Friday, 12 June 2015

Why are people putting Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal in the same sentence?

I wasn't going to write about Caitlyn Jenner's big reveal because I'm not trans and only have an outsider's grasp of the gender identity/expression issue. However, I changed my mind because it appears that even this basic grasp is more than most have, and if I can contribute to increasing the knowledge pool, I will try to do so. (Also, if I roll my eyes or #headdesk any more than I already have thanks to things I've seen online, I'll probably hurt myself.)

UPDATE: I started writing this piece before the Rachel Dolezal debacle, an issue that allowed people to create false equalisations between race and gender by arguing that it is 'hypocritical' to be accepting of transgender people while rejecting 'transracial' people. Being a Nigerian living in Nigeria, my knowledge of race relations, like my knowledge of being transgender, is the product of research, but I will do my best to tackle this as well. 

Before I continue, I have to say: if you're unwilling to accept the humanity of all people, their right to exist, to determine the course of their lives without harming others, and to be treated with respect, regardless of any identity(-ies) that may be different from what you consider 'normal' -- if you ever even feel the need to say that you will never 'accept' another person's existence because it doesn't fit your worldview or beliefs, fix yourself.

If you don't 'accept' the existence of trans people and are unwilling to develop the empathy, knowledge and self-awareness necessary to get you to where you realise that your 'non-acceptance' is actually bigotry, then you are contributing in one way or another to a culture of transphobia that literally ends trans people's lives.

Ever since the Jenner/Vanity Fair reveal, the internet has been awash with debate about trans people, and a theme I've seen come up a lot is "I don't hate trans people/I'm not judging, but I don't understand how a person can be trans." While this may be a valid position, it also is often used as a way of cloaking transphobia. Humanity has a long history of responding to things they don't understand with violence. The internet has so many resources on trans lives and people -- 97% of the things I know about trans people, I learned online. So again, fix yourself.

If you're still reading this, kudos to you. A few of the concerns I've seen raised on Twitter include things like:
- how can a man just suddenly decide he's a woman?
- you can't be a man if you have a uterus/a woman if you have a penis?
- if trans people are 'real', how come bleaching is bad/why can't I change my race? (Oh, Rachel Dolezal!)

I hope this post helps to address some of your questions (remember, I'm not an expert and Google really is your friend!).

The first step is to recognise that labels -- and language -- are really just tools that help us process the world so we can box it up into easy little categories. Words often fail to capture the full range of human experience; for instance, every bilingual person I know has used some variation of the expression, "it just doesn't work in (insert other language)." You must first accept that the labels 'man' and 'woman', while used so widely as to have now become 'normal', are not absolute.

Next, consider that gender is not the same as sex. Sex is a product of biology; chromosomes determine whether a baby will have a penis, a vagina, both or neither, and generally people will look at a baby who has a penis and declare "it's a boy!", even when sometimes that 'boy' can naturally start growing breasts at puberty. Because the vast majority (estimated at over 95%) of the population generally tends to identify as a gender that conforms to their biological sex, the idea that gender is determined by sex is generally believed.

However, this idea is false. Gender is performative, which means that it is behaviour that is prescribed for and expected of people based on their anatomy. This is why words like 'effeminate', 'effete', 'tomboy', 'butch', and of course, 'masculine' and 'feminine' exist. Why else would people need to constantly tell children what boys/girls do/don't do? There are expectations which, when met, serve to reinforce the idea that this is how (girls) behave, and this is what makes them (not boys). Of course, even among cisgender people gender expectations/roles do not always fit one's personality, mood or emotional state; anyone can be aggressive, nurturing, ambitious, tough, fragile, etc.

Rather than being a male/female binary, gender is actually a spectrum. Imagine that instead of a button that clicks between 0 and 1, there's actually a slider. Most people -- cisgender people -- are told that they're a 0 or a 1 from birth, and they can carry on with their lives as happy, healthy people (who often end up being jerks on the internet from time to time), but some people are told they're 0 even though they know they're 1 (transgender). And some people are 0.3/0.7 (that's most cisgender people, to be honest), or 0.5 (bigender), or lemniscate (genderqueer), or a negative number (agender)... Ahem. I'm having too much fun with this.


The now global, rigid gender norms of male/female are actually not the way in which all societies were organised historically; in Yoruba culture, for instance, society was organised around age/seniority/peer groups rather than around gender (i.e. 'gender roles' didn't really exist). Hausa society still has something of a third gender; yan daudu, men who live their lives like women (this may or may not be conceived of as 'trans' in modern times; remember, language is limiting and the concepts may not overlap exactly). I know that some Indian societies also have 'ladyboys', as well as some native American tribes. Women have been known to live as men for various reasons -- I know of an Igbo tradition where women marry wives and act as patriarchs.

"But how can someone be a woman if she has a penis?"

Well... A penis does not a man make. There's definitely a fixation among cis people with trans people's genitalia, but as I've stated above, gender has nothing to do with what's in someone's pants. Some trans people have surgery to change their physical appearance (Hey Caitlyn!), some don't; this doesn't negate the fact that the gender performance that feels most natural to them is the one they identify as. Some trans people have body dysphoria, some don't. Some who have it don't have access to services that will help them address it (if they're poor, illegal immigrants, living in 'third world' countries, etc.), and so they find ways to cope (or not; the attempted suicide rate among trans people is almost 50%).

