What Happens When Someone You Always Thought Is A Man, Is In Fact A Woman?

Posted on June 3, 2015 in LGBTQ, Media, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Shambhavi Saxena

Have you ever noticed that if you’re walking your pet and someone exclaims, “Oh, he’s so cute“, correcting them with “it’s a she” means they immediately switch pronouns, no questions? Have you ever noticed how misgendering a pet is more easily resolved than misgendering a human being?

Caitlyn Jenner, who you may remember as former Olympian Bruce Jenner, prior to the completion of her transition process, is now at the centre of a media storm for her June issue Vanity Fair cover. At 65, Jenner made the brave decision to live life as the woman she always knew herself to be. Her identity as a wealthy, white individual of status in no way detracts from her struggle as a trans woman, but did provide her with avenues not available to poorer trans women or trans women of colour. Despite her undeniable privilege (that isn’t to say that less privileged trans men and women are deserving of this) Jenner’s glossy photographs have been met with much criticism and misgendering from the usual suspects – unrelenting bigots with WiFi and ideas as archaic as the middle ages.
Among these, (surprisingly?) is former Nickelodeon sitcom star Drake Bell, who decided to do the most obviously disrespectful thing to Jenner by tweeting:

drake bell tweet 1

Before deleting evidence of his transphobia (as if we didn’t already have plenty of screenshots), Bell made the following remarks in order to justify his misgendering of Jenner:

drake bell tweet 2

Coming into a conversation about trans lives and reducing it to biology is a negation of identity politics and a sure fire way of losing the argument. While it can be confusing, a jolt even, when someone you always assumed was a man is in fact a woman, not recognizing their identity is the kind of ideological violence that causes so many trans people to be murdered or kill themselves. By recognizing someone’s identity you are in no way endangering yourself or the fate of humankind – trans people are people, and yet we treat them like horsemen of the apocalypse.

Over and above misgendering, LGBT advocate and Orange Is The New Black actor Laverne Cox wrote about Jenner’s cover shoot by identifying serious problem areas in the reactions (both positive and negative) that were pouring in online. She pointed out the role that cisnormativity (looking and behaving in a way that conforms to or mimics heterosexual gender standards) plays in the degree to which trans women are accepted and celebrated. Using herself and Jenner as examples, women who do have economic and political power, Cox reminded the quick-to-click internetters that many of them were not likely to cheer unfeminine trans women the way they cheer ‘cis-passing’ trans women. Her congratulations for Jenner aside, Cox’s comment rightly highlights the lesser known issues of trans identity politics, calling for “diverse media representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities.

It seems Bell has some misgivings about the power of social media, because right now, there is a trans kid curled up in their bedroom, trying to ignore the sounds of their parents’ anger, disappointment and non-acceptance, scrolling through Jenner’s photos, seeing an older trans woman, seeing a survivor, and thinking, nay, knowing, that it gets better.

Featured image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair.