Since it broke the internet faster than Kim Kardashian’s nude shoot, you may have heard by now about a new girl on the block named Caitlyn Jenner.
Earlier this year, Caitlyn was known as Bruce Jenner, an Olympian and the ex husband of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’-fame Kris Jenner. Back in April, Bruce participated in an interview with Diane Sawyer where he explained that his gender identity was that of a woman, and that he had begun the transitioning process to physically become a woman. Are you with me so far?
Taken down to basics, it’s really simple. Bruce was a woman in a man’s body, and now Caitlyn is a woman, inside and out.
But unfortunately not everybody sees as simple. Some people have been downright cruel about it. And it’s exactly that reaction that makes Caitlyn’s public transition such a monumental event.
Transphobia is the final hurdle.
Let’s look at homophobia (the fear and hatred of people who aren’t straight/heterosexual) first, to give this all some context. It’s awesome that we live in a world where most free-thinking people realise that you’re born gay or straight, and that being gay isn’t actually a bad thing, and doesn’t mean you can’t also be a great person. There’s still a lot of homophobia in the world, but as marriage equality (legalising marriage between two people of any gender) is achieved in more and more countries, we’re finally seeing a world where an increasing majority of people understand what it is to be gay, and they no longer view it as something to be hated or feared.
This forward progress has been complicated by misinformation and ignorance. Your ‘average Joe homophobe’ is just hating and fearing what s/he doesn’t understand. With celebrities like Sam Smith and Ellen DeGeneres being in the public eye and showing us that gay people aren’t a threat and they actually aren’t any different to us, we’re really starting to tackle homophobia based on misinformation.
Don’t get me wrong – homophobia is still an issue, but we’re getting there on it. More and more people are re-assessing their opinions and, basically, getting over their hate.
But transphobia is different, and is only just starting to enter the spotlight.
Gender identity and sexuality are completely different things. You can have straight cisgender men and women, gay cisgender men and women, and straight and gay transgender men and women. For example, if you were transgender, you might be born a girl but always felt you were male, and yet you’re attracted to men. So you may have been born a straight woman, but were you to transition, you’d become a gay man. The reverse happens just as much – a lesbian girl transitioning to a straight man, for example, or a gay man transitioning to a straight woman. And I haven’t even touched upon bisexuality, pansexuality and asexuality yet!
But the gist of it is that whether you identify as male or female, that’s your gender identity. Whether you’re attracted to men, women, both or all genders, that’s your sexuality.
As a society we’re feeling our way around understanding sexuality, but gender identity remains largely under-discussed, and transphobia (the fear and hatred of transgender people) is still a big issue in society. The amount of people Tweeting things like ‘Bruce has lost his mind’ and ‘what a monstrosity’ shows that as a society, we still have very little understanding of the transgender experience.
It’s okay not to know.
I’m a cisgender female, so I have very little experience in what it means to be transgender! How could I possibly know what Bruce Jenner felt all his life, or the struggles he went through? How could I possibly know if becoming Caitlyn Jenner was the right move for him, or if as Caitlyn she’ll be happier?
That’s the root of it: I. DON’T. KNOW. And neither do most people.
There are two things most people do when they don’t know about something; they either learn about it, or they fear it. And this is why Caitlyn sharing her story is so important. We need to learn. We need to learn what it means to identify as a different gender to the one you were born with. We need to know that this situation doesn’t have to be threatening to us – he was a man, now she’s a woman, there’s really not much we need to fear there. And we need to learn how to appropriately respond to and communicate with transgender people.
A quick course in being transgender-friendly.
1. Use the right pronouns.
When Bruce first did the interview with Diane Sawyer, he requested at the time that we all still use male pronouns, which is why all the news outlets were still saying “he”, “him”, etc. Now that Bruce has become Caitlyn, she requests that we use female pronouns – “she”, “her”, etc. She’s a woman, we call her a woman. Simple!
