The Feminist Media Reader #15 - Caitlin Jenner, Rachel Dolezal and tolerance of the Trans Community

by - Friday, June 19, 2015

This post has been sat in my drafts for over a week as I have typed, rewritten, reread and ultimately tried to decide if I have any authority whatsoever to release these words into the public. I never started this blog as a means of trying to cause offence, but occasionally controversial topics will surface, and it becomes difficult to know whether having a blog is really justification enough to ramble about matters much more complex than a single post. So if you are offended by my opinions below, please know that it wasn't my intention, and this post is much more about trying to work through my own reactions than it is trying to force them upon anybody else.

Caitlyn Jenner

Firstly, let's talk about Caitlyn Jenner. I know, Jenessa writes about the Kardashians again - what a shocker. Nonetheless, I think it is hugely important that we acknowledge the wholy position reaction from the mainstream media towards Caitlyn's transition. While the decision to focus on how 'incredibly convincing' Caitlyn's surgery has been is eye-rollingly typical in it's desire to stereotype what a woman 'should' look like, on the whole I've been broadly impressed at the tolerance and celebration, and think it is a wonderful step forward for the trans-community. Me personally? I think her story is utterly incredible and her bravery to become the person she really is, in public, aged 65, is nothing short of amazing. Naturally, I do also understand a little of the resentment from non-famous people who are facing much longer battles to get surgery - it must be difficult to watch somebody who is lucky enough to be able to afford to make their physical transition so fully and seemingly quickly, but I think it's easy to forget how long Caitlyn has felt trapped in the wrong body, how difficult a decision this must have been as a father and how bizarre it must be to settle into a new life in the open, fully aware that the world's media is watching it happen.

The one thing I have found difficult in all of this is the media's treatment of Kris Jenner, Kardashian mom-ager and Caitlyn's previous wife. While a million episodes of 'Keeping Up With The Kardashians' will never truly reveal the whole truth behind their marriage, I find it really odd that people wish to demonise her for admitting to the press that this transition has been really difficult. While the emphasis should understandably be about Caitlyn's journey, it seems ridiculous and kind of anti-feminist to me to deny Kris the right to admit that as a woman who married someone as a male, the past few months and years have been confusing and strange to adapt to. Until she is outwardly negative about Caitlyn, I think a little more slack needs to be cut for Kris - in our acceptance of the trans community, I think it's also important to accept that complete acceptance isn't always as easy for the families as it is for people whose lives aren't being directly affected.

When it comes to Caitlyn Jenner, my opinions are fairly cut and dry. As something that has been brought to the fore in the past year or so by her story and the amazing activism of Laverne Cox, our understanding of what it means to be transgender is becoming much clearer. But what if it is also possible to be a different kind of trans? What if the idea of being 'transracial' is also a reality?

Rachel Dolezal

No amount of internet reading will ever let me truly make my mind up about Rachel Dolezal. Now that she has resigned from her post as head of the African-American division of NAACP , I don't really feel as if it's my place to make my mind up, but nonetheless I will attempt to get my feelings out here as it has plagued me for days.

I will admit that I was hugely offended by the surface prospect - the idea of a white woman pretending to be black in order to progress above black people seems hugely hypocritical, and the very essence of ugly cultural appropriation and white privilege - the ability to pick and choose when to be black, to go about things when it suits you. The lies she has told about her supressed upbringing are difficult to stomach and it's near on impossible to understand why someone would take to such extended and outlandish lies. The fabrication of the hate crimes she said were made against her are at best deluded, and at worst a sickening attempt to shout over black voices instead of supporting them.

However, it's slowly seeping out that there is much more to this story. As someone who was brought up with adopted black siblings and in a largely black community, it appears that Dolezal genuinely indentifies as a black woman. There is no denying that Dolezal has been doing honourable work, and while it is of course possible to be a social activist for the black community and still be a white person, it's distinctly likely that she felt as if her legitimacy would be questioned, rightly of wrongly, if she had a white appearance, the same way one might be suspicious of a Cis male heading up a feminist society. The black community is the one she believes she has been born into, telling the press that from the age of 5 she would draw pictures of herself with brown crayons and wholeheartedly believes that she is an african-american.

If we are learning as a society to be accepting of the transgender community, perhaps we should also be coming to terms with the concept of somebody being transracial? Is this possible? That race be as much a social construct as gender is?

I don't believe that things are as simply as popping 'trans' on the front and insisting that everyone be accepting, and can understand why the transgender community is reluctant to accept the parallels the press are making between the idea of Jenner being the same as Dolezal (I promise this isn't what I was trying to do here). There are some key differences - the fact that Dolezal has been found to have entirely fabricated some elements of her childhood, the fact that she was happy to identify as white when it suited her financially and black when it suited her career, and the fact that after all of this, she can still walk away and enjoy the white privilege that will come with the inevitable book deals, tv appearances and publicity. I can only hope that she uses the opportunity to continue to raise the profile of African-American issues. 

I'm not a doctor, and don't wish to cast any aspersions over Rachel Dolezal's mental state. But I don't think the media's treatment of her as a unhinged psychopath is helpful either - it almost raises the suggestion that someone would have to be mentally ill to want to be black in the first place. I think her birth parents attempt to 'out' her was a little cruel when there is clearly much more to this that somebody putting on blackface. The onslaught of memes and jokes over this story has been relentless, arguably indicating even more disrespect to the black community than Dolezal has committed herself. Why is it okay for the same people who applaud the bravery to be one's true self to mock her so mercilessly?

Perception of race is such an odd thing. I'm mixed race but was brought up in a mainly white community with very little influence from black culture aside from my maternal grandparents. My mother, while black, was also brought up entirely in Britain in a very anglicised community. Still, nobody would ever look at me and say I was anything but black because of my visually brown skin tone, despite the fact that, genetically speaking, I'm at least 50% white. Would it be possible for me to ask that people see me as a white woman? Can I claim as much legitimacy as part of the white community as I can the black one?

I'm still not sure what to think. I'm the first to admit that I'm no expert on trans issues, merely because it's something I've never gone through myself. But then does that mean a white woman can't be a brilliant black activist, merely because she's never been black? Does this mean I cannot comment on black issues OR white issues, because I'm merely mixed-race? Would it be okay for me to pretend to be gay in order to be taken more seriously as a gay rights activist, as long as my intentions were pure? So many questions, literally no answers.

When it comes to trans issues of any kind, I think there are a few things we need to remember. No person's story or struggle is the same. Tolerance and the ability to listen are vital. And choosing not to fit in one box doesn't mean you instantly align yourself with the opposite. Lastly, it's imperative that we treat people as people, and judge them on their actions rather than their gender, race, appearance or anything else. Maybe I'm living in a rainbows and sunshine land, but does it really matter what somebody looks like as long as they are putting good out into the world?

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