The Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal stories created a petri dish for trans-bashing … from across the political spectrum. (More)
Identity, Integrity, and Interrogation: My Trans Experience
When the Rachel Dolezal story broke, The Federalist’s Sean Davis posed a question:
Which of course brings us to Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.
How, exactly is what Dolezal did any different than what Jenner is currently doing? Rachel Dolezal is not black, and Caitlyn Jenner is not a woman[.]
Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall was among many progressive pundits to object:
The one simple thing is the online debate about whether Dolezal is simply ‘transracial’ like Caitlyn Jenner is transgender. No. It’s not like that. In fact, I think we can dispense with this entirely because I have not seen anyone suggesting this anywhere online who wasn’t just some wingnut concern-trolling transgenderism and frankly racial identity itself.
The Washington Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer agreed:
Why is Caitlyn Jenner treated as a groundbreaking cultural hero and Rachel Dolezal condemned as a charlatan? If it’s okay to be transgender, what’s wrong with being “transracial”?
With those taunts, as the weekend opened, the right baited the left and the mainstream media, which to conservatives are generally one and the same.
Many in the mainstream took the bait, and the cases of Jenner and Dolezal were forever intertwined.
They’re both wrong. The first person to propose the transgender-transracial link was feminist Elinor Burkett, in a New York Times story published almost a week before the Dolezal story broke:
The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.
Burkett proposes an astonishingly narrow view of female identity:
Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.
For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they’re articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.
No, I’ve never awakened wondering if I forgot my birth control pills. On the other hand, perhaps Burkett doesn’t know that many trans women do have hormonal cycles. I’ve never menstruated, but once I began hormone replacement therapy I had to deal with 2-3 days of klutziness and irritability every 18 days or so. My endocrinologist couldn’t explain it – my hormone pills were the same every day – but she said she’d heard similar reports from her other trans patients.
As for humiliation, Burkett isn’t an attorney so she never faced a state bar examiner’s hearing and heard an old white man with the keys to her professional future say this:
We’ve received … reports … and this is scandalous but I have to follow up on them … we’ve received reports that you believe you’re a lesbian born in a man’s body?
Shaking with anger and terror, I told the hearing officers that yes, I was transexual, yes, I would soon begin my transition, and what, exactly, did that have to do with my fitness to practice law?
I have no doubt that I stood on the brave shoulders of women who broke the gender barrier in the legal profession when all three hearing officers looked down at their files. After a long silence, my interrogator replied:
Umm … that will not … I’m sorry I had to ask that question.
As for the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists, I’ll save that for later.
That bar examiner’s hearing was hardly my last interrogation. It’s built into the transition process. In the mid-1990s, standards of care required six months of psychotherapy and a one-year “real-life test” – living full-time as a woman – before I could be referred for medical transition. The new standards of care are not quite as rigid, but they still prefer two letters from mental health care professionals, including one from a psychotherapist.
Those are just the official interrogations. Far more common, demanding, and demeaning were the conversations with family, friends, coworkers, pharmacy clerks, and countless others who felt entitled to demand that I explain myself in terms they could “understand.” The kind of interrogation Caitlyn Jenner has faced from reporters: Why do you think you’re a woman? When did you know? Why change your body? Why couldn’t you just…?
I’ve had that conversation enough times – way more than enough times – to offer this advice to Ms. Jenner:
Stop having that conversation. There is no answer or combination of answers that will convince those who think you’re living a fetish, invading women’s space, expecting others to share your delusion, or some other variation of Breaking The Rules.
To her credit, Ms. Jenner has not claimed to speak for all trans women. Nor do I. There is no singular “trans experience,” and the insistence to the contrary – by far too many in the trans community – is why I left the trans community.
In fact, in the mid-90s there was no “trans community.” There was a strict hierarchy:
- post-ops – those who had completed genital surgery were More Real than:
- pre-ops – those who had completed psychotherapy, received referral letters, were well into or had completed their “real-life tests,” and were now undergoing hormone therapy en route to genital surgery. They were More Real than:
- non-ops – those who were like pre-ops except they couldn’t afford or didn’t want genital surgery. They were More Real than:
- part-timers – those who had not yet begun “real-life tests” and did not live full-time as women. And they were More Real than:
- drag queens, crossdressers, and other pretenders
Both embedded in and layered over that strict hierarchy was passing, whether and how often you were “read” as trans. I say “embedded in” because for decades most gender doctors were Barbie Makers, refusing patients who were too tall, too muscular, too deep-voiced, too big-handed, or otherwise too something to pass. For most gender docs, including most psychotherapists, to pass meant emerging as heterosexual. My psychiatrist said I was the first trans lesbian – a trans woman attracted to women – that he had counseled.
