Category Archives: Caitlyn Jenner

The Trans List.

Atlanta’s LGBT film festival, Out On Film, is going on right now, and on Monday evening I went to a screening of The Trans List at Landmark Midtown Cinema, on the edge of Piedmont Park. The film will be broadcast on HBO later this year.

It’s not feature-length; it runs about an hour, and features interviews with 11 prominent transgender Americans. The interviews were conducted by fashion editor Janet Mock, although we never see her on screen after her brief introduction. The subjects are presented alone on the screen, talking about their lives, with a few intercuts to home movies and childhood photos.

The interviewees run the gamut of the transgender experience in the United States. They’re black, white, and Hispanic; teenage through senior citizen; men, women, and nonbinary; famous and virtually unknown (to me, at least, and I like to think I keep up). I won’t recap all the interviews here, but I’ll touch on some of them.

Kylar Broadus was up first. He’s an African-American attorney, and a few years back he addressed a U.S. Senate committee about the importance of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He briefly told his story about growing up an awkward tomboy in Missouri, usually “mistaken” for a boy even when his parents managed to get him into a dress—years before he transitioned for real. He spoke with a quiet dignity, and it was hard not to be moved by his struggles with the double whammy of being both gender-variant and black in a world that’s too often both transphobic and racist.

Nicole Maines’ segment helps illustrate the better world that all of us are creating by being out and proud in the 21st century. She’s still a teenager, but she has been out and an activist since she was very small; she never had to endure (and then undo) male puberty. Her family, including her (formerly?) identical twin brother, are accepting and supportive. Nicole has fought her high school for her Title IX right to use the correct restroom. Could a story like hers have happened 20 years ago? I find it unlikely; the information, the understanding, and the role models to help such a young person simply didn’t exist until quite recently. Nicole’s is an inspiring story of possibility.Borrowed from bambysalcedo.com

Shane Ortega is an Army non-commissioned officer, and one of the first U.S. military members to transition on active duty. Another transperson of color, he’s charming, very good-natured and funny, and a veteran of two combat tours. As a veteran myself (though not of combat), I’m proud to know he’s out there, fighting for every transperson’s right to serve. Transgender people historically have joined the military in numbers far higher than the general population. Thanks to people like Ortega, soon we’ll be able to do so openly.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was the most colorful personality interviewed. She was at Stonewall and was a leader in the riots. She’s had a long life full of activism.

Rounding out the list were Alok Vaid-Menon, a writer with a nonbinary gender identity; Amos Mac, photographer and founder of “Original Plumbing” magazine; Buck Angel, the porn star famous as the “man with a pussy”; Bamby Salcedo, a Mexican-American activist and organizer, Caroline Cossey, model, former Bond girl, and current Atlanta resident; and Laverne Cox, internationally-famous television star.

Oh, and finally, Mock interviewed Caitlyn Jenner. I’m glad Jenner was included, because I don’t think the former Olympian and Kardashian-by-marriage has received much media attention since she transitioned last year.

This points up the biggest flaw with The Trans List: it’s much too short, or else there were too many subjects. For the really famous interviewees, like Cox and Jenner, I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know about them. For the more obscure ones, like Amos Mac, I learned enough about them to know they’re interesting people, but got nothing really substantial to take away with me. They’re superficial sketches of personalities that deserve in-depth portraits.

Maybe that was the purpose behind the film. In an era when we all have Google in our pockets, I guess a project like The Trans List only needs to put names in front of us. If we want to know more, we can go learn more on our own.

If that’s the case, I’d call the movie a success, because I’ve certainly done that with many of these fascinating individuals. I hope there will be more; maybe this could become a series.


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Cisnormativity.

In my last post, I talked about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent unfortunate statements about transgender people, in which she suggested we have a responsibility to look “authentic” and to “play a role”—in a word, to be cisnormative—in order to put cisgender people at ease. She was rightly condemned for these remarks by many opinion leaders across the Internet, because nobody has a responsibility to put others at ease by the way they look. People look the way they look, as I wrote in that post; nobody has the right to prescribe another’s appearance, and no one’s gender identity is beholden to what someone else thinks it should be.

That said, it’s also true, speaking very, very generally, that transgender people strive to look cisnormative, and furthermore, that most of us don’t look as cisnormative as we would like to. That’s simply a fact of life for most people with gender dysphoria. The reasons we feel this way probably would (and probably have) filled books on sociology and psychology, but simply put, transgender people were born and raised in a predominately cisgender society, so we’re freighted with the same biases and assumptions toward the gender binary as cisgender people. We flipped the script, but we still play by it. Maybe we shouldn’t want to, but that doesn’t make it not the case.

