Why Trans Women Care About Caitlyn Jenner's Pronouns
Because she only started using female pronouns after her glamorous Vanity Fair reveal, I’m wary of the way Caitlyn Jenner is wielding her power to define acceptable trans womanhood.
On Monday, when Caitlyn Jenner announced her new name and upcoming Vanity Fair cover, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Finally, we would be able to freely refer to her using female pronouns. Jenner’s use of her birth name and male pronouns during her Diane Sawyer interview in late April, and her desire to keep using these pronouns afterward, had distressed me and other trans women I know. By making the personal decision to keep male gender markers even after she disclosed as trans, Jenner gave herself the opportunity for a splashy cover story reveal as Caitlyn one month later — and those choices, however inadvertently, will have lasting implications for many trans women who exist outside of the international spotlight, without the resources and protections she enjoys.
Had Jenner and I known each other, I would have told her about a time early in my transition when I was on a first date, and had to show the bouncer at a bar my ID. By the time I was ready to order drinks, the bouncer had already let the bartender in on my official gender and asked my date, “So you want to buy him a beer?” My date left to go to the bathroom but never came back, and I fought back tears as I walked out of the bar, while the men who outed me smirked with disgust in their eyes. I feared for my safety while I walked to the subway, afraid they might follow me or tell other people who might threaten or hurt me. This was only one of several instances during which people, some of whom I thought were my friends, outed me by using male pronouns to refer to me in social situations, which made me feel awkward, embarrassed, and unsafe.
I would have also told Jenner about the time when I tried to change the name and gender on my driver’s license at the main DMV in Boston. Even though I had already obtained a court-ordered name change that indicated my gender as female, the DMV worker not only refused to give me a new license, but made sure to tell a co-worker in a loud voice, “He’s trying to change his license but he can’t,” referring to me as “sir” so that everyone at the office could hear. I experienced many forms of this behavior from government officials who learned about my trans status through identification papers, from airport officials who misgendered me to the INS, which asked deeply invasive questions when I tried to renew my green card. As a result, I avoided air travel for many years and needed assistance from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a nonprofit that helps low-income trans women of color, to finally obtain U.S. citizenship because I was too traumatized to interact with government officials myself.
By transitioning as a public figure, Jenner has been spared from suffering the consequences of presenting as a woman and being outed as trans through misgendering and deadnaming (the preferred term in the community for using a trans person’s assigned name). Because Jenner remained reclusive during her transition and recognized by the paparazzi and the public when she went out, she did not encounter strangers on a regular basis who assumed her to be a cisgender woman, only to have others out her as trans.
Jenner told Sawyer during her interview that she does not have many close friends outside her family, and she has not been heavily involved with the trans community — perhaps for these reasons, Jenner did not seem particularly aware of how her choice to use her assigned name and gender pronouns before now, even while disclosing that she’s trans, has adversely affected other trans people.
Jenner has every right to set her priorities as an individual, but her celebrity and self-professed role as an advocate for the wider trans community means that she is in a powerful position to determine public ideals of acceptable trans womanhood. Judging from her drastic shift in presentation for her Vanity Fair cover and her interview with Sawyer, it didn’t seem as though Jenner was comfortable being referred to as “Caitlyn” and “her” until she had achieved her own vision of what a woman should look like — one that conforms to conventional beauty standards steeped in patriarchal values that require enormous financial resources to build and maintain. In her interview with Sawyer, Jenner acknowledged that she's fortunate to be able to take advantage of her wealth to transition; it’s a fortune the vast majority of us don’t have, even if we wanted to take similar steps to begin with. We’re already making an enormous number of changes to express our true genders, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask society to relax its norms to accept and respect us regardless of our appearance.
Jenner’s decision to continue using male pronouns and her assigned name even after she disclosed as trans is, to me, the clearest indication that she hasn’t made an effort to reach out to the wider trans community for feedback, which I consider a prerequisite to claiming to represent and advocate for us. Nearly every trans woman I know has stories about being misgendered that range from causing that woman humiliation to making her fear for her life. Only last night, when I attended the Freedom Awards for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, I heard Trudy Kitzmiller tell the story of how she was denied a new license and called “it” when she went to the DMV in West Virginia. My friend Mya Byrne tweeted about her experience of being misgendered and harassed as she boarded a JetBlue flight. These are just a few of numerous stories I’ve heard, both public and private, of how misgendering has traumatized many trans women.
In public situations, using “he” to address a trans woman is the easiest way to harass us without consequence, as people often claim that they did so without malice either because they couldn’t see how the person they’re referring to could possibly be a woman, or because they’re only going by a trans woman’s legal status. It’s how those who knew us before transition are able to say that they accept us, yet don’t want to inconvenience themselves, failing to account for how much the right pronouns matter both for our mental health and our physical safety. Before I ever took hormones or underwent any gender-related medical procedures, yet identified as a woman and wore clothes typical of women, I once had to get out of my dad’s car in Queens late at night and begin to walk home after he misgendered me for the umpteenth time, then told me he didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. When he yelled at me to get in the car because it was unsafe, I yelled back, “Imagine how unsafe I’d be if someone heard you call me ‘he’ and I’m dressed in women’s clothes.” It was the only way I could get him to understand why using the right pronouns matter so much — it was important for him to respect how I perceived myself regardless of how he perceived me, whether or not I’ve taken hormones or had surgery.
Trans people are still among the poorest and underemployed in the United States, while also often in great need of expensive medical care. By setting a widely publicized trans standard of real womanhood only beginning after cosmetic surgery, Jenner is inadvertently making it harder for other trans women to assert their true womanhood before and regardless of surgical procedures. I don’t believe that anyone should prescribe to a trans woman what procedures she needs to have done to feel comfortable with her gender role. But I do think that Jenner’s gender choices, however unknowingly, perpetuate the idea that trans women who do not meet a certain standard of femininity and beauty are not “really” women; it’s more acceptable for trans women who do not meet these narrow criteria to be marginalized and excluded.
Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has brought a much-needed discussion of what it means to be trans to a much broader audience, but it’s up to us to think through and evaluate the choices she’s making as part of her journey, how representative they are of broader trans experience, and the ways in which her visibility can translate to political change for trans people, especially trans women. So no matter how trans people dress and what we look like, it would make an enormous difference in our lives if people gender us according to the pronoun and name we feel ourselves to be. It’s a basic matter of acceptance and respect, one that I would have been happy to give Jenner even if she had not undergone a single procedure to define her womanhood. It's the same respect I've been able to give myself after all these years, as the acceptance of those around me has allowed me to see that there are an infinite number of ways to be a woman.