Why you don’t get to decide that Caitlyn Jenner is a man named Bruce.

The first day of my first anthropology class, my professor said that he needed for a moment to make us the most uncomfortable we’d ever been made.  It was cultural anthropology, and in the process of that class we’d spend a lot of time talking about cultures that didn’t remotely resemble our own.  Our professor instructed us that we’d have to accept the reality of these other cultures wholeheartedly and not try to rationalize it against our own experiences.  “If you’re dealing with a society that believes the sky is an ocean and the stars are fish and rain is a leak in the heavens, you accept that.  You don’t try to explain to them that their god-fish is really a big ball of gas.  You accept their belief, and accept that it does for them the same thing that your God does for you.  In anthropology there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” society, there are systems of belief that work or they don’t, and if it works for that culture, it is the right belief for that culture.  By depriving a culture of belief, you deprive them of their way of being human.  No one gets to make that choice for other people.”

That lecture, in and of itself, was upsetting for many people, who believed that there was absolute truth and to “accept” the reality that in certain cultures illness was the result of the curses of other tribes, and sacrifices had to be made to out-curse the other tribes in order for a person to get better was somehow inherently wrong.  But my professor held his ground, explaining that for those cultures witchcraft works.  “They believe it works, and it works, and if you want to understand who they are, you must accept that it works.  You must participate in their lives not as an authority, but as an equal.”

Not as an authority, but as an equal.

You may be wondering why I’d introduce a blog post about Caitlyn Jenner with a seemingly innocuous story about anthropology.  Let me tell you another story, this time about the section in the big book of anthropology that talks about gender.  “Male and female anatomy exists, that is undeniable.  And that the anatomy of male and female is proscriptive of our lives to some degree is also undeniable.  Only women can become pregnant and give birth, and in many cultures that by necessity defines a certain aspect of their lives, because we need children to survive,” my professor said, “but beyond that anything you think of as male or female is as much a figment of your culture as stars being the spirits of flying fish in an ocean you’ll never touch.”

In many cultures, male and female roles are defined by what the society needs men and women to do.  That doesn’t mean that in every society women stay at home and give birth and don’t otherwise contribute.  In many cases, women have roles that are just as crucial to moving the society forward as men do.  In some societies, for a man to try to overpower a woman or boss her around is seen as a grave sin, which is interesting.  What is even more interesting is the amount of societies in which men’s and women’s roles are seen as fluid and changeable.  A man can “elect” to become a woman and care for his children, or a woman can “elect” to become a man.  If this happens, it is treated as a good thing.  One story is of a woman whose husband died when her children were still young.  She could either remarry, but then her children would be denied the inheritance of their biological father, or she could choose to “become” a man and never marry again, preserving her children’s inheritance and allowing her to provide for their needs.  (Recently a woman who did this in Egypt was honored for her sacrifice.)  In some cases women who do this take on identities as male and “become” men, in other cases such as the Egyptian woman, it is something they add to their female identity.

In any case, there are many cultures where “male” and “female” are seen more as descriptions of who someone is, based off of how they dress and act and operate within the culture, rather than proscriptive orders about who they can and should be based off of the presence of certain genitalia.

After all, when we start to sit down and define who is “male” and “female” based off of physical characteristics, things get muddy.

What makes a man a man or a woman a woman?  Is it the presence of external sex organs?  Because those can be removed, modified, or even created.  Back in the day when castrating boys was still common practice, did those “boys” become a third gender based off of their lack of either male or female sex characteristics?  Were they male because they were born with a penis, or were they female?

What do we call the women who are born without functioning ovaries or uteruses?  They cannot give birth, thus are they no longer female?  Do we define gender based off of what specific gender roles someone is capable of fulfilling?  Or do we look at DNA?  What about people who are born with one set of female chromosomes and one set of male?  Are they simultaneously male and female, or are they neither?

