"Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed"
-- Bob Dylan
Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of today's "Vanity Fair". She was not the first trans woman to pose with less than street clothes on in a magazine -- Laverne Cox did that, earlier this year, and Cox deserves praise for that.
So does Jenner. I looked at that magazine cover and, well, as weird as it is to say, I recognized something. There are a lot of differences between Caitlyn Jenner and me. I'm not rich, famous, or Republican. I was coercively assigned female at birth. But I looked at that cover and I saw somebody who's spent decades of her life struggling with the distance between how she looks in the mirror and how she sees herself in her mind's eye, and who has finally been able to look like she needs to, or enough like it to appear confidently on a magazine cover.
Not everybody can afford to look like they need to look, but everybody should be, and when I look at the picture I think that everybody should have access to the same resources that Jenner had access to. I hope it's possible for me to acknowledge massive social inequality and the need to redress it, and, at the same time, find meaning in this photograph.
Finding meaning in things, especially finding reflections of myself in anything or anybody else in the world, can be hard for me. Just seeing my own reflection in the mirror can be hard for me.
For whatever reason, I can look at it right now, and think that I look okay. I didn't think that last year and I might not think it again next year, but it's okay for now.
Part of the reason for that is that I dyed my hair pink again. It's not that my internal image of my true self has pink hair... though maybe it does. To be honest, that image has never fully come into focus for me. It's more that having pink hair makes me like looking at myself, and then I can look at the rest of me, too, not just my hair.
Maybe it's not so important that I dyed my hair pink as it is that I made a choice to change how I look, and carried out that choice. It doesn't matter that I paid somebody else to dye my hair for me, which is what I did this time, it matters that I exercised agency.
To get to a point where what color my hair is could matter, though, I had to do some other things first.
Sculptures and Monsters
When I talk about being able to, or not being able to, look at myself, it's a way for me of talking about something harder to talk about, which is a feeling of not being fully present in or comfortable in my own body. These are different things but it's hard to separate them from each other.
I'm fat, which means that socially, I get discouraged from thinking I look attractive or even that I should be looked at at all. (Since I'm a guy, I experience this less harshly than fat women do, but I still experience it.)
I'm trans, which means that socially, I get discouraged from thinking I look attractive. Part of it is that I'm too short and fat to look like the gold standard for attractive male guys when I have my clothes on. Part of it is that when I have my clothes off, you can tell I'm hung like a hamster. Part of it is that at least these days, my gender presentation runs more femme than masc, and there is not much room for femme guys in what gets falsely reduced to a zero-sum game of who gets to be attractive. But also, internally, I have trouble occupying my own body. Sometimes, anyway; less than I used to have, partly because of the changes I've been able to make to my body and partly because of harder-to-describe changes.
I'm a survivor of complex trauma in childhood, and I wish I could explain to you more fully what that means but part of being a survivor of complex trauma is having difficulty explaining what it means. Imagine if somebody was running around pulling bricks out of your house while you were building it, and then imagine how much structural integrity your house might have left at the end. That's what trauma does to your ability to describe emotional experiences. The best I can do right now is that when I was growing up, I was not permitted to have the boundaries about what does and doesn't happen in and around my body that even very young children usually get permitted to have. On an emotional level, I never really formed the belief that my body is my own -- something that it seems a lot of people take for granted. So that also makes it hard for me to actually be in my own body, much beyond the baseline difficulty I'd already have with it if I was trans and not a survivor.
It's easy for me to focus on how I look and harder to think about my subjective experience, for reasons that are probably familiar to other survivors. But I think that also reflects widespread confusion about trans experience. Most narratives about trans people tell us that we transition in order to look different to other people. Most of those narratives are written by cis people. The real reasons why we transition, which are different for every person who transition, have more to do (in my opinion) with looking right to ourselves, and also with feeling right to ourselves. Because it's hard to describe subjective experiences, I'm writing about looking at yourself in a mirror as a stand-in for that.
