This past week was a perfect storm for idiotic memes. The bizarre case of Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane, Washington, NAACP President, exploded into public view, providing fodder for stand-up comics and provoking conversation about racial identity. It was inevitable that somebody would make the connection between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, who inspired similar discussions about gender identity, but the truth is that these are separate stories, and deserve to be evaluated through separate lenses.
On a much darker note, the recent murders in Charleston, South Carolina, wrought a slew of memes addressing (and usually butchering) such sensitive topics as race relations, gun control, and mental illness. In order to avoid belittling the severity of that horrific event, I’ll address some of those memes in a separate post.
Now I feel that there’s a grain of truth to this meme, but only a grain. Public sentiment has been, on average, much kinder to Caitlyn Jenner than it has been to Rachel Dolezal. This meme’s sin is suggesting that the two stories are, in essence, identical, and that the varied response from the public smacks of a double standard.
That’s utter nonsense. The Caitlyn Jenner story is very different from the Rachel Dolezal story, although I suppose the kind of person who would share this meme isn’t interested in subtle yet important distinctions. Still, let’s take a look at what makes these women so different.
You’ll remember Caitlyn Jenner as the transgender woman – formerly known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic star athlete – who revealed her new look and name on a Vanity Fair cover last month. For anybody still struggling with the concept, here’s what it means to be a transgender woman:
- You were born male – that is, having XY chromosomes and male sexual organs, but
- You more strongly identify with the female gender, so
- You might undertake certain steps, ranging from hormone therapy to gender reassignment surgery, to come more in line with how you’ve always felt (and of course you don’t have to do any of these).
For the sake of completeness, here’s what it doesn’t mean to be a transgender woman:
- Transgender women are not mentally ill – although the stress of having to hide their gender identity from their unaccepting peers can lead to mental illnesses like depression.
- Transgender women are not necessarily gay; they may be into men, women, both, or they may have no particular sexual interest at all.
If you meet a transgender person – male or female – it’s considered polite to refer to that person using the pronouns of his or her adopted gender. So in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, you should say she and her. And in case you’re wondering why you have to say she when referring to Caitlyn Jenner, it’s because she wants you to. How about you not be a dick about it?
Now about this meme: Is Caitlyn Jenner pretending to be a woman? Well…no. Caitlyn Jenner self-identifies as a woman. The way I see it, there’s a real distinction between pretending and self-identifying. When you pretend, you know that you’re not really the thing you’re pretending to be. For example, I can pretend to be a police officer, or an astronaut, or a doctor, but I don’t really feel like any of those things. I can even pretend to be a woman, but I would just be pretending because I am a cisgendered male; that is, I’m quite comfortable being the gender I was given at birth. Lucky me. But what if I really did feel like a woman? What if I knew I wasn’t right as a male, despite what I saw between my legs? See, Caitlyn Jenner isn’t pretending to be a woman; she’s finally decided to stop pretending that she’s a cis male.
For most people, sex is a binary situation: you are either male (XY) or female (XX). Gender is not binary, however; it’s a gradient. There is a whole spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations. By the way, this spectrum has always existed. It’s not that we’re inventing new ways for people to be genderqueer to irritate conservatives, it’s just that we’re finally recognizing what has always been part of the human condition. Well, some of us are. Anyway…
What can we say about Rachel Dolezal? Is she pretending to be black? That’s a much trickier question, isn’t it?
Unlike sex, ethnicity is a genetic gradient. The metrics we use to identify a person’s ethnicity – skin color, facial features, hair characteristics, etc – are really present in a wide array of beautiful variation among the human population. It is only socially that we try to divide race into distinct categories. What’s the difference between a white woman and a black woman? Genetically, not much at all. Socially – everything.
Is it possible to be transracial, in the same way that a person might be transgender? Could a person be born to white parents and raised as white, yet always have the feeling that he or she more strongly identified as black (or Asian, or Native American, etc)?
In a sense, I think that this is possible, although the issue is frought with thorny ethical questions. A white person transitioning to an identity as a non-white person might be accused of cultural appropriation; that is, adopting the characteristics and mannerisms of a race that has been historically oppressed. A non-white person identifying as white might not be accepted by either race. (In honesty, these are the same challenges faced by a transgender person.)
Honesty…that’s the key. If you want to know why Caitlyn Jenner’s story is more acceptable than Rachel Dolezal’s, you have to examine how honest each person has been with herself and with the public.
Rachel Dolezal now says she identifies as black, but that hasn’t always been her mantra. At various times she has claimed to be black or biracial (even lying about her parentage). She also claims to have been the victim of numerous hate crimes; documentation and evidence of these crimes has been sparse. And of course she advanced to a leadership role in the NAACP based on false pretenses. There’s nothing wrong with a white person interested in black equality, even working with the NAACP – in fact, I long for the day when all people are interested in racial equality, and organizations like the NAACP are anachronistic and unnecessary – but to lie your way into a position of leadership; well that’s simply beyond the pale, regardless of your racial identity.
Caitlyn Jenner, by contrast, has been very forthcoming about her biological sex and gender dysphoria. Although she identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, she is not trying to deceive the public into believing a falsehood. She is not advancing through the ranks of of a feminist organization on the pretense that she is genetically female.
If you cannot see the difference between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, then I assert that you are not interested in seeing the difference; presumably because doing so would challenge your belief that the world is simple and everything can be judged by one set of standards. This is false. The world is complex. People are complex. Even when it seems that there is a clear analogy between two peoples’ stories, it pays to look closer; to examine the details. You might find out that humans are richly nuanced beings with strange and wonderful and terrible motivations, and then imagine – just imagine – how much more interesting the world will seem.