A photo of Caitlyn Jenner

All the Rage

Who Decides What Makes a Woman?

Elinor Burkett’s New York ‘Times’ piece berates Caitlyn Jenner’s claim to femininity. But "womanhood" is far more complicated than what she describes in her essay.

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I have fallen in love at first sight exactly once. Bored at a rehearsal that was running hours behind, I happened to look up to see the new stage manager, Riley (not his real name, though he’s given me his blessing to write about him): chocolate-brown eyes, plush lips, black motorcycle jacket slung over taut shoulders, black jeans, clipboard. There was something magnetic about the intensity of those eyes, the confidence of those shoulders. My heart jumped and a thought floated into my head fully formed: “Who is that?”

The question of Riley’s identity would become much more important than I could have imagined. When we first met, there was a delicious ambiguity to his gender, and if you asked him (as I did) how he identified, he would say winkingly, “Call it like you see it.” I settled on “he,” because his masculine edge turned me on. But the fact that he asked the question turned me on even more. I loved the subversion he embodied, refusing to play by the rules of the gender binary, insisting on occupying a cultural location that most people couldn’t even imagine existed.

Perhaps that’s why I burst into tears six months later, when he told me he wanted to start taking testosterone and transition to a fully male identity.

Riley was far from the first person I’d met who lives outside the cisgender cultural norm. I was a queer activist, after all. I’d dated a trans man, and I had plenty of friends and acquaintances who identified as trans or genderqueer. A year earlier, I’d developed and taught a self-defense course specifically for trans men. I would have told you I was down with the cause. But when Riley made his announcement, everything changed.

So I have some empathy for what may be driving Elinor Burkett’s op-ed, “What Makes a Woman,” which appeared in the June 6 issue of the New York Times. It seems clear to me that Caitlyn Jenner’s public coming-out party has hit her in a very personal place. I even recognize some of her arguments as things I said to Riley back in 2005: “Isn’t this just a capitulation to the gender binary,” I would ask him, tearfully. “Aren’t you letting The Man tell you what it means to well, be a man?”

He was unbelievably patient with me, putting off pursuing testosterone until I felt I was ready. We went around and around about it for months, until one day he said to me, “I just want to be able to get a cup of coffee in the morning without people staring at me and asking me intrusive questions. I want to be able to get my coffee without thinking about my gender.” 

Here’s what I suddenly understood in that moment, and what I wish for Burkett, and those applauding her, to understand: Trans people are not magical gender warriors. We may politicize their bodies, but they are not obligated to play along. As with all of us, some may decide to become activists, but most won’t, and either way, none of them will exclusively do the most politically expedient thing every time they’re faced with a choice. Because they’re human. They don’t owe the world a revolution, or even an explanation. And they’re certainly not obligated to live up to the arbitrary standards of one random cis woman.

Don’t get me wrong. I twitch a little too when Jenner talks about her female brain, for the same reasons that Burkett might: I don’t think gender is so easily reduced to biology. But trans women can’t be reduced to Caitlyn Jenner, either. Jenner is an individual person with whom I have some disagreements. Burkett likely doesn’t agree with everything Kim Kardashian says in public, either, but I’ve never seen her question her womanhood because of it, or use up prominent column inches to worry that she’s a threat to feminism.

I find so much of the nature versus nurture argument about trans-ness a snooze, for reasons Burkett herself articulates in the essay: Our biology is profoundly influenced by our environment, and vice versa. They can’t be disentangled. But “it’s my brain” is a popular narrative for real reasons, the most important of which is that that is how a lot of trans people experience it. And that goes to the heart of the problem of Burkett’s comparing Caitlyn Jenner to Larry Summers. The former is a reality star and retired Olympic athlete who is describing how she subjectively experiences herself. The other was the president of Harvard, who had invented “facts” about why most women aren’t fit for STEM fields.

I’m not privy to the Trans agenda, but I’m willing to bet that we also hear the “gendered brain” argument for reasons both legal and cultural, because like it or not (and I don’t), it’s a lot easier to demand freedom from discrimination and violence with the “I can’t help it” argument than it is with the “it’s none of your damn business” argument. The “born this way” talking point has been extremely effective for the modern gay and lesbian establishment.