This is the minimal backstory I feel I need to lay down to say this: When you don't feel comfortable with yourself, it is hard to figure out what would make you feel comfortable and harder still to show that to other people. What if they laugh? What if they accuse you of not being really yourself when you actually feel like yourself for the first time ever? Those are things that really happen, especially to trans people, but not just to trans people. Caitlyn Jenner, at 65 years of age, figured it out anyway and showed herself anyway. She didn't, at least in the end, let anybody tell her that it was too late and she should just live out what years she had pretending to be somebody else.
I transitioned when I was 26, which was eight years after I learned that transitioning was possible. It was a long eight years. I can't imagine how long 45 to 65 years is when you know you need to transition but you can't, or don't feel it's possible, or feel that the loss of your dignity and pride will outweigh the benefits of seeing yourself as you are, or have the expectations of family, friends, or even the general public weighing on you, or or or. While recognizing that few people have the privilege to do what she did in the precise way she did it, I still feel glad for Jenner that she was able to do it, because everybody should be able to. Also, because having models helps us figure out our lives even if necessarily, models are often public figures and public figures are almost by definition privileged in some or many ways. (This is not to discount the real danger in visibility and fame for all women, particularly women experiencing one or more types of intersectional oppression, either.)
So the thoughts and feelings I had when I looked at that magazine cover were about my own experiences and about the partial but still real way in which they relate to Caitlyn Jenner's experiences.
The thoughts that some cis people had, though, were more along the lines of: "Wow, she looks good. Her surgeons did a good job."
Let me interject with a couple things here: First, it's okay to say that somebody looks good. You would say that to a friend, so I don't see why you shouldn't say it about someone who chose to appear on a magazine cover. At least it seems fine to me.
Second, I didn't read the article inside the magazine (yet), so I don't know what Jenner has said publicly about what surgeries she has or hasn't had. From the picture alone, I am not going to assume anything about what surgeries she has or hasn't had. It's certainly not uncommon for people who appear on magazine covers, whether or not they're trans, to have surgery. But I do want to call out the assumption that she must have had surgery in order to look as she does. Trans people do a variety of things in order to make our bodies externally look and internally feel different. Surgery is only one of them. The details of any of these things are none of your goddamned business unless you are a trans person, an intimate friend of a trans person, someone who thinks you may be trans (and if you think you may be, I would encourage you not to run from those thoughts), or a medical professional who helps trans people with our body issues.
With those disclaimers in mind, I want to talk about how it felt to me to read the words "Her surgeons did a good job." (I am paraphrasing; those may not have been the exact words.)
There is this thing that can happen when you exercise agency over your own body to reshape it in some way, and that thing is getting demoted from the status of "person" to the status of "sculpture".
Suddenly, you are no longer a human being struggling to make your own body a place you can feel at home in, but rather -- and this is at best (I'll get to what the worst of it can look like) -- a work of art that a cis person made. You are no longer self-made.
"Isn't it a nice thing to say that somebody looks good?" Well, yes. But it's not a nice thing to go from there to congratulating the surgeons. Where does it stop? If I look good, are you going to tell me that my dentist or my hairdresser or the people running the machines that sewed my clothes deserve praise? Well, you might, but not if your conversational objective is to connect with me. Complimenting haircuts is, indeed, within social norms, complimenting surgery isn't... except when the object is trans, or disabled, or fat, or -- you guessed it -- in those social categories whose residents' humanity is contingent.
Do you know what the mirror image of "sculpture" is? It's "monster". When you talk about a trans person as an object of aesthetic appreciation in an immediate context of talking about what surgical interventions that trans person has had, you are steps away from treating that person like Frankenstein's monster. The subtext that's obvious to many of us is how amazing it is that any surgeon could have the technique necessary to make somebody who looks male -- in your eyes -- look female -- in your eyes. (Or vice versa, and it doesn't happen as much in the other direction but I've experienced it firsthand.) The subtext is that we're freaks of science, that we're freaks of nature, that we're objects of curiosity. When trans women talk about how they're made to feel like monsters, or like artificial creations (see Talia Mae Bettcher's "Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion"), I listen. I can relate, but there is a limit to how far my ability to relate goes, because as a trans man I do not experience the same degree of othering, of socially enforced disgust, of structural violence that trans people who were coercively assigned male at birth do.
