First off: Caitlyn Jenner is a brave human being. Anyone who has the courage to come out as something different--as something that others make fun of or ridicule or malign is brave. It takes courage to be yourself whenever "yourself" isn't what most other people are.
I've been increasingly bothered by the rhetoric surrounding Jenner's coming out, and about the precise nature of the ostensibly supportive comments I've been reading and hearing. The ones that bother me most have come from well-meaning straight women in the public eye who talk about how beautiful Caitlyn is (true) and how courageous she is (also true), and who show a sudden empathy for the plight of all trans people (by which, frankly, they tend to mean trans women). (Sidenote: I'm going to use the term "straight women" in this post to refer to a particular kind of straight woman that tends to: (1) embrace the gender binary (2) but support gay rights (3) but glare at me in the women's restroom. You know the type. If you're a straight woman who reads this blog all the time and doesn't look askance at butches in the restroom, please know that I'm not talking about you.)
It's not that Caitlyn Jenner doesn't deserve kudos and support--she certainly does! But a significant chunk of the mainstream support I've seen seems to totally embrace gender norms. If Caitlyn looked like, say, Rachel Maddow, I daresay that she would have fewer straight female supporters talking on podcasts and posting on Facebook pages about much they love and support her. Nor, I suspect, would she have graced the cover of Vanity Fair. I do not think Bruce Jenner coming out as a woman is the big draw. I think the big draw is Bruce Jenner coming out as a woman of a certain kind--as a woman who embraces the type of femininity that fits neatly into the existing gender binary with which people are comfortable. I don't think they're thinking, "Wow, this really complicates how I think about gender!" I think they're thinking, "Wow, this gorgeous woman was trapped in a man's body!"
As a New York Times article astutely pointed out the other day, the brain-body distinction is not so clear. Here's an excerpt:
While young [Bruce Jenner] was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports. When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted – Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men. Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night. Those are realities that shape women’s brains.
Which is true, at least to some extent. To say that Jenner always had a "woman's brain" doesn't take into account that she had a man's social experiences--and that our experiences powerfully shape our brain chemistry, our pocketbooks, and our self-understandings. Acknowledging this doesn't make Jenner any less of a woman (something the article really seems to miss). But not acknowledging this minimizes the social experiences of cis women and girls, and reduces trans identity to a simple case of "wrong brain, wrong body." Jenner had a certain set of experiences particular to her identity, and they should be respected in and of themselves.
Frankly, I'm also jealous. I wish that straight women would embrace women who look like me with as much openness as I see them embracing Caitlyn Jenner. In short, I wish that straight women's newfound "acceptance" of different versions of what it means to be a woman extended more broadly in my own direction, not just in Caitlyn's--that they would show so much love and support for women whose gender presentation and ideas of womanhood don't look like their own.
Back in 2012, I wrote a post called "Why Aren't all Butches Trans?" It continues to get comments, and a couple days ago, a reader asked a question that I thought deserved a separate blog entry.
In the post, I write, "A butch woman's masculinity is not different in degree from that of a butch man or FTM; it is different in kind." In response, a reader wrote: That is a very helpful statement, but I think "kind" needs to be expanded upon. Can you say how you might define "kind"? Would it be something like the difference between a different breed of animal eg. a cocker spaniel or labrador? Or the difference between a different species of animal eg. dog or cat? Or something else?
It's a good question! Here's what I mean by "kind."
Masculinity exists as a thing--a social construct we can understand and identify in the abstract. Even when it's not attached to a particular person, we have a social understanding of certain things as masculine. If you showed a random person a lacy pink tank top and a blue flannel shirt and asked, "Which one is more masculine?" most people would point to the flannel shirt, even if neither shirt is being worn by anyone. (Mind you, I'm not saying that there IS, in any normative or "real" sense, such a thing as masculinity or femininity--merely that these are widely-understood social ideas.)
Still with me? Okay, let's take a concrete example: water. Even if we don't know what container the water is occupying, we understand what "water" is, right? Now consider a river; consider a lake. Rivers and lakes are containers for water, but the water has a different "feel" in each one. We wouldn't argue that one of those is the "real" container, or that one is more "watery" than the other. Nor would we think it was weird if someone said that they preferred rivers to lakes, or vice versa. We get that they're different forms of water.
So, too, with masculinity. A trans man and a butch woman might both contain masculinity, just like a river and a lake might both contain water. They share a common characteristic, but because of who they are, they each take on an inherently different form.
To take the analogy a little further, there are all kinds of lakes and rivers. There are lagoons, ponds, streams, reservoirs, tributaries. And there are bodies of water that--just like bodies of people--defy or combine or challenge or embrace the conventional definitions.