That doesn’t make it right. I’m just explaining why I get it. I’ve even done it. When it came time to come out to my own parents, I told them I was a lesbian, even though I knew that my desires were more complex. But I was afraid that if they knew I was still attracted to men, they’d never accept that I was with a woman. What I meant when I said “I am a lesbian,” was, You have to accept me as I am. I will not be changing for you.

If one can have empathy for 21-year-old me, a bag packed in my car in case I was summarily kicked out of the house, trembling as I told my parents a slightly oversimplified version of the truth, then why is it so difficult to have empathy for Caitlyn Jenner, in the white-hot glare of an international spotlight, smiling warmly while offering her most private thoughts distilled for us into pre-digested talking points? Is it really possible to believe that a woman who has considered suicide out of despair that she could never be herself in public, thinks being a woman is just about nail polish?

Womanhood is not an exclusive club. So many people are in it, and we are all so very different from one another. We shouldn’t imagine any of us hold the keys to womanhood. Yes, trans women have some different lived experiences than cis women—though fewer than one might expect. The trans women I have gotten to know share my struggles to overcome internalized sexism, and constantly confront the kind of suspicion of the feminine that trans theorist Julia Serano describes in her book Whipping Girl (required reading, truly). They face employment discrimination at rates even higher than cis women. It’s hard to imagine a trans woman who doesn’t know what it feels like to walk down the street and be afraid for her safety because of her gender. I bet I have a lot more “womanhood” experiences in common with my trans women friends than I do with the Queen of England, who has certainly never worried about birth control, gotten her period on the subway, or scraped by on half a man’s salary. Surely her brain has also been shaped by her experiences, which are very different than mine. Are we going to revoke her womanhood, too?

As for the “sex babe” charges, they’re beneath a writer like Burkett, who was for years a women’s studies professor, and someone who should certainly appreciate how much context alters meaning. After Jennifer Lawrence’s private photos were famously stolen and published on Reddit last summer, the actress appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair wearing nothing but diamonds, under the bold quote “It’s my body, and it should be my choice.” In context, it wasn’t hard to understand the image as the act of defiance it was. Not every sexy image of a woman reduces us to objects, not even when the image is “conventionally” sexy. And, really, how conventional can it even be for a mainstream mag like Vanity Fair to celebrate a trans woman as unapologetically in control of her own body and identity?

It is absolutely true that our language, built as it is on discredited ideas about the gender binary, fails us sometimes in ways that cause tension among feminists and in the larger world. Maybe, though, we could let that inspire us to make language better, instead of using the existing words as a cudgel against anyone who decenters our lived experiences.

While I’m on the subject of decentering, here’s what my friend, the brilliant trans activist Rebecca Kling said to me yesterday about Burkett’s civil-rights analogies: “It also is an embarrassing oversight of history to pretend that none of the movements Burkett mentions demanded that someone reconceptualize themselves. The U.S. civil-rights movement has repeatedly demand that white Americans reconceptualize what it means to be human, and deserving of equality. Slaveholders were no doubt offended that they should need to reconceptualize themselves as equal to slaves. And #BlackLivesMatter is proof that such reconceptualization, as it were, is far from finished. The gay-rights movement has repeatedly demanded that straight people reconceptualize what it means to be human, and deserving of equality. There are scores of people today, offended that they should need to reconceptualize themselves as equal to faggots.”

And yes, the sexualization of women and girls is a serious problem — I work every day to build a world in which all of us have access to our full human agency, and aren’t just reduced to sexual objects for consumption. You know who’s working on that right along side me? A lot of trans women. Here’s Laverne Cox reflecting on Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, for example:

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 informed 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. This is why we need diverse media representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities.

Which is to say, let’s not be confused by the fact that the few trans women who get positive media attention are the ones who most conform to “conventional” beauty standard. That’s not the fault of trans women, who have as diverse a relationship to beauty and gender and sexuality as cis women do. If Burkett and her allies have a valid grudge, it’s with the corporate media and the sexist, oppressive culture it reflects and magnifies. Those are institutions that many trans women are fighting as well. So is Riley, as it happens. Perhaps we’re not so different after all. 


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