But passing was also “layered over” the hierarchy. A pre-op or non-op who could pass fluently was, at least for some purposes, More Real than a post-op who was routinely read. And those who made no attempt to pass – who wore slacks or jeans instead of dresses, who didn’t bother with makeup (“at least shave, dammit!”), or who dressed or made themselves up too garishly (“she looks like a whore/drag queen!”) – just “made things harder for the rest of us.”
But post-ops were always More Real in important ways. Only they could pass the “pat down test.” And only they could change their passports, drivers licenses, and other official IDs. Because only they had made an “irreversible” commitment. Or – for the more cynically minded – because they had $25,000-$50,000 to spend on surgery that no insurance would cover.
When I saw Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair photos, my first response was:
It must be nice to be able to afford tens of thousands of dollars worth of cosmetic surgery.
Because I look like this:
Or, fifteen years ago when I treated myself to a portrait session at Glamor Shots, like this:
It took an hour of makeup and styling, and the miracle of soft focus for me to see the woman I had always felt. Years later a friend, upon seeing that photo in our kitchen, remarked:
Wow! Why don’t you look that pretty all the time?
At least she meant well.
The Bathroom Question
Unlike, say, Burkett’s claim that trans women never had to deal with “the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.” Oh really.
I was 13 when a bunch of boys decided I was in the wrong bathroom. Our 8th grade class was in the high school, and I foolishly went into the restroom next to the cafeteria. That restroom was reserved for seniors, as I discovered the instant I saw their predatory smiles.
After that I avoided public bathrooms, until I transitioned. So for all the defenders of “safety and common sense” who want to ban me from women’s bathrooms – including Florida legislators who tried to make it a crime – I guess I should leave the building and go find a bush to squat behind … because I sure as hell won’t be safe in a men’s restroom, and I’ll never go in one again.
I haven’t written about my trans experience at BPI, or anywhere else, in years. I left the trans community because I was fed up with the hierarchy, and stopped identifying as “trans” because I was fed up with the interrogations. My drivers license and passport say “Female.”
So, finally, does my voter registration. That involved several embarrassing trips to the polls and then to the supervisor of elections office, until finally I stood there and demanded to watch while they changed the record. Because I was fed up with hearing “Are you really…? Oh, it must be a clerical error.”
No, Elinor Burkett, my experience is not your experience … and your experience is not my experience. And while I’ll leave the damage of Rachel Dolezal’s lies for her to sort out with people of color – I’m white and not qualified to have an opinion on her expression of race – perhaps at least some of her lies were born in the same impulses that led me to stop proclaiming my trans-ness.
No, she shouldn’t have invented a fictitious history of always being black. But doesn’t every trans woman who stops discussing her trans-ness – to avoid the interrogations and the endless, pointless explanations – lie-by-omission every time she offers her ID or checks “F” on a form or presents herself as a woman? When I attended a NOW conference, should I have prefaced every sentence with “I’m only a trans woman, but…?”
How about when I served as vice chair of my local DEC? Our state party rules and county bylaws require the chair and vice chair be of opposite genders. Should I have asked for a ruling – from our members and/or the state party – on whether I was really a woman and thus qualified to be vice chair when the chair was male?
Have I betrayed BPI readers by not declaring, early and often – lest new readers have missed prior declarations – that I’m a trans woman? How much of our how-did-I-get-here stories do we owe each other in every daily encounter?
Or does Quartz’s Marcie Bianco emphasize the more important point:
This is a false and misguided fight. It is false because womanhood is not one limited space. (The idea that anything is limited to a single definition is the same flawed logic used by conservatives who complain that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexual marriage.) It is misguided because the fight should be directed at the real cause of this war: patriarchal sexism.
A point that The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb largely echoes:
Rachel Dolezal is not black – by lineage or lifelong experience – yet I find her deceptions less troubling than the vexed criteria being used to exclude her. If blackness is simply a matter of a preponderance of African ancestry, then we should set about the task of excising a great deal of the canon of black history, up to and including the current President. If it is simply a matter of shared experience, we might excommunicate people like Walter White, whose blue eyes were camouflage that could serve both to spare him the direct indignity of racism and enable him to personally investigate and expose lynchings. Dolezal was dishonest about an undertaking rooted in dishonesty, and no matter how absurd her fictional blackness may appear, it is worth recalling that the former lie is far more dangerous than the latter. Our means of defining ourselves are complex and contradictory – and could be nothing other than that. But if the rubric is faulty it remains vital. The great majority of Americans recognize slavery as a figment of history, interred in a receding past. But, for black people, that past remains at the surface – close at hand, indelible, a narrative as legible as skin.
Our social norms are shot through with lies – about race and gender – and those of us who don’t fit neatly into false boxes must somehow balance integrity with getting through a day without yet another round of “Why do you?” “When did you?” “Why change your?” “Why can’t you just…?”