This is the simplest way to describe it: when you know, you know. People describe being certain they were trans from when they first developed a sense of self (as early as age 2). Some just report not really knowing what was off, but knowing there was definitely something off at some point in their lives. The point is; left-handed people know they're not right-handed because, well, they're not. When you know, you know.

Now, about the question of being 'transracial' (and Lord knows this deserves a whole other post): race is NOT THE SAME as gender. #headdesk

Both are social constructs, yes, but the concept of race is based -- rather than on a false correlation between biology and socialisation -- on collective history, community, lineage, blood ties and, yes, genetics. Race was created by White supremacists to maintain their power, and to ignore these power dynamics when discussing (the bogus idea of) 'transracialism' is to be intellectually dishonest. Before the White man came with his 'negroid' and his 'mongoloid', we knew who our brothers and sisters were, based on our shared history as people within tribes, nations, ethnic groups, or whatever other communal terms apply. No gender has this type of shared history that can be 'adopted' by an 'outsider'.

Further, I find that an element often ignored in discussions of race is the political aspect. Many people believe race is just about skin colour; it isn't. The idea of Whiteness, as constructed within racist hierarchies, has historically excluded some caucasian groups on the basis of class, pedigree and wealth despite their skin colour; Jews, Italians, and the Irish are examples. Further, the way in which race is inherited ('one drop' of non-White blood makes a person non-White) is set up not to account for skin colour, which can be arbitrary, but for the preservation of the idea of Whiteness as exclusive, aspirational and pure. This is why some mixed-race people who look White are still treated as non-White, even if they may be treated better than non-mixed people due to their proximity to Whiteness. Where within gender constructs can one draw such parallels?
Unlike gender, no one possesses an innate knowledge of race; this is why for example black West African migrants to the U.S. often assert that they cannot identify with the black African-American experience. Unlike gender, race is not 'performed'. Yes, people (often White, of course!) sometimes engage in cultural appropriation, which is a harmful practice that erases people from their own ancestral and communal narratives, but this is hardly comparable to the experience of being transgendered where there is a monumental burden on a person to exist as something that they know they are not.

When a dark person bleaches their skin, it is because there are privileges accruable to lighter-skinned people (whether this is clearly articulated or not by the bleacher) in White supremacist societies. When a trans woman starts living as a woman, it is because there is a deep emotional, personal and psychic struggle that is the result of presenting as/being seen as/the world interacting with her as something that she is not.

How can anyone compare the two?

If you put a black girl on an island alone, she would never know she was 'black'.
If you put a trans woman on an island alone, she would know she was a 'woman'. (And she'd probably have an amazing life because there would be no cis people around telling her that her existence is invalid or unacceptable.)

In conclusion, it is important to understand that compassion demands that we approach human beings, not from a perspective of 'rightness' or 'wrongness', but from a place where we consider the harm caused to other people by our choices and treatment of them. I am not trans, but as a human being (and feminist) who has some understanding of what it means to be treated as 'less than' because of deviations from oppressive social norms, I cannot imagine a position on another woman's existence other than the one where her safety, peace, emotional well-being and ultimately her humanity are not the foremost considerations.

P.S.: Rachel Dolazel's adoption of Blackness is particularly distasteful because Whiteness in America has a long, long, long history of violence towards black women specifically, and black people/culture in general (Trudy's blog is an incredible resource on this). Her pretending to be a light-skinned black woman so that she could benefit from colourism within the black community, while co-opting experiences of racist behaviour that black women actually suffer, just for brownie points, economic rewards and social capital within black spaces that many black women have difficulty accessing - that is all kinds of fucked up, my people.

Further reading (this will be updated as I find more material):
Britni Danielle's article featuring quotes by Prof. B.M. Kelly.
Tobi Hill-Meyer, a multiracial transwoman, shares valuable insights.


  1. Very interesting write up.
    I looked up the definition of Woman in the dictionary and Merriam-webster defined Woman as 'an adult female human being'
    I then checked for what female meant and that was defined as 'of, relating to, or being the sex that bears young or produces eggs'.
    By these definitions, Caitlyn Jenner does not qualify to be called a woman.
    For the sake of the sanity of the world, a word should be invented to refer to the transexuals because I do not think a male transvestite should be called a woman or vice versa. No matter how much you identify with the opposite sex or you feel you were meant to be something else, the fact is still you are not.
    And I do not think Caitlyn deserves to be celebrated for any reason.

    1. Sophie, the dictionary is a great resource, of course, but it is (thankfully!) hardly the final authority on human experience (for instance, almost every online article about experiences of racism has someone in the comments section arguing that what the writer is describing cannot possibly be racism, because of the dictionary's definition of the concept). All a dictionary does is explain language, and the truth is that language is limiting. Add this inherent limitation to the inherent biases of the people who write dictionaries -- who tend to be overwhelmingly white and male -- and you will start to see why dictionaries are not the best place to go when discussing the human condition.
      For the sake of the sanity of the English-speaking* world, there IS a word for 'transsexuals'; transgender. That word exists to let people know that someone was born anatomically male or female etc. ('transvestite' is not the same as 'transgender', I ought to add). Being trans* is not 'identifying with' the 'opposite sex'; it is knowing that you ARE the 'opposite sex'. I know this is a concept that many cis people do not get, but our inability to understand something does not negate its existence or validity.
      The question of whether or not Caitlyn 'deserves' to be celebrated is complex, debatable and entirely subjective; there are still some people in Germany who think Hitler was a
      Thanks a lot for reading and commenting.