This is one of those cases where I don’t believe there is a single, correct, answer.  While we may be able to define a set of physical characteristics that mark “male” and “female”, then the argument becomes what happens when those change.  If the characteristics define the gender, then if I ceased to have a womb, or breasts, or a vagina, would I cease to be female?  And these questions cannot be taken lightly, as women who experience uterine or breast cancer often have to face these thoughts.  If I lose what defines my role, my gender, do I lose my self?  Or is the gender, the role, based not off of the body but off of some harder to define, more intangible thing?

Men lose their gonads.  Sometimes their penises fail to function.  Do they cease to be men?

“Ah-” someone may interject, “it is what you are born as.”

I find that hard to stomach.  One’s role in society isn’t defined from birth.  At birth it wasn’t decided that I would be a wife or mother or teacher or Christian or anything else.  Those things that I have become, I have become as a result of my choices and actions.  And while I can say that I feel like a mother, and a Christian, and a woman, I cannot say that when I was younger I even understood what any of those things meant or what it felt to be them.  In many of those cases, those feelings had yet to even be birthed.

I will never be a woman who wears a certain kind of clothes, because when those clothes hit my body I feel instantly uncomfortable.  As an infant, I could’ve been dressed in them against my will.  I would hate for people to point at pictures of me in frilly pink dresses as an infant and say, “see, that is who you are.”

No.  Who I am, I am because I took the time to explore my self and get to know it.  I made deliberate choices about what I wanted from my life, and who I wanted to be.  I am the kind of woman I am, because I feel this is the person I am meant to be now, even if then I could not have understood or expressed that.

When I was younger, I had a female friend who had never felt like a “girl”.  I remember her crying in my arms and saying that she hated her female body and wanted for it to die, it didn’t feel like it belonged to her.  I cannot confess to knowing or understanding how that would feel, but what I do know and I do understand is that I had no right to correct her.  She felt what she felt, and if she had told me that she wanted to be referred to as “he” I would have done it in a heartbeat, because she was the one living in that body.  She was the one whose responsibility and right was to decide how to live with those feelings.

Commanding someone to live with those feelings in a specific way too often leads to death.

The suicide rate for transgender people is very high, and it is even higher for transgender youth.  Some statistics estimate as high as 45% of transgender youth attempt suicide.  The rates of violence experienced by transgender people is also much higher than the population at large, and that number also skyrockets for transgender youth (especially in ethnic minorities.)

This feeling, of being stuck in a body that doesn’t belong, can be a death sentence in too many ways.

So, to paraphrase my anthropology professor, “if you’re dealing with a person who feels like they are the wrong gender for their body, you accept that.  You live with them not as an authority, but as an equal.”

The first day of kindergarten, we all faced a big sign on the wall, usually a nice golden-colored one, that said “always treat other people the way you would want to be treated.”  That is a very basic law of reciprocity in our society:  if you want respect, you show respect.  If you want kindness, you first must be kind.

When people get very belligerent about the fact that Caitlyn Jenner is really a man named Bruce, this is how I respond:

Man:  “He’s not a woman.  He’s just not.”
Me:  “What gives you the right to decide that?”
Man:  “It’s just the truth as I see it.”
Me:  “Well, the truth as I see it is that you’re a woman named Susan.  And I don’t care that you can show me male genitalia and that you feel like you are a man, you are a woman named Susan to me now.”
Man:  “No I’m not.”
Me:  “We’re just having a difference of opinion, lady, don’t get your panties in a wad.”

Who decides who Caitlyn Jenner is?  Well, there are two people.  The first is Caitlyn, and the second is the law.  In terms of the law, a person seeking gender reassignment therapy who is taking hormones and undergoing changes to their physical characteristics in order to reflect a different gender than the one on their birth certificate is legallyable to fill out paperwork as the gender they want to be assigned.  So, Caitlyn may legally be seen as a woman and may legally be entitled to treatment as a woman.  If she can check the female box on paperwork and her driver’s license says “Caitlyn Jenner” and “Female”, then I say the least we can do is give her the correct legal name and legal pronoun.

