Once Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans on the cover of Vanity Fair, I girded myself for the onslaught of transphobic comments that would greet her announcement. Because her picture ended up being beautiful, there were lots of positive comments, celebrating Jenner – now, I know that celebrating a trans woman for her looks and her ability to embrace heteronormative standards of beauty and femininity is problematic, but I took a quick break from being a feminist, so that I could rejoice in Jenner’s big FU to all the asshats who tortured her over the past few years.
Because I was expected the nastiness (and there were buttloads), I wasn’t surprised that folks took Jenner’s experience to slam trans folks. But I was caught off guard by Elinor Burkett’s ridiculous piece “What Makes a Woman?” that ran in the New York Times. In the op-ed piece, Burkett seems to argue that Jenner’s transition is somehow an affront on womanhood, and that in her quest to be herself, she somehow is dictating the way women everywhere will define or identity themselves.
I’ll first say that Burkett does make some valid points in highlighting that male privilege sucks, and women suffer countless indignities from rape to the income gap. Women have also been forced to shoulder identities assigned to them by patriarchal societies for generations – and it still happens. Women are expected to be so many things to so many people with little regard to what they want.
But none of these truths take away Burkett’s inherent bigotry when approaching trans issues. Burkett is rightly arguing against reducing women to breasts or genitalia, and she correctly slams ancient stereotypes that plague women. The problem, then is she’s doing a lot of that in her article against Jenner – and yes, this article feels like not only an attack on the trans community as a whole (as well as its allies), but against Jenner, personally.
During her interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner expressed herself in ways that Burkett found objectionable. When asked when she knew she was trans, she said ““My brain is much more female than it is male,” to which Burkett responded by comparing Jenner’s comments to the idiotic comments former Harvard president, Lawrence Summers made suggesting that men and women had different aptitudes which explained the paucity of women in the hard sciences. So yeah, we were pissed at the mere suggestion that the lack of women in sciences is anything but misogyny and patriarchy. Yet, somehow, we’re supposed to take Summers’ comments and compare them to Jenner, who wasn’t speaking as a university president or an expert, but merely trying to articulate how it was for her – she was talking about her experience (a sentiment shared by many trans folks, btw).
Then Burkett follows with a lament on how Jenner chose to present herself: “a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.” She dismisses the look as “Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman.” She then shared that she winced. And you know what? I think it’s fine that Burkett winced. Just as lots of women wince when another woman appears on a magazine cover, dolled up and tarted up to look like a showgirl. But Again, not to belabor this point, but Caitlyn Jenner can present herself any old way she wants to – if Sofia Vergara, Madonna, Britney Spears, and Jennifer Lopez all like to show off their impressive (and also manufactured, btw) assets, then why do we stop at Jenner? The male gaze is gross, and I don’t like it, but I’m not Caitlyn Jenner – if that’s her vision of womanhood, good for her. I don’t agree with it – but it’s not my place to dictate how a woman should express her femininity.
Burkett then complains that progressive folks – those of us who choose to be trans allies – are ” buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.” Yeah, no, that’s not what’s happening. Progressives – and I mean cis allies of trans folks in particular – are saying, “hey, I’m not trans. I don’t know what that’s like, and it’s not something that I can comment on with any kind of authority. But because I’m an ally, I’ll listen to what trans folks are telling me, and believe them. To argue against a trans person’s reasons for being trans is like telling a gay person she chose to be gay, even if she already explained to me that she was born that way.
But what gets me is that Burkett is chasing after some notion that somehow trans rights will infringe on women’s self-identification. She insists that “People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women…shouldn’t get to define us.” She cites male privilege and goes on to say “as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.” And this is where Burkett’s wheels seem to start spin, because she’s voicing this threat that Jenner poses to womankind, ignoring the fact that Jenner isn’t defining womanhood. Hell, she doesn’t even get to define trans womanhood much less womanhood as a whole, nor is she trying. Jenner’s story is pretty atypical of most trans women’s stories, and I’m sure they’d chafe at the suggestion that it fully and correctly represents their journeys. When Burkett writes “Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identities,” I wanted to get up and shout, “You’re right! It’s not your truth. That’s the point!” But it’s a ridiculously obvious point to make, because there is no one universal truth and no one universal female identity. Cis, trans, gay, straight, queer, gender conforming, gender nonconforming, and everything in between all prevent there from being ever one truth that is applicable to all women.”
But Burkett isn’t done, yet. She then indulges in the fiction that trans women have it really easy. Let me make it clear, we’ve built a society that makes it often shit to be a woman. And the crap women go through is very specific toward women. But the trans community suffers from high levels of depression, unemployment, job discrimination, AIDS/HIV infection – trans women (and trans men) are victims of violence and rape. And the homicide rate of Trans women of color is astronomic. Burkett’s point 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.” And that is also true of trans women, who endure more than their share of certain indignities.
Burkett then switches back to Jenner, highlighting the privilege she enjoyed when she publicly presented as Bruce Jenner. Again, not going to disagree – Caitlyn Jenner is the epitome of white privilege and wealth. But that’s not specific to trans women – white privilege benefits lots of people – including cis women. And Burkett makes the mistake of assuming that the trans community and its all see Jenner’s story as representative of the trans experience. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be sold as such. Jenner’s fame, plus that of her family, has afforded her access to some of the best healthcare in the country. She is privileged and not the typical story of trans life, in much the same way Oprah Winfrey’s story isn’t the reality for most black women in America.
When working at an LGBT nonprofit, I ran across trans youth who didn’t have the privilege of wealth and race that Jenner enjoys. Many of Burkett’s concerns directly affected the young trans women – largely trans women of color – who I came across. They didn’t worry about birth control, but they worried about how they’d get their hands on hormones. And like cis women, they dealt with the danger of rape. Some were sex workers and also worried about AIDS/HIV. All of them were rejected by their families and communities, and were forced to create new families and support networks. Male privilege is a thing, but it is often situational – and depending on when, where, and how trans women transition, it often doesn’t operate in the same way it did for Jenner. None of the kids I worked with were Olympic athletes with their picture on a Wheeties box.