Vanity Fair’s July 2015 issue features a glamorous woman on the cover with the words, “Call me Caitlyn.” Inside is a 22-page article about that woman’s journey to trans-womanhood. If you didn’t know any better, you would have no reason to suspect that this woman used to be a man. But because of the media coverage (hysteria?), almost everyone knows better. The irony is that Caitlyn Jenner probably would like nothing better than to be left in peace to be the woman she’s always longed to be. But because she’s a celebrity, she will probably never have that experience.
And yet I think her decision to “come out” in such a public way was actually quite brilliant. Stories about her “fluid” gender identity have been circulating for quite a while now and I applaud her decision to tell her own story. Less than two months ago, Jenner gave his last official interview as Bruce, with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, in which he explained his struggle to become and accept the person he believes he was really meant to be. The Vanity Fair feature is her first public appearance as Caitlyn. And, in his words, “As soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I’m free.”
As you might expect, the public’s responses have been all over the place. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” made the astute observation that now that Jenner is a woman she is going to have the unfortunate experience of being treated like one; in other words, as if the only thing that matters is her appearance. Many other people have applauded her bravery. Still others feel that she is, at best, in need of some soul-saving, and at worst, an abomination. And then there is the transgender community, which might well see her as its ambassador.
There is also a fair amount of cynicism leveled at Jenner’s actions. She has been accused of doing all this as a publicity stunt and a way to drive traffic to her reality show, which is set to debut this summer on E! Network. She laughs at the idea that she would go through all this (including surgery to feminize her features) just to pay the bills. On the contrary, she sees this as an opportunity to educate the public about what it means to be transgender as well as offer hope to other people who are transgender.
Many people believe that it’s impossible to be “born in the wrong body,” that saying you’re the opposite sex (from the one you were assigned at birth) doesn’t make it true; and that being transgender is a choice. But even the DSM (the manual used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders) recently revised its terminology from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” to remove some of the stigma and enable trans men and women to get help with their “profound state of unease or dissatisfaction” about the gender they were assigned at birth. It’s not exactly saying that transgender is as “normal” in its way as heterosexuality or that it’s just one of several ways to be gendered in our society, but it has backed off from treating it as a mental illness.
We need to stop treating being transgender as a disease or a sin and start listening to the people who claim it as their gender identity. There must be some reason why they feel the way they do; it’s not likely something they would make up as a lark. Imagine having others tell you that you’re crazy or perverted just because you’re trying to express who you feel you are at the fundamental core of your being.
When I first saw the Vanity Fair cover, I thought “Call me Caitlyn” was a plea, for understanding and acceptance. But the more I thought about it, the more I hoped that it was a command instead. We all have the right to tell others what to call us and we need to exercise that right without apology. To do otherwise is to lose who we are.