But even so, who decides what is the fair way to treat someone?

Let me tell you another story.  I was fighting with someone I was in a relationship with.  That person told me, “don’t be such a bitch about this.”  I told them that I was really offended they’d use that word to describe me and I didn’t feel like I was being a bitch, I was just expressing my needs.  They persisted in calling me a bitch.

That relationship didn’t last long, because feeling loved and valued as a human being walked hand in hand with feeling respected, and part of feeling respected was knowing the other party understood the ways their word and attitude effected me.  To put things simply, they had to treat me in a way I was comfortable being treated, or they had no place in my life.

Who defines what is loving treatment?  Who defines what is respect?  These aren’t things that you can turn to a dictionary and get step-by-step instructions for.  In every relationship, to know and to love and to respect are things we learn from each other through communication.  Caitlyn Jenner has expressed that she wishes to be seen and treated as a woman, to do anything less is to disrespect her terms for having a relationship with the world.

Now, this note is especially to Christians:  Do we believe that Caitlyn Jenner, that any transgendered person, is a person that God loves?  If we do, that means we have an obligation also to love.  And if we have an obligation to love, that means we cannot do things that disrupt relationship.  And if we must do that, that means we must start with accepting the person not on our terms, but on their terms.  This is where the Church too often falls woefully short, because we think that we have to accept people on God’s terms and thus we feel obligated to decide what God’s terms are.

It doesn’t work that way.  We express love, others respond, others become open to love in their own lives, and by a very simple reaction that love changes everyone.  It’s hard to be cruel when you love, it’s hard to lie when you love, it’s hard to sin when you love.  Because that love is something we wish to preserve, and that love cannot grow in soil that is poison to it.

So when you are openly disrespecting someone, openly condemning them, openly shutting the door to any conversation with them, you aren’t loving.  You are doing the opposite.  You are destroying the soil that love needs to grow.

What does that matter?  Many readers may say, “it’s not like I’m friends with Caitlyn Jenner.”  Yes, but you’re friends with other humans.  And chances are, at least one of them is transgender or is friends with someone transgender or you have friends who simply care about the human rights of transgender people.  And you know those friend?  Those friends you are injuring by extension.

Our words matter.  Our attitudes matter.  Whether or not we respect other people’s way of being human matters.

We don’t get to decide that Caitlyn Jenner is a man named Bruce.

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Superheros, Fiction, TV, and lady problems.

I often say things like, “oh, I’ve got this BIG LIST of problems with the way women are portrayed in (insert form of media).”  Every once in a while someone will say, “oh?  I’d like to see the full list.”

So I’m working on compiling many various rants into an easy to read, distilled, bloggy form.

Here’s a start:

  1. Men get respect by default, women get questioned.  Go visit any fictional world, be it the world of the X-Men or Buffy’s Sunnydale or Xena’s realm, and you’ll see men being respected while women are, well, um… how can I put this nicely?  Women are accused of being female.  When the man rides into town to save the day on his horse or car or private jet, no one is like, “oh, he’s going to save us?  A MAN?”  But when the woman shows up, inevitably someone is going to point out that she’s a woman.  And they will do it with scorn.  So why is this?  Well, I’m sure many of my readers are thinking, “isn’t it obvious that people don’t expect the hero to be female and so she has to prove herself?”

    That thought, right there, is the problem.  The problem is there is no obvious reason why the woman should have to prove herself able to save the day, unless it is really true that women are not as capable as men.  Also, how does the woman normally prove that she’s just as salty a sea-dog as any given man?  Several examples come to mind and they all have something in common:  she throws down physical violence.  On the rare occasion she may just flay the doubting man with words, but more often than not she’s got to leave someone bleeding.  If a MAN was walking into the room and throwing punches as an introduction, how would people feel about that?  So there is a two-part problem:  the first is that women are doubted as capable where men are greeted with respect, and the second is that respect for a woman generally evolves from acting out in violence, or otherwise taking on attributes that are seen as “masculine”.  (Drinking a guy under the table, or smoking a cigar, or joining in the mocking or sexualization of other women.)

