The New York Times recently published an opinion piece taking a critical about Caitlyn Jenner and the transgender movement. The article does make some good points on gender essentialism in the current hype on Jenner. However, it is much more significant for what it leaves unsaid, and for how it misses the forest of cis people framing the discussion for the tree that is Caitlyn Jenner.
Now, before I answer the article itself, I have a point to make: The whole “Caitlyn Jenner” media circus is NOT something that says much (or even anything) about trans communities and trans activism. At this point, all I see is the media overhyping over one privileged trans woman. Trans people, in general, seem to be relatively apprehensive of what’s going on. We have no control over that media hype and where it will be going. There are big concerns about how representative this experience is and of how it will benefit us to have a rich, old, white trans woman act as our spokesperson. We shall see.
Also, some quick comments: The article varies between using Caitlyn real name and her dead name, and frequently misgenders her. Don’t do that. Also, the thing about chromosomes producing penises and vaginas in some systematic way is only partly true, insofar as some of those penises and vaginas are not the result of anything chromosomal, but of doctors who practice surgeries on newborn intersex children without consent. Finally, the article seemed fairly dismissive of the experience of trans men. I apologize if the lack of attention trans men get in the article, combined my own bias as a trans woman, transfers to my answer. I tried to avoided that, but I can’t promise I succeeded.
So first, yes, I’ll say right out of the gate that what Jenner says is essentialist. No question here. As the article observes, she resorts heavily to the wrong body narrative, one which is very appreciated by cis people as a way of describing trans experiences, but far from consensual in trans communities.
However, most women’s understanding of their womanhood is essentialist too, and linked to their body, and especially their external sex organs. Indeed, woman = vagina and man = penis is basically legally enforced in most places, and only partly corrected years after the fact for some trans people when they get genital surgeries (very few countries allow legal sex change without surgeries). I don’t know that reducing women to their vagina is so much more progressive.
In truth, the reason the “female brain in a male body” and “wrong body” narratives exists is that they’re accessible and understandable to cis people, and it is so because it caters to cis people’s essentialism, unlike other trans narratives. When we say we don’t fit in boxes, people say that 99 % of the people are men or women and we should accept that and dismiss us as gender revolutionary. When we say we’re on a path of self-discovery, people tell us it’s cute, but that it’s not really serious enough for the structural changes we want. When we say that we’re not sure our birth-assigned gender is right, but we really prefer being referred to as a woman, we told that we should wait a bit until we’re really sure. When we say we prefer dresses to pants, we’re told we’re just cross-dressers really. When we say that our transition has anything to do with sexuality, well then it must be a fetish. When we say gender as a system sucks, but we’d be happier to wade through it in this other position, we’re told it’s too extreme and that we shouldn’t be so political. And so on.
But when we say we’re born in the wrong body and we’ll commit suicide if we don’t get genital surgery or some such, everyone understands and throws at us the hormones we want.
Media example: Miley Cyrus recently stated that they identified as genderqueer. No one cared, even though doing this whole media circus on Miley Cyrus, if they consented, would have actually been innovative. (Contrary to what journalists say sometimes, trans women’s personal and intimate experiences are absurdly over-reported. Their struggles in a misogynistic and transphobic world, meh, not really.)
Oh, and for the record, who decides to validate these narratives or not? Not trans people. Cis people. Doctors who deny services to people who are not trans enough for them. Journalists who frame all stories on trans people as a journey for genital surgery. Parents. Friends. Coworkers. Feminists. Civil servants. Bank officials. Everyone who listens and reacts to our stories, and dismisses them if they’re not satisfied that we’re trans enough.
It’s a real problem. Google “transnormativity” if you want. Here’s my take on that by the way. Here is what I think of the wrong body narrative, while I’m at it.
No story will work as well as a full-blown “wrong body” narrative. Even though it’s a lie. Even though it’s a bad way to describe part of an experience. Even though it’s essentialist.
With all this baggage, no wonder some people, like Caitlyn Jenner, use it to describe what they live through.
Why do you blame trans people for saying essentialist things when people marginalize us when we don’t?
Why don’t you blame all these cis people for only understanding essentialism?
As for the “brain” thing specifically, this position is argued for and defended strongly by an entire field of scientific enquiry trying to show that women and men have different brains, and that trans women have brains that resemble those of cis women (same thing with trans men’s and cis men’s brains). When the article creates an opposition between a male researcher blamed for sexism and a trans woman acclaimed for the same assertion, it is a false one. The truth is, there are quite a few scientists who put forth the idea that men and women have different brains. They do not get fired or criticized, far from it. They get published. They get funded. This kind of research is alive and well, and one important part of it is research on trans people. In the past twenty years, there have been dozens of research papers arguing that the brains of trans women are, as Jenner said, more female than they are male. The hubris of scientist here is such that a study argued, last year, that there is an “observable and measurable biological basis of gender identity”, a difference that would be explained by hormonal differences in utero. This research is, of course, very flawed, and many trans people are critical of the results on theoretical, ethical and methodological grounds.
But the point is: this research is made mostly by cis men for other cis men to read and debate, just like the research on trying to find differences between men and women.
Why do you blame a trans woman for repeating what cis men in positions of authority tell her?
