I have been following the media frenzy regarding Caitlyn Jenner since news of the Vanity Fair cover exploded across all social media. All of the comments – both positive and negative – has me thinking of a column I wrote when I was in grad school.
When I was in college, I was the co-coordinator for Marshall University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Outreach office. We did a lot of education and political action during those times, for the university and the Huntington community. I got the idea to write a very political, pro-LGBT, third-wave feminist column that I would call The Angry Beaver. Unfortunately, I never followed through with making this a regular column. Actually, I only wrote one column for a state magazine. The topic – transphobia and gender issues.
An incident at my office job inspired the column. At the time I was working in Human Resources. One of our employees was a transwoman. Management and the HR manager took issue with calling her a female name. At the time, she didn’t have her name legally change, but she most definitely presented as a woman. The HR Manager insisted that it would be too confusing and too much of a distraction to call her by her female name. My response to that was, “More confusing and distracting then having someone who looks like HER being called a very “masculine” name?” (protecting privacy, let’s just say her birth name was Gary) Again, imagine a tall, beautiful, blond beauty in heels and make-up…and managers referring to her as Gary in the office. No, not distracting at all, right? I made the same argument about forcing her to use the men’s room – not to mention possible safety concerns. Thankfully it was agreed to allow her to use a single-person bathroom in the same building as a compromise, but management would still call her Gary because “that’s what the driver’s license says.”
The column I wrote centered on a very heated discussion that I got into with the HR manager over the labels male and female. It went something like this (keep in mind, this was circa 2001 in West Virginia):
MANAGER: He’s not a woman because he has male genitalia.
ME: So, if she had surgery then you would consider her a woman?
MANAGER: No. Anyone can have surgery. It’s just cosmetic. He still doesn’t have a menstrual cycle and can’t have a baby. No amount of surgery can change that!
ME: So, women who go through menopause or are infertile are not women?
MANAGER: Of course they are! They still have a uterus and ovaries whether they work or not.
ME: So, a woman who has a hysterectomy is no longer a woman?
MANAGER: (getting very pissed off) This is absurd. If he has a y chromosome, he’s a man.
ME: We agree on one thing. This IS absurd. What about people with Klinefelter syndrome? They have a y chromosome, but they also have two x chromosomes. Regardless, how would you even know? Do you ask people this when you meet them?
MANAGER: Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t have to ask. You can look at them and tell.
ME: Evidently not because you’re still calling HER a HE!
And so it goes. We didn’t even get into it about differing levels of hormones or his archaic classification of intersex individuals. This may have been a good thing, because for hormones, I would have admitted to him that I have to remove the hair from my face so that I don’t have a beard and mustache. He’s likely to have stopped considering me a woman at that point.
My main point is this – there is much more variation and fluidity with sex and gender than just female/male and feminine/masculine. It’s not either/or – it’s a continuum, a vast, diverse array of gonadal, chromosomal, hormonal, biological, psychological, and spiritual possibilities. Like many things, it doesn’t matter if you “believe” in it or not…those possibilities exist, whether there’s any type of medical/surgical intervention or not. What DOES matter is respecting each individual. As is attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, “Do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12, NCV). Inversely, do NOT do to other what you DO NOT want them to do to you.
One simple rule to follow – don’t be an asshole.
**I have recently been thinking about how transpeople “present” their identities and what this means for so-called feminism. I will tackle this topic in an upcoming blog.