  2. Men confront danger, women find themselves in it.  Take any bit of media where you have both a male and female protagonist in a traditionally “male” role, like police officer or lawyer or spy or superhero, and count the amount of times that the male and female get into trouble.  I can guarantee you that the woman is going to inevitably end up in a lot more conflict that she didn’t choose, and also that it is almost inevitable that she will face the threat of rape, whereas the man does not.

    Why?

    Maybe the idea is that women can’t handle themselves as well.  Maybe it’s simply more titillating to see women trembling in fear or blundering into bad situations.  Maybe, as one friend once said, “the threat of physical violence against women is simply assumed.”  But why?  One prime example of this is Law and Order: SVU.  The main characters of that enterprise in the first several seasons were equals.  They were partners.  But while the man was greeted with respect and ability, the woman was greeted with endless questions and danger and yes, the threat of rape (or the reality of rape in her backstory.)  Why?  Well, one might say it’s because he was the more seasoned officer and she was the new one on the squad.  Wait… why is that?  Why couldn’t the more seasoned female been rescuing the newbie male from his own incompetence?

    Hm.

  3. Unequal relationships.  If a male superhero dates a girl, brace yourself for the tears.  She’s going to get into trouble.  She’ll be a victim.  She’ll probably die.  And if a female superhero dates, you can bet that it’s only a matter of time before her exposure to violence becomes a problem in their relationship.  Wait, what?  Why is it that you so rarely see a girl going to extreme lengths to protect a man, as Katniss does with Peeta in the Hunger Games?  Why is the central theme of all relationships where danger is an issue, the danger that the woman faces?  Spiderman may lose his love to violence, but then Jean Grey is exposed to violence as a way to demonstrate the relationship between her and her superhero heart throb… despite the fact that she herself is powerful?
     
    Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example- she’s the One, right?  The most powerful.  She kills more demons than she can count, and still if she’s dating anyone, you can bet they aren’t going to like her getting her pretty little hands dirty.

    “Oh,” one guy-friend once told me, “that’s because she has to fight for respect.”

    Sigh.

  4. The Problem with Rape.  I’ll keep this short.  Yes, I get that the reason almost every major comic book, movie, and TV show that has a female character in a position of strength brings rape into the discussion is that rape is such a reality for women.  But the way in which it is done too often glamorizes the pain instead of dealing with it honestly.

    And do we really want to just throw our hands up and say, “it’s such a reality?”

    Is that where we want to live?

  5. Getting Beat Up By Men You Respect, and Having To Like It.  Buffy.  Xena.  Nikita.  Starbuck.  Sidney Bristow.  ANY FEMALE SUPERHERO EVER.  Getting punched in the face by a male mentor is par for the course, and if you’re a real woman you will understand that he’s kicking your ass just to make you stronger and you will ask for more.

    Eff.  That.  Shit.

 

And this is just the beginning.  

Race Relations

Today I was listening to the radio when an odd guest came on- the leader of the KKK.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to hear most of the interview because it was lunchtime, and thus I was distracted with the kids and getting food on the table and making the day continue to run smoothly.

Yet, as in all times when my body is involved in routine movements, my mind disengaged enough that I started down this line of thought.  I thought, first, of a few days ago when in a conversation with my father he mentioned that the welfare system has “destroyed black society”, a statement which seemed so empirical as to give me no reply.  I don’t like entering into a debate in which I feel crippled by my own lack of information, so at the time I said nothing.

But my irritation with the statement hasn’t faded over time.  For one, the statement seems incomplete.  He meant “black society in America” and it’s obvious given the context in which it was made, but even so…  I think that people too often assume that the whole of the “black experience” (another phrase I find irritating) hinges on the black experience in America. That and they too often say “black society” when they truly mean the inner city- two things that are wildly different.  Not all black people live in the inner city and not everyone in the inner city is black.  So let’s please keep those things separate.