But I know this much: you cannot talk about a trans woman like she was a sculpture, or an object of art, or a constructed thing without implicitly designating her a monster, a cold creation of technology, not human. Stop it.
Surgery and Dignity
In order to look like myself, or to start to look like myself, I've had five surgeries. The details of four are only relevant to myself, people who see me naked, and a number of people who work for insurance companies.
In 2009 I had radical breast reduction surgery. The result is that my body from neck to waist looks mostly right to me, aside from the scars that still look fresh because I develop hypertrophic scar tissue and aside from how my nipples are a little bit bigger than guys' nipples outside of the Folsom Street Fair are supposed to be. These are details that, on a good day, I can integrate.
What's harder to integrate is the memory of reading the surgeon's post-op report and noticing that in his narrative of performing the surgery, he used the pronouns "she" and "her" to refer to me, despite having correctly gendered me to my face. Dr. Paul Steinwald, if you're reading this, I hope you're not doing that to people anymore. I'm sure that he thought I was never going to read the report, but due to his own unwillingness to bill my insurance, I had to request a copy from the hospital. (And by the way, Aetna Student Health reimbursed me for 80% of my out-of-pocket.)
One of the things you might have to do if you are trans is to trust someone enough to literally cut into your body, knowing that your trust in them may not be justified. In most cases, if you need surgery, you have to trust somebody that much without knowing whether you can trust them to acknowledge your gender, a form of respect that all cis people can take for granted.
When people reduce you to the work that your surgeon did, therefore, they may be reducing you to the work of somebody who cannot even recognize who you are even as they are doing work that helps you recognize yourself as who you are. That's not hurtful because it's going to hurt Caitlyn Jenner, who we know is strong enough because she was strong enough to be on that cover. It's hurtful because it reminds some of us of traumatic experiences. It's also hurtful because it reminds other trans people -- ones who are in a state of knowing they need to transition, but not being sure whether it's safe to -- of why it's not safe.
In case I haven't made myself clear: getting surgery as a trans person is a terrifying, humiliating process. Maybe that's beginning to change somewhat. In 2009 and 2012, it was still terrifying and humiliating, and I say that as a trans person who was coercively assigned female at birth. That is, I say that as someone who is playing "be a trans person" on the easiest setting. When you look at a trans person who has had surgery and you see an object that a surgeon made, rather than another human being, you are making that process more terrifying and humiliating, most of all for people who sense that they may need to go through that same process but are justifiably afraid to. Many of the reasons for this fear -- for the fear that I experienced myself when I was deciding whether to get surgery, in 2007-2009 and again in 2011 -- are internal. But "ooh, nice results" comments and the objectification they stand for don't make it any easier.
The point, the only point, of transitioning for me was so I could be a real person. So I could feel like a real person. The terror of it was the risk I sensed, which is a real risk, that it would make me a less real person in other people's eyes. The reward is the knowledge that I can see myself as real even while other people do not. I'm trying to use my best prose here, but that inevitably simplifies a long, hard, scary, uncomfortable period of emotional labor. If you are not trans, you have the option to make that work harder for other people, or to not make it harder. Try to use your power responsibly.
Trans Empathy and the Cis Gaze
To look at Caitlyn Jenner on the Vanity Fair cover and say "ooh, nice results" is to make her an object rather than a subject. To be a surgeon who operates on a trans man and writes "She tolerated the anesthesia well" in a post-op report is to make him an object rather than a subject.
