“I identify as black.”  –Rachel Dolezal

It’s that sort of year for the transgender community.  Even when the story is not about us, somehow we are getting dragged into the mix.  Former Spokane NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal1 scripted her words carefully for her first public post-outing interview, and the howl of the transgender advocates and allies was swift and furious.

I think we all understand the underlying question that Dolezal posed.  Right-wing culture warriors certainly pounced on it.  Are we free to forge our identities or not?  If I can call myself female,2 why can’t she call herself black?

I caught my first glimpse of the Lauer/Dolezal interview as I was hurrying to catch a flight.  I was transfixed and my stomach dropped to knee level.  Immediately and intuitively, I sensed that there was something deeply wrong about what she was saying, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

800 miles later, I still can’t.

To be sure, there is much wrong about the Dolezal story itself.  I don’t think it is possible for her to rationalize taking on leadership of a community without disclosure of her background.  Dolezal might believe that it would make no difference whatsoever if we were to find out that Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem were transwomen, but I doubt many people agree.  Further, she has told some pretty big whoppers over the years to cover her tracks, to the point that she is being cast as a pathological liar.

I’m not sure what good this does for the discussion.  If her dishonesty really is pathological, then step one is to stop blaming her for it. Disease is best addressed with compassion, not shaming. To the best of my ability to tell from what I have read, Dolezal is someone who feels strong emotional connection to the black community.  She believes, wrongly in my opinion, that she couldn’t be a good mother to her black child without being black herself.  She felt that her experience of blackness provides credibility and gravitas to her life’s work as a civil rights activist.  Without endorsing her non-disclosure, I recognize that her self-presentation, her racial expression, if you will, arose at least in part from some fairly positive motives.  If she is a little messed up about what it means to be black, might it not reasonable to ask if I am a little messed up about what it means to be a woman?  Witness:

Critics assert that Dolezal cannot possibly understand black experience because she was raised white, growing up with privilege instead of oppression.  She is not black because she has altered her appearance to pass as such.  She could stop presenting as black tomorrow.  She wasn’t always black.  A paper trail and gallery of photographs attest to her former whiteness.   She benefited in some way from her transition.  She is potentially fetishizing black experience.  Stop me when I say something that could not be equally applied to transgender people.

The reason that Dolezal’s comment left me so breathless was not because it was so ridiculous, but rather because it wasn’t.  I might castigate her all I want for dishonest dealings.  I might chafe at the fact that she is capitalizing on transgender experience to score a point.  Regardless, I concede the point.  I don’t know if being “transracial” in the Dolezal sense is a real thing or not, but I see the peril in claiming legitimacy for my own cause on something as logically flimsy as strength in numbers.  Self-report is the bedrock on which my identity rests, and I can’t deny it to someone else while clinging to it for myself.

I see a potential path out of the woods.  It starts by recognizing what actually went wrong here.  Transgender people hide their past life post-transition are said to be “woodworking”, or “going stealth”.  This, and not internal self-concept, was Dolezal’s transgression.  I reject “stealth mode”, and I think it is time for the transgender community to loudly and clearly do the same.  I am who I am by way of who I was.  This does not mean, of course, that we all need to walk around wearing signs disclosing the intimate details of our biography to disinterested parties,3 but we can certainly do a better job of telling our stories when they really do matter.  Further, we can begin to recognize that the rigid constructs of race and gender don’t work as well as we used to think.  We do not live in a black and white world.  We are clothed in shades of gray.4

The transgender narrative wanders off target when it latches on to hopes of future technologies to prove who we are.  I can’t imagine any version of that scenario that does not suck.  I claim the right to define myself.  I affirm the right of others to do the same.  I think that we can do this with both honesty and care.  I don’t call myself a woman, and maybe Dolezal shouldn’t call herself black.  I am a transwoman.  My path to femininity was different from that of cis-women (aka “biological females), but it is not less.

  1. If you haven’t been following the story, you can catch up here.
  2. Or, as 99% of the media seem to want to say, “If Caitlyn Jenner…”.  Please.  She’s one of us, not our empress.
  3. Hey, you clicked your way into this blog.
  4. Down, ladies.

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