On Caitlyn Jenner, Courage, and Womanhood

At this point, just about everybody has heard about Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner. The Diane Sawyer special has aired more than once, and this past week ESPN chose to honor Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS. That particular decision has drawn a great deal of criticism, with many people saying that Caitlyn was not as deserving of the award as soldiers or cancer patients or “real” women.

First, let’s briefly touch on the nature of awards in general and award shows in particular. With the exception of spelling bees, awards are arbitrary and subjective. A person or group decides who they deem worthy to bestow the title of Best Actor, Most Valuable Player, Best Album. Often a case could be made that someone else is just as or more deserving of the accolade. Sometimes the choices are political — by which I mean not just Democrat or Republican but those options that are seen to advance a company’s power. Sometimes people just have shitty taste. After all we did, as a society, think that poufy hair and leg warmers were once cool. And ask yourself: 10 years from now, even 10 days from now, will Caitlyn Jenner winning the Arthur Ashe Award negatively impact your life? Was anyone harmed by her being its recipient? Simply put, awards are largely unimportant in the grand scheme of life. But this is not about the Arthur Ashe Award. This is about how women have played into the “my pain is worse than your pain” game.

When I was in my late teens and twenties I worked in a legal services organization that employed a few hundred people. At the time I was hired, one of our employees, let’s call him “Ted,” was missing. Not because of a kidnapping or some other scary situation. Ted was going through the final stage of transitioning into a woman. It was made clear that when Ted returned to work we were to address our coworker by a new name, let’s say “Mary.” And Mary was to be treated respectfully, and addressed and referred to as a female. Intolerance would not be tolerated.

I was a 19 year-old from Podunk, South Carolina and the extent of my knowledge about trans-anything issues was understanding the difference between transvestites and transsexuals (the accepted terminology at the time). I confess that the prospect of meeting this new person was sensational to me. What would she be like? How would she look? How would she act? How would our coworkers act? I’m not sure exactly what I expected but I was certainly curious. Benignly so. I also was picking up on little snide comments from people who did not approve of Mary’s choice to transition.

Mary returned to work within perhaps a week of my starting. We worked in different departments so my interactions with her were infrequent. What was frequent was the backbiting directed towards Mary. Hearing her referred to as an “it” rather than “she.” The people who would smile to her face but turn around and go to a restroom on another floor if Mary was headed into the ladies’ room. As if Mary, who dated men, would be so overcome with lust by these pudgy, middle-aged women that she would tear down the stall door to accost them.

I wanted to tell myself this was just an adjustment period. My colleagues had always known Ted and now they were having to accustom themselves to Mary’s new identity. People are often uncomfortable with the unknown or those different than themselves. But discomfort and difference are things emotionally mature people work through. And those attitudes remained for the seven years of my tenure.

I was flabbergasted and disappointed at my sisterhood of women. Please don’t get me wrong — not all of my coworkers felt this way and some people defended Mary. But I couldn’t understand how women, who have had to deal with so much oppression and hate, could turn around and inflict it on another. And now almost 20 years later we are doing it again, in a much more public way, to Caitlyn Jenner.

We say that Jenner is getting the perks of being female — like the fancy dresses and jewels — without having to pay any of the costs — like birthing a child or leaving an abusive lover. And there is truth in that. But Jenner didn’t choose to forego those experiences; her biology did. What she did choose is to live in a way that feels authentic to her.

As women we are subjected to sometimes outrageous but more often covert marginalization in many forms. The world chips away at us on a daily basis and when it doesn’t, many of us are happy to pick up the chisel ourselves and hack away. But I think engaging in an Oppression Olympics with Caitlyn Jenner is beneficial to none and hurtful to all. Discussing her struggle with gender identity doesn’t negate genetically XX women’s difficulties. Both are valid and real. Not mutually exclusive. The courageous, brave women that we are are made of tough enough stuff that we can embrace Caitlyn — or at the very least not disparage her — for the very same reasons we’ve been held down for millennia: we were born with the “wrong” genitalia.

July 22, 2015

Rebecca J. Blair