"But Tim," you might ask, "Isn't the reason why people appear scantily clad on magazine covers is that they want to be objectified?"
Well... no? I mean, no one has ever offered to let me pose for Vanity Fair, so I haven't had to think about whether I would want to and if so, why. But as far as I can tell, what celebrities do is satisfy their own need for attention while also making other people feel good. Attention is something that everybody needs and there's nothing wrong with being very good at getting it. There's nothing in there about being objectified. Being paid attention to doesn't mean being objectified. Being appreciated as a person whose body is attractive isn't the same thing as being objectified. If you can't separate those things, or can't separate them specifically for women whose bodies you find attractive, maybe take a gender studies class.
When you have a pleasant feeling of aesthetic appreciation about somebody else's body, that's a thing to cherish. It is, however, your feeling. Whether you're having a good feeling about somebody else or a bad one, whether it's about how they look or what they do or what they say, your feeling doesn't create an exception to the imperative to respect others and see them as humans like yourself.
My feeling, when I look at the cover, is to appreciate another trans person's struggle -- despite the gulf between what her life is like and what my life is like -- and, by virtue of how the appreciation survives the distance, feel a little less alone. I can't say I know what it's like to channel dysphoria into being an Olympic athlete rather than being a computer programmer, or what it's like to keep your own gender to yourself for more than 50 years, but I do know when to say, "Wow, that woman must be so happy to look in the mirror and see a reflection that finally makes sense." I know that because I've known, at times, what it's like to look in the mirror and see a reflection that makes sense.
I guess you are entitled to feel however you want, but feeling something is different from choosing to say it in public, and when you do choose to say in public that what you feel when you look at the cover is artistic appreciation of surgeons' work, rather than empathy, that harshes my buzz a bit.
Autonomy and Terror
What every person who transitions does, whether or not they are a public figure, is lose autonomy. That's in the short term. The hope is that in the long term we will achieve greater autonomy and a stronger sense of self. But in the short term, there's constant misgendering, there's getting called "it", there's struggling with dehumanizing administrative processes in order to have a valid driver's license and hold a job, there's being rejected for jobs out of hand, there's doctors, there's therapists, some of whom help and some of whom can't see beyond their own fears. I promise you that while this process is easier the more social privilege you have, no trans person has enough privilege to escape it.
Cis people, it's your job to create a world where we as trans people don't have to be afraid of you. We have many reasons to be afraid of you. A relatively minor but important one is this: you have the power to drown out an inner voice inside us that says, "Hey, maybe I could look like me, too!" with your own voice saying "We're always just going to see you as raw material." You have the power to make somebody just that much more afraid to take the steps needed to look like their own self. You can do better: when a famous person or maybe just a person important in your life comes out as trans, ask yourself: "Does the world really need to hear my hot take?" Please try not to drown out trans people's recognition of self with your ogling of the other.
Fellow trans people, it's a valid choice to transition in order to reclaim some dignity, and it is a valid choice to not transition -- to not transition at all or to transition in a way that doesn't follow the coming-out-to-everybody-you-know narrative -- in order to preserve your dignity. It's a valid choice to decide that one of the two binary genders fits you better than the one you were assigned at birth and to let people know that. It's also a valid choice to decide that because your gender matches neither binary option, there is no broadly legible end point for you to transition to.
I want to say that I love you no matter how you choose to navigate and manage being trans, even if I don't even know you're the gender that you are because of how you navigate your experience of gender. I wish it was easier to manage one's own experience of one's body and self without the crushing weight of very justified fears. But I know the way for me to deal with that wish isn't to expect individuals to be more public and be more out. That's just what the oppressor wants me to think. Reading things that cis people say about Caitlyn Jenner, as with the things they've said about every trans public figure who has come out as trans in this century so far, is nothing if not a reminder to myself to treat every other trans person as if they are at least as complex as I am and at least as deserving of space in which to apprehend their own complexity.
"They won't see you
Not until you want them to"
-- the Mountain Goats