Which raises a fair question: what is cisnormativity? That is, when we see a new person and mentally assign them a gender, what are we seeing (or failing to see) that informs that assignment? Most cisgender people never think much about this—why would they? I know I didn’t, until 2005, when I embarked ardently on my transition. Pretty much every gender nonconforming person has given this a lot of thought. Today, and later in a follow-up post, we’ll take a closer look at the matter. It’s kind of a doozy.

Obligatory male/female sign.

Obligatory male/female sign.

In the 1970s, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe. It surveyed parts of the outer solar system (mainly Jupiter and its moons), then charged on out of the solar system into interstellar space. It carries an illustrated metal plaque containing information about our planet, in case the spacecraft is ever found by extraterrestrials (friendly extraterrestrials, we hope, although if they turn out to be enslaving monsters, don’t blame me; I voted for Kodos).

The plaque includes a line drawing of a nude man and woman standing side by side. The man holds his right hand up in a wave, as if to say, “Hello from Earth! If you’ve been receiving our TV signals, please don’t get any ideas from that ‘To Serve Man‘ episode of The Twilight Zone!”

These drawings are meant to be archetypes of adult humans. As such, they present a handy example of what we mean when we talk about cisnormativity. So let’s use them for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you’re outdoors on a wide, flat plain. You see the man and woman from the plaque far in the distance. They’re silhouetted against the horizon, walking toward you. As soon as they become more distinct than hazy blobs far away, you begin to notice how their bodies differ. The closer they get to you, the more gender-distinguishing features you’ll spot.

First, you’ll see that the woman is slightly shorter than the man, and she has longer hair. The man is broad-shouldered compared to his waist; his torso is roughly an inverted trapezoid. The woman’s torso has more of an hourglass shape. Her waist is much smaller than her hips and shoulders.

From just these cues you’d probably already have a guess that one figure was a man and the other a woman. But you wouldn’t be positive; every characteristic you’ve seen so far can vary widely from person to person. As the couple draws closer to you, finer distinctions begin to emerge.

"Hello from Earth!"

“Hello from Earth!”

The way they walk is different. The woman has a lower center of gravity than the man, and since she’s also shorter overall, her legs are also shorter, which gives her a shorter stride, which makes her walk look different.

Another factor: while this archetypal pair is naked and therefore barefoot, as I’ve said, most people wear shoes, and women wear high heels more often than men. This also visibly affects a person’s walk; you can usually tell if someone’s wearing high heels, even if you can’t see their feet.

So as this couple continues toward you, their movements give you information about their gender identities. After a while they’re much closer than the horizon, and you get a better look at their bodies and how they differ.

The man, due to the muscle-building effect of testosterone, has greater muscle development than the woman. Women can also exercise, lift weights and get toned, of course, but generally they don’t get the bulked-up muscles testosterone makes available to men.

Men also have more body hair than women. The Pioneer 10 archetypes are hairless, for some reason, but this is true generally. There’s usually hair on a man’s chest, and maybe on his belly as well. It may be sparse, but it may also be quite thick (as anyone who’s seen Robin Williams in the movie The Fisher King can attest). There’s also hair on his arms and legs, usually sparser than that on his chest. The thickest hair below his neck is at his armpits and pubes.

2pxPioneerplaquehumansWomen have body hair too, but not as much. There’s usually none or very little on her torso, and it’s wispy and sparse on her arms. There would be wispy hair on her legs, too, but in the West women usually shave their legs. The same goes for women’s armpits. Only the pubes will have thick hair, and the recent vogue for Brazilian waxes means that may not be true either.

Speaking of the pubes, the couple is probably close enough now for you to see their secondary sexual characteristics. The woman has a vagina, although that’s not so apparent for Pioneer 10 woman, and on her chest are two nippled breasts. The man has nipples, but no breasts, and between his legs, like the constellation Orion, he clearly has a dong.

Okay, they’re only a few yards from you now. They’re so close you can see the man has an Adam’s apple, but the woman doesn’t. Finally, you have a good look at their faces.

I could devote an entire post talking about the faces. And I will! Stay tuned.


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Jenner Again.

Caitlyn Jenner, the most famous transgender person ever (so far), has put her foot in her mouth again. In a recent interview with TIME magazine, she said:

I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.

Outrage came from all corners, including the transgender community itself. Jenner gets a taste of her pedicure with practically every sentence in that quote. If you haven’t done much thinking or reading about these matters, it may not be obvious why these words were so inflammatory. I’ll take each misstep in turn and unpack them for you.

“I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role.”