If you’re not sure which pronouns to use for someone transgender, the best way to find out is to ask. The second best way is to take clues. Caitlyn is a woman’s name and Caitlyn Jenner looks like a woman – she has breasts and long hair and she wears dresses. Had she not specifically said to use female pronouns, they’d still be the safest bet here. So if someone looks and dresses like a man and uses a man’s name, and you can’t ask them what pronouns they prefer, go with “he”, “him”, etc, and vice versa if someone presents themselves like a woman. And if you use the wrong ones and someone corrects you, that’s okay! At least you tried – and now you know for sure.
This does get tricky when talking about transition – even in this article I’ve had to think about where to use “he” and where to use “she”, so if you think I’ve made a mistake somewhere, let me know! Just like most people, I’m new at this too.
2. Don’t ask ‘body questions’.
As the situation stands, Caitlyn Jenner possibly still has male genitals. But she also has breasts, and a feminine face, and – most importantly – thinks of herself as a woman, which makes her a woman! With 1 in every 2,000 people in the world born with intersex organs (genitals that can’t immediately be identified as male or female), having a penis is NOT the only thing that makes you a man, just as having a vagina is NOT the only thing that makes you a woman. A man in a terrible accident who loses his genitals is still a man, because he identifies as one. A man who undergoes gender reassignment surgery to become a woman is a woman, because she identifies as one. Some transgender people don’t ever have full gender reassignment surgery, and that’s their right. You don’t need to know what someone has in their pants. Unless you’re actually openly discussing the transition process with a transgender person, those questions aren’t polite and they aren’t necessary.
3. Just don’t sweat it!
Some people get so worked up about the gender identity of a complete stranger. Is it hurting you in any way? Has your day-to-day life actually changed now that Bruce has become Caitlyn? Probably not. Even if you’re a Kardashian or a Jenner kid, chances are all that’s changed is more media on your doorstep and slightly different catch-ups with your parent. We don’t need to completely freak out over something this harmless. Bruce hasn’t hurt anybody by becoming Caitlyn – least of all people who don’t even know her – so we don’t need to take offence to this. It is what it is. Life is complicated for some people, and being transgender is far from easy. It took Bruce 65 years to work out what he wanted and then take the final leap to become Caitlyn, and it was very brave of Caitlyn to share her transition with the world.
If any of this is still confusing, check out this great Upworthy article and the video within it: http://www.upworthy.com/if-you-dont-understand-why-using-her-name-caitlyn-jenner-matters-this-should-help
Why we should learn about Caitlyn.
This is actually a rare gift – the stars have aligned and we have instant media and a celebrity willing to share an otherwise very secret process. We should take this opportunity to learn what it’s like to change your gender. You just never know who you might meet in your life, and a little bit of knowledge goes a long way! I’m not saying you should religiously watch the show – just check in every now and then with news, media and Caitlyn’s Twitter feed (@Caitlyn_Jenner) and make the whole situation less unfamiliar. If you ever meet a transgender person, or one of your friends or family comes out as transgender, you’ll be way better equipped to treat them with respect. It’s a big world, full of very different people, and this is just one example of the amazing stories we can hear if we’re open-minded enough to listen.
People are saying that Caitlyn shouldn’t be called ‘brave’ or a ‘hero’. I agree in part with the word ‘hero’ being thrown around too loosely nowadays, and yet Caitlyn could definitely be considered a hero to the trans community, or a personal hero to a transgender teen or young adult struggling with their identity. But I sure as hell agree with her being called brave!
Stepping out as Caitlyn is a brave act, because she’s facing thousands of people who hate her just for who she is. The transition process can be painful and difficult enough within the secrecy of your family and community – imagine opening your story up for the whole world’s scrutiny! The argument has been made that she’s doing it for money, but it’s always been about more than that. This is a story that needs to be told. She is brave for telling it. And looking amazing on a Vanity Fair cover is a pretty stylish way to hush the haters!
So you can fear and hate her for being different to you, or you can embrace the idea of someone learning who they are and being their true selves. As fellow transgender woman and talented actress Laverne Cox (who, until now, has been more or less alone in the world of transgender celebrities) said, “Yasss Gawd! Werk Caitlyn! Get it!”
Are you still feeling confused or unhappy about Bruce’s transition to become Caitlyn? Information is the cure! Get all the facts on transgender people here.