Tuesday, June 16, 2015


I'm not entirely sure what the opposite of a Hot Take is, but whatever it is, this post would probably qualify. Because I've got myself thoroughly confused over the public reaction to two recent stories.

The first one consists of someone who made the choice to reject one of their key birth characteristics and adopt a different one, using cosmetic treatments to change their appearance and present an entirely new face to the world.

And so does the other one.

On Caitlyn Jenner, I'm already a bit conflicted. I'm sympathetic to transgender people, not least because Jan Morris is so consummately brilliant, while at the same time wondering why the psychiatric response to a man thinking that he's Napoleon is therapy and medication, while the psychiatric response to a man thinking that he's a woman is hormones and surgery. Ultimately, of course, this all falls under the overarching category of 'someone else's problem', and if people really feel that they belong in a different category then good luck to them. I'm not sure that her rather peculiar beatification is called for, but that's a quibble.

But then Rachel Dolezal. One of the things that I was told repeatedly when studying sociology and gender at university was that race and gender are both essentially cultural constructs - that is, that neither are about inherent biological or genetic categorisation, but are formed of a network of roles and ideas that are artificially created by society as a whole. Since that is the case, there can be no problem with Caitlyn Jenner adopting a 'female' identity, because there's nothing biological about femininity.

On the other hand, even though race is also a cultural construct with no biological or genetic basis, there is a massive problem with Rachel Dolezal adopting a 'black' identity, because... Well, why? Mic has an answer:
So why don't we just accept Dolezal as black? Because she's not. So what's the difference between identifying as black and identifying as a woman? It's pretty clear: Dolezal has lied. She's spent the last decade going out of her way to falsely represent herself as black. On the flip side, transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner are not lying. If anything, their decision to come out is the ultimate declaration of honesty, of being upfront with who they are. 
Which is all a bit circular: a man wanting to be a woman is being honest, and that's fine. A white person wanting to be a black person is lying and that's not fine. This is all very well as a description of your point of view, but doesn't really tell us anything about why. The Advocate was blunter:
But then there came the comments of, “If Caitlyn Jenner can choose be transgender, then why can’t Dolezal choose to be transracial?” Okay, now I had an opinion. Let me sum that opinion up as simply as possible: these people are idiots. Seriously, that opinion is so backwards, ignorant, and clueless, it serves as a shining example of why we don’t have moon bases and fully functional sexbots yet. These people's statements are asinine because being trans is not a choice any more than being gay or black is. You are or you aren’t. 
But again, the point here is that Rachel Dolezal can't choose to be black (which, remember, is a cultural construct and not based on genetic or biological characteristics). Why not? Because you're an idiot, is why. Slate at least has a proper go at answering this:
The explanation commonly given is that Dolezal misrepresented her actual identity, while Jenner and other trans women are being true to theirs. This leaves a big question unanswered, though: If race and gender are both social constructs, and if both have been built around observable biological traits, then what is the crucial difference that makes a felt gender identity a true one, but a felt racial identity fraudulent? The short answer is that most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way.
Which seems to leave us with the conclusion that while femininity is not a genetic or biological phenomenon, trans-ness is. All in all, the best part of all this nonsense was that it reminded me that I haven't read Jan Morris for too long.


Blogger Recusant said...

I see my comment yesterday on the new Gnostics stimulated a thought. Of course, the correct answer is that neither are social constructs.

11:38 am  
Blogger Tim J said...

That was in fact the inspiration! I was always going to struggle in History & Gender after loudly muttering "words have gender, people have sex'

10:58 am  

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