I understand how some people can be confounded and disgusted by the idea of a trans person, at least on an intellectual level. People get squicked out by all sorts of things. Many people have a very concrete concept connecting their body and their self image. The beauty industry, and society at large, holds presentation of self as actual self. And even on a baser level, people are freaked out by all sorts of random things. Some people hate the word “moist”. Some people can’t stand looking at a surface covered in small holes. Weird things trigger people.
But what I can’t understand is when people can’t grasp the very idea of someone’s identity not aligning with their gender. And here’s why.
Let’s take Caitlyn Jenner. I wasn’t really familiar with Bruce Jenner as an Olympic athlete. It was just never really on my radar. I mainly knew her as Bruce, the butt of all jokes when discussing anything Kardashian, that wasn’t Kim’s butt. There were jokes about Bruce’s plastic surgery, about his disappearing among this tribe of narcissistic, leisure class, perpetual debutantes. About his seemingly whiny voice and impotent self. And that was all of what made Bruce Jenner.
And then she came out as a women. Even before donning a dress, changing her face, and taking the name Caitlyn, suddenly something clicked. Actually, a lot of things did. That ‘uncomfortable in his own house’ identity suddenly took on a sharper edge as ‘uncomfortable in her own life’. The struggle with how to look didn’t seem like a Hollywood youth obsession but a search for her own face. Bruce, at the time, suddenly had a much more commanding presence in interviews. She wasn’t speaking for Bruce, the character. She was speaking for herself. She popped a bit more. She seemed more present, and more real.
It is incredibly important, in the wake of Caitlyn’s devastatingly gorgeous photo shoot, to remember that this is when Caitlyn Jenner really came out. Before the pictures, before the name, before the facial surgery. Those are how Caitlyn is showing herself to the world, but that’s not what makes her her. What if Caitlyn didn’t look as striking as Jessica Lang? What if she were plain? What if she chose not to pursue any surgery at all? She’d still be the same Caitlyn that made so much more sense to herself when she made the announcement and did the Diane Sawyer interview.
I know that it’s a simple sentiment but I fear that it’s one people are forgetting. I see so many headlines and tweets about how good she looks, and how amazing her transformation has been. But I really do think we need to keep in mind that her change was deep inside, long before making it to the cover of Vanity Fair. That internal process of realization and acceptance are what should be applauded. And it is hard to celebrate something so ephemeral as an emotional turning point, especially when there are cover articles and photos to post and pass around. And even more so when they are stunning. But those are when Caitlyn was photographed, not when Caitlyn seized power over her own life. That moment, the announcement, the coming out, is what is most amazing. A person has to be pretty strong to put themselves into the public eye by posing in one piece outfit on a national magazine cover. But that person walked into that photo shoot, she wasn’t made there.