Caitlyn Jenner, Transgender Justice, and Religion
Transgender activist, writer, speaker, and media producer on issues of gender, Nancy R. Nangeroni (below, left) serves as Chair Emeritus of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. She created and co-hosted GenderTalk, the award-winning weekly radio talk show about gender and transgender issues.
Award-winning gender activist, speaker, and author of Transgender Nation, Gordene O. MacKenzie (below, right) chairs the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Merrimack College. She co-hosted GenderTalk radio and co-created and co-hosted GenderVision cable TV- both focused on gender and transgender issues.
s2: Thank you for agreeing to dialog with me on the recent publicity that Caitlyn Jenner’s “revelations” have received and to talk about the connections to transgender justice and religion. Truth be told, I contacted you after reading Elinor Burkett’s opinion article on “What Makes a Woman?” in the New York Times Sunday Review on June 6, 2015.
She responded to what she characterized as “thunderous applause” by the U.S. American media and political elite, including President Obama, to Jenner’s Vanity Fair glamour photo spread and interview. Burkett acknowledged that she “winced” when she saw Jenner’s photo because she saw a stereotypical portrayal of female looks with “cleavage boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara,’ the whole shebang. Passionately, Burkett wrote that “[t]hat’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries” and that “the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.” She elaborated on this point in a good opinion-essay style, but suffice it to say that her protest about notions of femininity in the transgender-rights movement struck a chord with me.
I know, of course, that trans women and trans men “perform” their gender as also done by cis people. We are all trying to express ourselves according to essentializing and binary notions of gender that culture, politics, and religion have inscribed on our bodies for far too long. I emailed you because I know you are heavily involved in gender and transgender justice. So let’s talk a little bit about Burkett’s protest and the ensuing responses, including the detailed blog analysis by Cary Gabriel Costello entitled “TERFs of the Times” and Daniel Schultz’s “Transitions: Caitlyn Jenner, Gender Identity, and Christians Behaving Badly (Again).”
I wonder if not part of the problem of this kind of public debate is related to the issue of “audience.” By this I mean that whenever the complexities of gender identities are publicly debated in a culture that is so heavily invested in essentialist and binary gender norms, really in very rigid, unaware, and naturalized ways, any kind of gender discourse is bound up to turn into loud and irrational shouting matches. When one tries to perform as a “woman” or a “man,” is not everybody “forced” to comply with the dominant normativity of gender? It seems like such a catch-22 situation. How can we as cis feminists and trans feminists talk about gender so that the conversation does not blow up into divisive distrust and eventual disengagement?
NRN: For starters, whenever we seek to foster understanding, we need to avoid characterizations like “rigid, unaware, and naturalized” that further fuel the shouting match.
Certainly some cultures have long equated genital polarity with gender polarity, and felt obligated to discourage departures from this simplistic understanding in the strictest terms, including, for those so inclined, violence. But lately we’re seeing tremendous change taking place, evidence of both adaptability and growing awareness in our culture.
Gendering myself in daily life is indeed an exercise in contradictions. I’m constantly torn between wanting to be seen and related to as a woman, while also not wanting to reinforce harmful stereotypes that oppress women. I would rather be related to as a woman than as a man, even though I believe that I am far more than simply one or the other. To me, gender is a language that some people want me to speak using only half of the available vocabulary. I work to create safe space in our society for everyone to speak their gender freely and fully.
To have a gender at all is to display characteristics that, at their core, are the very components of which stereotypes are comprised.
Most of us grew up in societies, cultures and subcultures within which people group visible attributes into two classes, masculine and feminine. Each aspect of ourselves that we consider to be gendered is displayed against a backdrop of the gendered displays of others. We swim in a sea of men and women who comport themselves as they understand (perhaps mostly unconsciously) is fitting and proper for men and women, according to these groupings. The margins of these groupings are constantly being renegotiated by the more daring among us, and we each place ourselves against this backdrop of ubiquitous gendering by our choices to “go along with the crowd” or “not stick out” in some ways, and to “show our individuality” or “dare to be different” in others. For most people when it comes to gender, there’s a lot of “going along” and little if any daring.
But transgender people confront a conundrum. In order to be true to our inner drive to be and be seen in a certain way, we must rebel against expectations of us based on our sex assigned at birth. But at the same time, our gender choices, in order to overcome the reluctance of others to see us in the way we wish to be seen, must be sufficiently powerful (radical?) in order to overcome their preference to see us as they expect us to be. So our performance of gender is doubly damned: for daring to challenge the expectations of others as to how we ought to identify and behave, and then for daring to deploy the more powerful gender indicators available to us in order to convey our absolute commitment to being truly seen.
So yes, it is certainly a catch-22 situation. But one far more comfortable for me than the prior situation of living as closeted, accepting normative ideas about what one’s proper gender ought to be, with the internalized reduction of one’s deepest gender affinity to pariah. Shame and hiding versus a little academic criticism? No contest.
