There are an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the United States. Being transgender is more common than being from Wyoming. Nevertheless, 92% of Americans in a recent survey said that they did not know a transgender person.1 The transgender community would seem to have a visibility problem, or at least it did until last week.
More people know that Caitlyn Jenner is transitioning than know that Rick Santorum is running for President. One year from now, that will still be true. I don’t spend much time in my car, but already this week I have heard three radio conversations with trans people as a direct result of the Jenner/Sawyer interview and the Vanity Fair cover. Such a cluster of coverage–almost all of it respectful and positive–would have been unthinkable ten years ago. If Jenner does nothing more than this for the cause of transgender acceptance, she will still have done our community a very good turn. Inevitably, some of the other 699,999 stories are going to be heard.
Onto today’s riddle:
My daughter is a fashionista and cosmetology school graduate. She has seen all the latest movies and knows the best places to hang out. She likes sleek cars, muscular guys and takes a wicked selfie. My wife fell out of a Jane Austen novel. She dazzles in modest dress, revels in nature and eschews modern technology. Her beauty is undeniable, but similarly unpolished. If she weren’t such a strong ally to the LGBT community, she would likely have never seen a cover of Vanity Fair.
Which one of them is the real woman?
If you answered, “What a f***ing stupid question,” you are today’s winner. Let’s take it a step further though. Now add me into the mix. A few of you might still find the question stupid, while others might find the question somewhat more complicated.2 Nevertheless, I trust that all of you would have sufficient respect for my human dignity to ponder the nuances privately. Not so for an unholy alliance of conservative culture warriors, religious bigots and a few radical feminists who felt the need to respond to Caitlyn Jenner’s recent public appearances with venomous articles mocking her as a delusional pretender and insisting that she is a man.
Attacks from feminists unsettle me the most. I expect nonsense from the religious right. Feminism, on the other hand, is nearly defined by efforts to expose and uproot gender-based oppression.3 Women and transgender people (from all points of the gender spectrum) both suffer the ill effects of gender policing and gendered social structuring. Why would feminists lash out at transwomen? Looking again to the Burkett article, several reasons shake out:
1. Transwomen have enjoyed and are suffused with male privilege. In many cases, this is true. The nature of social privilege is such that those who have it are least likely to notice it. I am certainly guilty of not recognizing privilege in my life, and quite probably of not doing enough to renounce and reject male privilege in particular as I have transitioned. On the other hand, I have certainly (through societal conflation of gender identity and sexual orientation) lost straight privilege, and in so doing, I have formed the idea that privilege is one–in other words, I cannot rationally reject male privilege while choosing to retain privilege based on race, class, education, etc. Of course there is no guarantee that I will act rationally, but I do believe that I have made some progress. And, responding to Ms. Burkett, to the extent that I continue to exude male privilege, I admit to being a poor feminist. Then again, not all women are feminists either, and I don’t see her questioning their identity as women.
2. Transwomen (and Jenner in particular) embody a skewed vision and stereotypical view of femininity. Hell, I wouldn’t pose in a white corset either. That said, there are dozens of glamour/fashion magazines coming out every week, and whether or not feminists of Ms. Burkett’s stripe have applauded the choices of the models, they have certainly not questioned their womanhood. Is it possible that Jenner’s view of femininity is informed by the women with whom she is most closely associated? Are they also “not real women?” Additionally, I refuse to get my lingerie in a loop about the made-for-reality-TV flavor of Jenner’s public transition. She was a consummate self-promoter long before she was Caitlyn, and expecting her to behave otherwise in this marketable moment would be like insisting that Mick Jagger sit down when he sings. Ironically, those who wish Jenner would just shut up and/or slink away into a quiet corner are echoing the age-old wish that women should be seen but not heard.
Until transpeople are accepted as people, there will always be insinuations about deceptiveness and pretense. I work in an all female “office”. I wear more makeup than 98% of my co-workers. Many of my female friends report that they just don’t feel like they need it, that it feels like a mask, or that it hides their face. I get that. Although I enjoy the artistic aspects of application and take some pride in having gotten a bit better at it, I too think it would be nice to just “wash and wear” from time to time. The problem is that my physical features project something to the world with which I don’t feel comfortable. My face itself is the mask. There is something behind it which is very difficult for you to see unless I show you. When I put on makeup, it is not to hide, but rather to reveal.
3. “Jenny come lately.” Transwomen didn’t grow up as girls, and therefore are not women at all. Except for transwomen who transitioned very young, the initial premise is certainly true. It is to the conclusion that I object. Or rather, I say, “define woman”. If one wants (as it seems evident from Burkett’s writing) to define women as those adults who have vaginas on their original equipment list, I suppose that this closes the case. Nevertheless, feminism has long aspired to loftier conceptions.
I agree that cosmetic surgeries can be a trap. Caitlyn Jenner has obviously had some work done, but she didn’t invent breast augmentation, face lifts or nose jobs. These things have all been available to (wealthy) women for quite some time. Neither are these operations all bad. There is a reason that breast reconstruction after mastectomy has become an almost uniformly insured procedure–our sense of wholeness and wellness is profoundly influenced by the shape of our bodies. Trans people often feel intensely betrayed by and uncomfortable with their bodies. While surgery should not be a first or obligatory step towards wholeness, it may well play a valuable role.
Every woman I know became one gradually. Transfolk like Jenner and me are adolescent in spite of our years. I really don’t give a shit if people think that I am a “real woman”. That I also don’t know whether or not I am reflects the fact that I don’t think there is any definition of “woman” which universally works. As Obi Wan says, “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Meanwhile, if it is my destiny to become a woman, whether in part or in toto, perhaps a bit of patience is in order.
Thank you for reading. If you have any questions or comments, please write them on them on the bottom of a Mopho x4 synthesizer, and mail it to my home address.