Jenner meant by this that life is easier for a trans woman or trans man if his or her looks conform to what the general public assumes cisgender women or men “should” look like. What she described as “authentic” is more often called having a “cisnormative” appearance.

authentic_stamp

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

There’s no such thing as “authentic” when it comes to a person’s gender expression. People look the way they look, and there’s nothing wrong with that, cisnormative or not. A woman with broad shoulders and narrow hips (and there are cisgender women shaped like this) is no less “authentically” a woman than a petite woman with an hourglass figure (and there are transgender women shaped like this), and to imply otherwise is to indulge in the reductive biological-sex-equals-gender essentialism that’s at the heart of transphobia, especially phobia against trans women: i.e., “you don’t look like a woman to me, so you’re really a man.”

But the biggest howler in that sentence is the three words, “plays the role.” Jenner seems here to conflate transgender people with drag artists. Trans people are not “playing a role.” Our gender is not a costume that we peel off when we arrive at home after a long day of applying for jobs, arguing with an ex-spouse over visitation rights with our children, or giving testimony in the trial of punks who assaulted us. Transgender women are women, down to their bones and 24/7. Transgender men, to paraphrase West Side Story, are men all the way. Caitlyn Jenner knows this, or at least should know it, after a full reality-show season of being lectured on such matters by Jenny Boylan and other luminaries.

“[W]hat I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease.”
“[I]f you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.”

I assume by these statements Jenner means that she strives to present herself to be as cisnormative (feminine) as she can manage. There’s nothing wrong with this; many transgender women present themselves in a hyper-feminine way, either by nature, or as a celebration of the identity they’ve finally learned to embrace, or—maybe more often—as a survival tactic, because transgender women who look cisnormative are less likely to be victims of physical assault. As Jenner said, it puts people at ease.

But it’s not the job of transgender people to put anyone at ease. It’s a free country, as the saying goes, and if the way we look makes people uncomfortable, that’s their lookout, not ours. To say otherwise is nasty and ignorant, the same as telling women not to dress in a manner provocative to rapists, or asking someone with a chronic disease to cover up her medication port, or suggesting a Sikh leave his turban at home because he might be mistaken for a Muslim and shot. Who we are is only our own business, and if haters are gonna hate, they’re welcome to suck it.Caitlyn_Jenner

Naturally, Jenner quickly walked back these remarks and apologized after the predictable backlash. Good on her for that; she has always been contrite after her podiatric oral intrusions. I don’t fault her for saying such foolish things; she’s new into her transition, and that’s a time of learning for all trans people.

The problem is that, newly transitioned or not, she’s looked to by the media as a leader, icon, and spokesperson for all transgender Americans. Her pre-transition fame makes that inevitable. She’s the person people will turn to for keynote speeches, diversity awards, and sound bites, and when she says something ignorant or dumb, the general public will assume she speaks for all transgender people.

This is something of a pattern with transgender people who get a little bit of notoriety early in their transition. Back in the middle of the Aughts, Susan Stanton made similar “man in a dress” remarks in an interview.

Susan Stanton was the city manager of Largo, Florida. She was quietly and privately transitioning when she was unwillingly outed and then fired by Largo’s city council, in an outrageous (and never punished) act of transphobia. This thrust her prematurely into the public eye, and reporters sought her out for interviews and quotes before she’d had time to work out for herself what it means to be transgender, or how to talk about such matters with sensitivity and grace.

Susan Stanton.

Susan Stanton.

When Lambda Legal accepted me as a client and we launched our lawsuit, Glenn v. Brumby, one of the organization’s conditions was that my interactions with the public had to go through their media relations department. This frustrated me at the time, because Lambda Legal was very careful about choosing which interviews and public events would be good for me or for the case. I wanted to talk to everyone about the unfairness and pervasiveness of the kind of discrimination I had suffered, but I wasn’t allowed to.

That parsimony is probably part of why the important legal precedent we set is still little-known today, but on the flip side, Lambda Legal definitely saved me from committing howlers like Stanton and Jenner’s. During those four years, I listened more than I spoke; I wasn’t thrust unprepared into a leadership or spokesperson position.

By dint of her pre-transition fame, Jenner didn’t have the option of a quiet, out-of-the-spotlight transition, even if she had wanted one (and, with the second season of her reality series greenlit, she doesn’t seem to want one). Like her or not, gaffe-prone or not, she is American media’s reigning go-to transperson, and will remain so until and unless someone even more famous transitions.

Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this.

As I’ve written before, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has been enormously important for the transgender community, and has accelerated the cause of civil rights and public acceptance, probably by years. That shouldn’t be denied. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t highly problematic at the same time. Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this, and give cisgender America an impression of our lives that is at best inaccurate and at worst dangerous.

Which puts the rest of us on alert. We need to stand ready with our metaphorical mops and buckets, ready to leap into action and correct the record the next time a Cleanup on Aisle Caitlyn is needed.


Links to excerpts from my ongoing autobiography project are gathered together on this page.

If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution, either at:

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