When I decide to do something the hard way I like to have a good reason. Wiring the home network with spare ports and power means adding peripherals is easier in the long run. Developing a character with a researched career and life history means smoother first drafting and a more complex book that readers like better. If there’s no good reason to do it the hard way, I can be as lazy as the day is long.
I can’t pinpoint the moment in time when I realized that I was making my life harder for no good reason by holding onto old ideas about gender. People talk about evolution in their thinking, but it wasn’t like that at all. One day I was making a lot of internal noise in my head and the next it all went away. Like a math problem, my brain simplified terms.
Just as the fact of same-sex marriages does not affect opposite-sex marriages, the fact of trans people does not affect non-trans people. Does it harm my life if someone I have thought to be a man, after long consideration, worry, therapy, struggle, turmoil and personal sacrifice says that the word “woman” applies to her? Or refuses to choose “woman” or “man” at all? Like straight people who claim their marriage is damaged by The Gay Marriage, all I could come up with was flummery and fearful pedantics. You know, “Everybody knows that marriage means one-man-one-woman… mumble… and if we change that the world ends… mumble …tradition …mumble.”
So why was I making it hard? Why was I thinking, “He can’t be a woman, he has no idea what it’s like to be a woman in this world, he must be faking, or have some ulterior motive!”? And there was more about “fraud” and “whim” and lots of judgment. Lots and lots of judgment. Wading around trying to make variables into constants and wondering why my equations vexed me so much – such a waste of energy when it got me nothing I needed. I couldn’t think how it got anyone anything they needed.
My brain-churning, stomach-twisting questioning presumed that I knew all there was to know about what it’s like to be a woman in this world. And I don’t. I let myself off the hook for thinking I had to be in charge of that. Anyone who says they run the clubhouse doesn’t have my proxy either.
I only know my own experiences. I also think after decades in the community I have a decent enough grip on what it’s like for women similar to me and a range across the lesbian community, from women who came out as grandmothers and butches who have long defied stereotypes about what a woman must be. But I can only have informed empathy for Queen Elizabeth’s experience of being a woman in this world, or Malala Yousafzai’s. The same goes for women on the African savannah or those who take up religious orders, and many other kinds of women who through circumstance or choice are living lives I can’t really fathom. Regardless, they are all women’s lives whether I understand them or not.
I offer this simple thought: A trans woman’s life is yet another kind of woman’s life that I don’t understand. This one step of recognizing that this human being has always been a woman removes all judgment from the apparent “choices” made around how she has lived in the past and how she may identify in the future, none of which is my business. All that remains that could be my business is what she says and does for good or bad toward other people.
Which brings me to Caitlyn Jenner. As weary as some of us might be of her media overexposure compared to other trans women, some of the commentary out there is not about Jenner’s identity but rather her wealth and celebrity and the privilege that comes from that. Or the criticism rolls all of those things together and finds fault as if they are inseparable.
All true: Jenner has had access to care and support beyond what most trans people ever receive. She has had to unveil and shape her own identity with little privacy, and every word and visual is under scrutiny because she is famous, rich and now known to be a woman so of course how she looks matters as much or more than what she says. She has also been supportive of politicians who have not been friendly to the LGB or T communities. Jenner’s life is complicated by affiliation to a clan that has perfected the manipulation and monetizing of media attention, much to the approval and/or disdain of others.
We now know what kind of woman Jenner has been in the past: strong, driven, competitive, anguished, hidden, public, conservative, brave. We don’t know what kind of woman Jenner will be in the future. When Hilary Clinton’s age is made an issue by Fox News will Jenner, only two years younger, have anything to say now that she’s on the receiving end of demands like never before about her age, health and appearance? Will the experience of being treated like a woman by the media get tiresome and restrictive for her as it does for women who have lived with it for decades? Will she long for the days when someone asks about the Olympics instead of her hair?