Why don’t you give voice to trans people who are critical of this kind of research on trans people? They exist. They are numerous. And they agree with you on saying that there is no such thing as a female brain.
Sure, Jenner’s understanding of her femininity may be crude. It may be essentialist. It may sit on knowledge that is flawed and sexist. Sure. But who makes this research saying women and men have different brains and that trans women’s brain resemble cis women’s brains? Cis people. Who set gatekeeping criteria on access to hormones and surgery legitimizing some experiences while forcing others into marginalization? Cis people. Who writes the articles on Jenner’s transition? Cis people. Who invalidates all trans experiences that do not rely on essentialism? Cis people. What we see in the media hype over Jenner is not the feminist failings of the trans movement, it is a case study of how cis people frame our discussion on gender.
This article also forgets something very important: Trans activists ARE on the frontlines of the feminist movement. The reason trans men are asking for more inclusive language in reproductive rights activism is not just because they want to be PC and trans men can technically bear children – it’s because they DO bear children, they DO get pregnant, and they DO need access to abortion, and they DO fight for access to service, alongside cis women. And, most importantly, it’s because cissexism IS a barrier to access to reproductive health services.
We are there with cis feminists in the fights you find important (trans women also hit the glass ceiling, as I mentioned, but we also believe in making more things gender-neutral), and our own fights are things that radical cis feminists seemingly forgot that they could do. You know, that “dismantling the patriarchy and abolishing gender” objective that you have? Well, whereas quite a few cis feminists say this as a sort of mantra and follow up with no specific action that could “abolish gender” except applying intellectual critique on diverse objects, trans activism strives for systemic changes that would weaken the gender system, like removing the obligation for children to be assigned a legal gender or removing gender segregation in bathrooms, based as it is on rape culture and heterosexism. Funny you didn’t think about that.
In fact, here in Quebec, as we asked for the very moderate demand of facilitating access to legal gender change, where were the cis feminists? Yes, some were in the background, in feminist organisations that champion trans rights and put forward our voices, but most were nowhere to be seen, and a few were fighting against us and, in effect, for the patriarchy.
Your truth is not Jenner’s truth, but to be honest, neither is it the truth of most trans women, who rarely get the luxury of being on the covers of magazine just like that. Do you want our truths? You should. Because they include suffering through business meetings with men talking to our breasts. They include discovering that our male work partners’ check are larger than ours. Misogyny is a thing trans women also experience.
We also fear rape. We also fear to be attacked at night. Only for us, we have to fear not only the misogyny, but also the transphobia. And really, the misogyny hurts, but the transphobia, it kills you. Literally. Every year, hundreds of trans women get murdered, most of them trans women of colour. So yeah, I am afraid at night as well. Very afraid. Always afraid.
Now, your truth also includes bodily experiences. Obviously, trans women don’t live the same (though some of those are relatable to some of our truths – surprise periods on the subway remind me of beard covering makeup going away in the rain and revealing your shadow, or of tucking failing while you wear a tight dress, things that are not only embarrassing, but actually dangerous, because they expose us to violence). But is that really the fundamental and defining experience of womanhood? I don’t see how turning us into walking uteruses is any less essentialist that the “female brain” or the “wrong body” nonsense.
See, there is a major contradiction: when trans women say that hormones and surgeries are part of their own, personal path to womanhood, it’s insulting to women who are somehow reduced to their collective breasts and vaginas. But when someone organizes an event called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas”, which effectively reduces a thousand women to their vagina, that’s perfectly okay?
(Sidenote: As it was an event on reproductive rights, I agree that in this case, it was appropriate, specifically because reproduction is indeed about body parts, not womanhood. But I digress.)
It is weird that the article criticizes the first, which is really nothing more than a statement by trans women about their own body and their own experience, and defends the second, which is applied to a collectivity of people.
This would help resolve the apparent paradox the article puts forward: trans activists want self-determination. On the one hand, self-determination mean that you have the greatest authority, so people are welcome to describe themselves as men, women, neither, both or something else. On the other hand, it also means that no one should define someone else’s experience, and so we don’t like it when cis people slab collective labels on us without consent.
To conclude, I would like to say that yes, we hear some problematic things in the trans communities from time to time. But you cis people should have plenty enough of privileged people to put in their place for essentialism already without making a marginalized group your priority. As it happens, all the valid criticism I saw in the article (“wrong body narrative is essentialist”, “research on female/male brains is flaw and sexist”, “is it really right for trans men to be in women’s colleges?”, and so on) are things we already discuss in trans communities. We’re already taking care of that, and of much more too.
I recommend that instead of unleashing all the conventional hostile arguments (because there was not a word of originality in that article, all of these arguments, trans communities have been addressing them for years as transphobic feminists lob them at us), you listen to our voices and let us debate these problems amongst us.
[I’ll put links when I get the time. In the meanwhile, if you think some voices from trans communities are particularly important on one point or another, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments 🙂 ]
 I do not know whether they’ve provided prefered pronouns, so I’ll play it safe and use “they”
 Kranz et al. (2014), White Matter Microstructure in Transsexuals and Controls Investigated by Diffusion Tensor Imaging. The Journal of Neuroscience 34(46), p. 15474