American:

CNN did a great doc on Kristin Beck, a transgender Navy Seal:

Talk about an uphill battle. I’m tired of this Kardashian family and their “journey.”

So is MountainMan:

I don't really care that much about Caitlyn(Bruce); I have sympathy for him and wish him the best. The issue we have is with the left obsessing over and using this issue—it began long ago with radical feminism—to obliterate all natural, inherent male-female distinctions in our social consciousnesses. It’s absurd. Up is down, right is left, male is female. The left is waging a war on objective reality.

Damascusdean responds with a strong counterpoint:

I think you misread “the left.” There is not much interest in eliminating natural sexual distinctions. Quite the opposite actually: We recognize there are lots of shades of gray when it comes to sexuality, and society should recognize that and make room for it.

Objective reality includes shades of gray. You apparently want to put things into one of two categories, like in the good old days. But time and progress march on.

Your thoughts? If you’re transgender, we would especially like to hear from you. Email and I'll update the post.