We don’t know what kind of woman Jenner will become; she’s a work in progress. Well, I didn’t start off as the woman I eventually became either, and after fifty-mumble years of working on it I am not finished. What I do know is that only now is Caitlyn Jenner beginning to live in a way somewhat similar to how I have lived as a woman in this world. I can’t identify with her anguished life before she openly stated her gender identity, and she can’t identify with my lifetime of experiencing casual and overt misogyny. We can only try for informed empathy. I promise to try to empathize with other women’s lives I don’t understand. I would like other people to try, but I only control me.
And you know what, trying is easier for me. What’s hard is perpetually assigning people to boxes and getting a throbbing blood clot twitch when they don’t fit. What’s exhausting is stress and anger that serve no useful purpose, none, none whatsoever. Anger can be a useful fire, but when it has no just cause to serve it burns its owner instead.
When my personal sturm und drang over modern identity disappeared, I realized that caring about whatever path anyone took to their identity didn’t matter nearly as much as watching the path they’re on going forward. When you simplify the terms of a math problem it’s suddenly clear which parts are complicated, and where you need to spend your brain wattage. Judging someone by their identity is a distraction from the harder work of weighing their intentions, studying their actions, and considering context as individuals. In the long run, doing it the hard way is better because I want to live in a safer world and I want that for those I love and care about. I want that for people I will never know and I want that for kids.
And for all that anyone believes is holy, no child should ever think death is better than living personal truth. Seriously, if you cannot even agree on this point, you need to think about what dark lord you serve.
It was when I saw a tweet from Anne Lamott, a woman I admire for her observant wisdom and often irreverent wit, that many of these thoughts jelled into a form I could express. I expected more thoughtfulness from Lamott than “Is it okay to be a tiny tiny bit tired of Caitlyn? Yes, was very brave but so far he’s gone from man to mannequin, instead of man to woman.” While she called Jenner by the correct first name, she deliberately chose the wrong pronoun.
It’s hard to imagine that Lamott doesn’t have female friends who have been hurt all their lives by being called “sir” because they don’t suit some waiter’s presumption of what a woman ought to look like. I’d be surprised to learn that Lamott hasn’t read Alison Bechdel. Calling someone the wrong gender by accident is hurtful, doing it on purpose is mean. Anne Lamott isn’t mean, and my first thought was, “Anne, you have better work to do than this.”
When comments on the tweet were generally confused, hurt, but mostly civil, Lamott characterized the pushback as “vicious and hostile.” She deleted an interim tweet that escalated the situation wherein she said she would call Caitlyn “she” when the “pee-pee” was gone, a statement ignorant of the stages of transition and how individuals may or may not undertake them for highly personal reasons between them and their doctors.
Control over their own bodies not judged by others…a concept I have heard something about. Like the right to determine for myself what kind of lesbian I will be, I can’t demand the right of judgment-free sovereignty over my own body and deny it to others. As feminists we have argued for decades that our biology is not our destiny. We can’t now tell trans women that biology is the only measure of a woman.
But something then happened that takes context to understand and patience to wait for. Lamott deleted the “pee-pee” tweet at her son’s request, who gently pointed out that she had said something ignorant and added that yesterday she didn’t understand trans issues, he would explain, and tomorrow she would understand better. His way of responding to her told me volumes about what kind of mother she has been. Most people who responded to Lamott also did so with restraint and hope.
Lamott has posted an apology though some quibble about how genuine it is because the first tweet remains. But most seem willing to wait and see what might come next. It’s hard to be patient with our treasured allies and friends whom we admire and want always to be perfect, but we do not have so many that we can immediately douse them with kerosene and grab a lighter when they stumble. Though Lamott may not think so, I was actually heartened by the number of people who basically commented, “This is hurtful, please reconsider” and then gave Lamott time to do just that.
I freely admit that what Lamott so casually tweeted are thoughts I had, back when I believed I was an arbiter of what a woman was and wasn’t. But I’m not, and wonderfully progressive, rocking writer Anne Lamott isn’t either. Throughout her career she has usually been the first person to admit that the only thing Anne Lamott knows is Anne Lamott.