It’s been a busy day on the gender bending news front all across the web. Much of the discussion taking place has landed at home right here at good old Hot Gas, but I thought I would wait my turn and digest some of the brouhaha before putting in my two cents. (Assuming I could even get that much for it.) Early this morning, our Friend Amanda penned some thoughts on the Vanity Fair article about Jenner and it raised more than a little stir among the commentariat here and across the interwebs. It likely goes without saying – at least for those who read my work here regularly – that Amanda and I come at this situation from significantly different points of view and life experiences.
Later on, Ed added some of his own thoughts. He was exploring a number of different societal issues which loom large in the national discussion and I appreciate his input. I happen to agree with Ed’s larger point when he speaks of the very real struggles of people facing challenging disabilities and how some of the current conversations taking place around Bruce Jenner (#SorryNotSorry) cheapen those struggles.
We’re celebrating the end of natural and objective truth, and turning dysfunction into virtue on the basis of celebrity. Not only that, but many people suffer from disability without much choice in the matter — my wife, for one, who lost her sight at 24 from diabetic retinopathy. This turns their challenges into sport or status symbols in a very odd manner, and mainstreaming it the way Baldwin suggests legitimizes the fetishization of their pains and struggles.
Even for the points where Ed and I agree, we have some areas where we part company. (Nothing new there, as I’m sure my colleague would attest.) Ed is far more charitable than I when it comes to referring to “Caitlyn Jenner” and a few other factors. To understand these differences we should probably start with a bit of a disclaimer: Ed is a very nice man with a generous Christian soul.
I, on the other hand, am clearly not.
I’m probably in an unpopular and shrinking minority on this subject, but I’ll stand before the wheel and take the rap for it. I may be a dinosaur, but this dinosaur is going down with the ship.
For the time being, I am still referring to the subject of these stories as Bruce Jenner. And he (yes… I said “he”) has a bit of work to do before that changes. By way of establishing my track record, I would point to my many articles which deal with the subject of Chelsea Manning. New readers may find it surprising that I refer to the Fort Leavenworth resident as “Chelsea” but the fact is that he took the required steps to legally change his name from Bradley to Chelsea. Any citizen in the United States can legally change their name through a variety of available methods and I don’t consider it my place to question their choice. Like many other things we shall discuss here today, I consider it a matter of free speech. If the guy wants to be called Chelsea and files the appropriate paperwork, so be it. Chelsea it is. But to the best of my knowledge, Bruce Jenner has not taken those steps yet. If and when he does I shall be happy to call him Caitlyn or whatever else he chooses.
That brings us to the entire pronoun issue. I’m also still referring to both Chelsea Manning and Bruce Jenner as “he.” Yes… I’m aware that I’m setting myself up as a target because this is such a sensitive issue in certain circles. I have been assured by reliable sources that I am guilty of the sin of “Misgendering” Mr. Jenner by doing this. (And just as a side note, you are not excused for conjuring up the word “misgender” as a verb. The language is in enough trouble as it is and if you publish that term in a serious fashion you should have your literary license revoked.) But since we’ve already begun the slide down that slippery slope on our collective butts, the same article linked above assures me that a Twitter Bot is on the prowl waiting to correct you if you refer to Bruce Jenner as Bruce or use a masculine pronoun while referencing him.
Bring it on, bot. I’ll misgender my way into the dustbin of history quite happily.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m completely inflexible here. If either Chelsea or Bruce want to go the extra mile and have a surgeon hack off certain parts of their original, manufacturer specified equipment and reconfigure the area in new and unusual ways, I’ll go so far as to refer to you as “she.” I don’t actually buy that, as I’ll discuss in a moment, but if you’re going to make that kind of a sacrifice in the name of science you’ve proven to me that you’re truly serious and you’ll get a female pronoun here under my byline.
But that brings us to the final, and perhaps definitive part of the discussion as I read the tea leaves. We live in an era where people want to challenge all sorts of conventional definitions and make changes in their life. Good for you. You can change your name. You can change your religion. You can change your hairstyle. And, yes, you can change your sartorial choices and dress in clothing traditionally reserved for the other gender. Who am I to judge? I still wear farmer clothing which probably went out of style in the 70s or 80s. It all falls under that free speech thing I mentioned above.
But you can’t simply pick your gender. If you were born with two X chromosomes and have a vagina and a womb, you were born a female. If you picked up a Y chromosome in the genetic lottery and came into the world equipped with a phallus and one or more testes, you were born a male. It’s really not negotiable. It’s true that in a small percentage of live births, babies are born with both sets of genitalia, but in cases such as those, something has gone seriously wrong in the development process. This is an abnormality.
For the rest of us, it’s fairly cut and dry. That’s not to say that there isn’t something which has gone wrong in cases such as the ones under discussion here. I’m sensitive to the fact that there are serious and likely unresolved issues. And to be clear, I’m not a doctor so I don’t know exactly what’s gone off the beam, but something has. Speaking specifically to the case of Bruce Jenner, I do believe that you are extremely unhappy and likely have been for a long time. I can relate… believe me. The world is a harsh place at times and I’ve been more than a little unhappy myself as I’ve made this journey along life’s road. But as bad as it gets, I refuse to give up on the core of who I am. You may feel like a member of the opposite gender, but reality imposes itself at times, often harshly. And gender is not, in my opinion, a flexible option. Messing around with it takes us down a rather dark path.
In closing, that last paragraph brings us back to that inconvenient free speech thing I mentioned above. You can dress how you like and change your name. I’ll back you up. And if you were born a man, you can call yourself a woman if you like. But your right of free speech does not protect you from possibly being offended by the free speech of others, including yours truly. Your decision doesn’t mean that I have to modify my speech and start swapping out pronouns from the language buffet line any more than I have to accept that you’re drinking a “martini” if you put a cocktail onion in your glass instead of an olive.
Gender is not a choice. It’s a biological reality. That’s probably offensive to a number of people as well as the Twitter bots. But as the kids on social media are wont to say these days… #SorryNotSorry.