As to diatribes like Burkett’s, they bear a striking resemblance to objections to same-sex marriage, claiming that somehow, defying all rationality, our personal choices damage the domains of others. As if our most personal, private freedoms must be denied in order to preserve someone else’s worldview. As if our home gardening choices ruin everyone else’s yards.
GOM: In the Vanity Fair spread Caitlyn Jenner is objectified the same way celebrity women too often are, but as a transgender woman there is another layer to her objectification that has stirred a flurry of public debate around her body, her identity, and her very right to exist. Her courage in coming out publicly, applauded by many of us, has unfortunately also been met with some bitter opposition and poison pens. Among the opposition are a small number of radical feminists including Elinor Burkett (author of the 6/6/15 NYT opinion piece What Makes a Woman a Woman) who police the category of woman and erroneously believe that gender is rooted in biological sex. Burkett blames Jenner and transwomen for perpetuating feminine stereotypes and is distressed that abortion rights and reproductive rights organizations are being challenged to use trans inclusive language. There is a long tradition of theories and practices by some radical feminists that exclude (Olivia Records and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival), stereotype, and say hateful things about transgender persons. From radical feminist theologian Mary Daly’s (in Gyn/Ecology) linking transsexuals to Frankenstein monsters, to Janice Raymond (Daly’s student) who charged in her 1979 transphobic book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male that transsexual women were invading women’s spaces, to the recent transphobia perpetrated by Germain Greer who equates being trans as a delusion, to Sheila Jeffreys (Guardian 2012) who argued that she and other radical feminists and transphobic psychologists like Michael Bailey (author of The Man who would be Queen, aptly critiqued as transphobic hate speech) should be “free to debate transgenderism without being accused of ‘hate speech’.”
In an effort to understand the context and the historical relationship between transgender women and radical feminist separatists I recall a conversation I had on an airplane with Mary Daly. Our views on transgender issues couldn’t be more oppositional. Since the early 1980s, I had worked towards transgender rights and equality. In the early 1990s, Jane Caputi, who at the time was a very close friend and good feminist colleague of both Mary and I, told me that she had been “expelled” (temporarily) from Daly’s circle because, according to Daly, I had ruined Caputi with ideas of transgender equality (which she included in one of her books). I’d met Mary only once after a talk she did in Jane’s class at the University of New Mexico in the 1990s. I was surprised in 2001 when Daly sought me out in an airport. She was returning from doing a talk and approached me near the airport gate as I waited to board my flight to Boston, asking if she might sit with me on the flight so that we might talk. She seemed to be reeling from her recent “expulsion” from Boston College for refusing to admit male students to her advanced classes.
As we settled into our seats, I didn’t know what to expect. She knew that I was doing GenderTalk Radio with my partner Nancy Nangeroni, a long-time transgender activist and trans feminist, because we had invited Daly to be a guest on our radio program. She declined because it was a radio show by transgender and genderqueer people about transgender issues and rights. To my surprise, though, she wanted now to learn more about transgender issues. I did most of the talking, but she showed particular interest when I talked about the discrimination and violence, too often culminating in murder, that is most often suffered by transgender women of color. She talked about how depressed she felt losing her teaching career. As we began our landing approach, a great sadness seemed to come over her. My last image of Daly was her insisting on calling to ensure that there was a shuttle for me. As she walked toward me I thought I recognized in her presentation the embodiment of a complex gender identity. But it is not my place to define her or anyone else’s gender. I think perhaps, for a brief moment in the clouds, the pain she was feeling at the time allowed her to acknowledge the pain that transwomen, particularly transgender women of color, suffer.
As to whether there can be a conversation between radical feminists and trans feminists, I don’t know. The bigotry and hate that transphobic radical feminists espouse gives me pause. Would it make any difference if radical feminists heard the story of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year old trans girl who committed suicide by walking in front of a semi truck last year? In the suicide note she posted, she shared how her Christian fundamentalist parents isolated her from friends, took away her social media and made sure the only therapy she received was Christian gender reparative therapy. Leelah closed her final note with “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights…My death needs to mean something… Fix society, please.”
Transgender activists and advocates including many feminists and trans feminists like Laverne Cox, Julia Serrano, Susan Stryker, and Janet Mock are working on it. Hopefully, Caitlin Jenner will join them.
s2: I am very touched by both of your comments and hope that we keep dialoguing about these and related matters in the future. It’s been a long blog, but there is so much to say and we really do not often come together and talk with each other beyond the noisy discourse out there in the media world. Fortunately, you also co-wrote an essay in God Loves Diversity and Justice: Progressive Scholars Speak about Faith, Politics, and the World, edited by yours truly (Lexington Books, 2013), in which you discuss in more detail your views on feminist spiriituality and trans perspectives. In the meantime, I thank both of you very much!