Siobhán Lynch says Elinor Burkett’s complaint about Caitlyn Jenner becoming a stereotypical woman doesn’t add up.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Elinor Burkett writes a sincere but disjointed analysis of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a somewhat hyper-feminine, socialite type of woman. Burkett takes issue with this portrayal of a woman as a setback for feminism. She cites Lawrence H. Summers being crucified for saying there were differences between male and female brains, in contrast to Caitlyn Jenner being lauded and given awards for courage when she claimed her brain was “more female than male.” Throughout her article, Burkett uses the male pronoun to refer to Ms. Jenner—but at the end she concedes to support Trans people by using “she.” The tone of the article, however, is anything but supportive.
I acknowledge that Burkett has fought most of her life to challenge the idea that women should be put in a box, to assert there is no stereotypical woman, and in this context finds Caitlyn Jenner’s embracing traditional female stereotypes problematic.
I understand her anger—as I’m aware the words Trans people use to describe our experience can have the effect of reducing identity to a series of minor brain differences. But studies done on brain differences aside, the stereotype that a woman is more emotionally sensitive or that women fit into a woman-box is as preposterous as the idea that men fit into the “man box.” So I agree that the unfortunate words Ms. Jenner and Ms. Manning use provide an incomplete explanation at best—and are damaging at worst.
When I was diagnosed intersex (Klinefelter’s Mosaicism, which means that 1/3rd of my cells are 47,XXY) at 37 years of age—which was indicated because of my whole host of autoimmune and neurological issues (including autism), I had a few Trans people tell me they wished they were intersex. Of course they didn’t take into account that being intersex was a medical disability for me.
One may ask why this idea was important—because after all, in my mind, I wished I wasn’t (though I had learned to my autism as a gift in some sense), because the other physical and neurological problems had cursed me my whole life. Even sex reassignment sat beyond my reach, as recovering from such major surgery would have been difficult and arduous—and could cause issues with healing. I had to learn to deal with my body on terms I had never wanted to, and it was difficult, at best.
The truth, at least for me and it seems for many others, is that Trans people have all kinds of expectations to explain why they feel the way they do. The need to have some kind of explanation ready, leads to inconsistent and incomplete ideas being put forth. Up until recently, the DSM classified being Trans as a mental illness, and before that, a paraphilia. So in some ways we need to take into account society’s judgment finding its way into Ms. Jenner’s explanation.
I transitioned early for the time period—I was 22 when I started, and in many ways—I experienced—even earlier the “drip, drip, drip” of social experiences common to many women. However, in Ms. Burkett’s words, I would never experience the difficulties because of menstruation or the fear of being pregnant after sex with a man for forgetting to take birth control. Burkett also mentions a whole host of other “female” experiences, including men talking to their breasts and objectification, humiliation finding male work colleagues had bigger paychecks, and fear of not being able to ward off rapists.
While Ms. Jenner may not have experienced those indignities, in making that point Ms. Burkett is discounting the experiences of countless Trans women, many of whom are the target of physical violence including rape, and she assumes that Trans women don’t experience objectification (when many are seen as fetish objects—especially when they “pass” well). I am 90% sure that my male colleagues were paid more than I was throughout my career in IT, and I have had people objectify me and talk to my chest instead of towards my face. More problematic, however, is that in defining a woman’s experience as all these things—Burkett puts women right back in the box. She isn’t taking into account that “woman” can include a wide range of experience and an infinite range of possibilities.
Yes, Ms Jenner has enjoyed, as Burkett complains, a healthy heaping of male privilege. And I suspect many Trans women would not disagree with this idea. Once upon a time, I erroneously placed Trans women into two categories: one was those—like me—who had transitioned younger and had the typical struggles women—and even specifically Trans women—have; the other those who are personified in our popular culture now like Caitlyn Jenner. These Trans women spent most of their life accruing male privilege, then used it all to make an overnight transition—including feminization surgeries. While Ms. Burkett is essentially correct in drawing attention to this split in Trans communities, to call gender a “social construct” flies completely in the face of the hard science. Identical twin experiments in epigenetics, for example, indicate there might be more to gender identity than a social construct. The lovely Laverne Cox and her cisgender identical twin come to mind. Both were raised in the same environments, and have the same genes, yet something caused them to be different. This premise also ignores the high amount of cross gender feelings among those with intersex conditions who were assigned one gender at birth, and it certainly ignores the experience of the late David Reimer, who was “made female” at birth and given hormones by Dr. John Money—and who came to regard himself as male again and said he never “felt female,” despite being treated as such for his whole childhood. Any scientist would start looking for another cause or something associated with gender identity that is not purely social.
Burkett goes on to lament the loss of female identifying words—specifically the word “vagina”—and how it seems many Trans people (arguably a small percent and probably the loudest) are protesting events like Martha Plimpton’s “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas” and presentations of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” as “exclusionary.” For what it’s worth, as a Trans woman with no vagina or uterus, I actually agree that reproductive rights are an issue that concerns people who can carry children, but to me the larger issue is all of us having the right to control our bodies. Burkett feels it is wrong to include Trans men who still have working reproductive organs—but why should they be excluded from the same rights regardless of whether they are called “women.” In terms of medical access, I believe we need gender neutral language that includes Trans men and those who do not ID as women and who require reproductive care. It would be criminal to turn them away or not provide care, or make them feel unwelcome. This is an area where I don’t feel it is erasure of women’s experience—but instead an obligatoin to include those who may need care who aren’t of that experience.
As usual, the radical voices in the Trans community are the loudest—and yes—any radical or reactionary faction will by nature have extreme points of view. But this is not the opinion of all Trans people.
Burkett goes on to say that “Three times as many gender reassignment surgeries are performed on men,” again invalidating the fact that Trans women are women—while towards the end still claiming to be supportive of Trans rights. She fails to take into account that gender reassignment for Trans men is still—and has been since I could remember—stuck in the stone ages. This is where male privilege has served Trans women much better than Trans men, as doctors can create a mostly functional vagina much more easily than they can create a mostly functional penis. The closest thing to working GRS for Trans men is an operation where doctors release an enlarged clitoris (via testosterone) from the clitoral hood—creating a small penis. I personally think the disparity is criminal—but the reason for the difference in amounts of surgery between Trans women and Trans men is because of Trans men’s limited options—not because “men” feel constrained to break out of society and out of the man box—so they become women.
So by getting many facts wrong, and using language that suggests a lack of support for Trans people in general, Burkett leads me to question her sincerity on being supportive of the right to self-identify. I understand she feels that the changing world is invalidating her and many cisgender women’s experiences—and she may have some valid feelings—but as she’s expressed them, they’re based on incomplete information, misconceptions, and fallacies, and her words of support at the strike me as disingenuous. There is a completely compatible view in feminism amongst those who are cisgender and transgender women—and the men who support us—but Burkett seems to want to polarize instead of seeking common ground in the way many women do who have different experiences of identity. And that’s unfortunate for everyone concerned.
Originally published on Burning Bras (or Building Bridges?).