That isn’t the whole of my irritation.  The implications as well as the overall lack of information they portray is what truly gets to me.  So lets, just for “fun” (by “fun” I mean sorrow inducing meditation, but whatever…) go over the history of the “black experience” in America.  First, black people are brought over on slave ships to be exposed to conditions worse than what we put cattle through.  They are worked to the bone, beaten and raped, subjugated, barred from learning basic skills, starved, and have I mentioned the beatings and raped?  Women would stand up to defend a stray dog being stoned in the street, but not a black man.

When the obvious injustice of this treatment was recognized and black people were given personhood- and note, by personhood I literally mean being identified as people– what were they given to correct this injustice?  These people, battered and beaten, barred from ever having so much as learned to write their names, were given a donkey, some papers and some land.  How were they expected to start to mete out a living?  And do you think their neighbors, the people who had been beating and raping them a year previous, would give them a pittance of help?  Do you imagine they were given years of free tutelage, invited over for dinners, loaned seed crop?  Perhaps some of them were, but for the most part I am not surprised by the fact that they banded together in shared misery and poverty, desperately trying to make the most of their meager circumstances.  At least they had their freedom.

But look at their situation honestly- these black communities are desperate and impoverished.  They have little more than the clothes on their backs.  They are surrounded by white people who have inherited wealth and circumstance.  Even the poor bakers and blacksmiths have inherited their trade- they have something to build wealth on.  Black people have a mule and the derision of the white people who still, at that point, felt that something had been stolen from them.

That divide has yet to be closed.  I refuse to believe it.  One can say that the white people in America built what they had from nothing- but those people came into the states with their health, their determination, their personhoood, their education- whereas the blacks were starting at less than zero.  It is incredible that they were given as much as they were, considering the bitterness on the part of the south, but even so…

Can anyone say that it was enough- not enough to assuage our own guilt, but enough to birth equity?  I don’t think so.

Do you?

Obama has a PLAN?

Okay: I get infinitely tired of people who spew talking points without taking the time to adequately research things. For instance:

“Barack Obama doesn’t have a plan. It’s impossible to tell where he really stands on issues. You can’t vote for someone just because they talk nice.”

I would say, “idiots”, roll my eyes and move on, except I’ve seen this particular one perpetuated by really intelligent people. I don’t know why anyone would expect to hear a twenty point plan detailed in a stump speech or debate- in a debate the candidate might have five minutes if they are lucky, and the point of a stump speech isn’t to impart information so much as inspire. As much as one might hate Obama, the man knows how to inspire.

If you want to know about Obama’s stances on the issues, go here. That is available to all, right on his website! I’ve even direct linked you, so you don’t need to go through the pointless subscribe screen (which you can bypass, by the way) and waste a few precious minutes of your life scanning the link bar. (Issues is the second link. Wow. Skillfully hidden.)

To further shed light on this incredible conspiracy of silence from Obama, I did a little google sleuthing. If you google “Obama Stances” you come up with this page from ontheissues.org: Obama On the Issues

“Obama Issues” leads to Obama’s own issues page (previously linked) once again proving how hard he’s trying to hide it.

“Obama Plan” leads to two of Obama’s specific issue pages, health care and energy. It also tells us that he has a plan to end our occupation of Iraq.

“Obama Agenda” will eventually lead you to a Propeller article about Obama’s desire to close income gaps.

If you google “Obama has no plan” you’ll mostly see articles debunking the idea that he has no plan… which makes me wonder, why are there so many intelligent people out there perpetuating this almost laughably stupid idea? Oh, that’s right. There’s some youtube videos of people saying it, and it’s on the radio, and the talking heads on the news networks shout it out over their guests protestations, and that which you hear loudest and most often must be true.