Wednesday 29 July 2015

Caitlyn Jenner

No doubt anyone in the world with access to a television has become aware of Caitlyn Jenner (whether they like it or not).

Born William Bruce Jenner in 1949, and known as Bruce Jenner for many years, Jenner (now 65) is probably the most famous openly transsexual person in the world. Jenner was an Olympic athlete, winning the gold medal at the Men's Decathlon in Montreal. Earlier this year, Jenner publicly came out as a transwoman, changed her name to Caitlyn and underwent a highly publicised transition (although there had been some signs for a long time). I dare say she will figure prominently in the reality TV schedules for some years to come. (And, no doubt, the wearisome jokes and mockery will continue for a while longer).
Trying to be Bruce

But you already know all this. Why am I troubling to write about it?

Lately I've spent quite a lot of time reading and writing on Quora. It's a wonderful website for people like me, who are curious about all sorts of things, and have an opinion (and occasionally some pertinent knowledge) about all sorts of things. (You can find my Quora content here). Although I have added links to Quora content throughout this article, I am not sure if you will be able to access them all without registering to the website.

Someone posted this question:
What is the appropriate name and pronoun to use when talking about things that Caitlyn Jenner did in the past, while she was known as Bruce and thought to be a man? 
That really got me thinking. Who won that gold medal?

From one point of view, it's pragmatic to say that the winner of the medal was Bruce Jenner. The competition was the Men's Decathlon. Therefore the correct pronoun to use is "he"; he won the medal. On the other hand, Jenner herself says she struggled with gender dysphoria her whole life, even when competing and winning that medal. And now the person who won the medal is Caitlyn Jenner, and takes female pronouns. Therefore she won the medal.

Call me Caitlyn
There was a reasonable amount of discussion in the responses to the question. As one might expect, some people felt quite strongly about the matter.

Tessa Norris writes:
The correct way to refer to a transitioned trans woman is to refer to her with her current name and pronouns, and to abandon her old name and pronouns.
Tamara Wiens writes:
Referring to a trans person by their "dead name" is usually taken to be very offensive. Personally, it's bothersome in an ill-defined way - when anyone says it, it makes my skin crawl, and I want to be ill, so it's fortunate that it is happening less and less all the time.
My preference is that no one use my former name, ever.

Whatever I did under another name, I did it. Katie was born in 1963. Katie married in 1990 and divorced in 2006. Katie fathered two beautiful children.

In the same sense, Caitlin Jenner was an Olympic athlete. She won a gold medal in the decathlon. She got married. She fathered children.
I disagree with Tessa Norris. There isn't, as yet, a "correct way". There is only a society struggling to agree on a way to get a linguistic handle on what is, for many people, a comparatively new phenomenon. I accept there are ways that some people would prefer over other ways, but that isn't the same thing as a "correct way".

I must say I had never heard of the term dead name or deadname before this discussion, and it struck me as a term laden with powerful connotations. It reminded me of the notion that in mediaeval times, a "funeral" service would be held for novice nuns and monks on entering their religious community, to symbolise their "death" to society; that the person who had previously lived was now gone. I don't really know how often this actually happened, but it seems terribly barbaric.
More from Vanity Fair

I can understand Katie Anne Holton's perspective. Nonetheless, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. When Bruce Jenner competed in the Olympics, everyone thought he was a man. He presented externally as a man (regardless of his inner feelings). All the documentation at the time used male pronouns. (In fact, even in the recent Bruce Jenner Interview With Diane Sawyer, Bruce agreed to be called Bruce and asked for masculine pronouns to be used even though transition was already underway).

Then there came a change, which was initiated by Bruce himself. He has asserted a new identity and changed his name. I think that we should now respect Caitlyn's new name and identity, but for me this doesn't apply retrospectively.

One's innate preferences and choices do not, in my opinion, compel the rest of society to rewrite the past. (And by preferences, I don't mean that gender is a preference, but I do consider that how people act and present is a preference and a choice. I think that Bruce was choosing at that time to try to be Bruce, even though that was difficult and painful).

I tried to take the discussion further, but the fact that I somewhat disagreed was met with some hostility at first:
Tessa Norris: You have the "right" to refer to my past against my express wishes in any way you choose. But only in the sense that you have the free speech right to call me a "tranny faggot" if you want.
Then came an answer by Elliott Mason, which I think was extremely pertinent:
How would you refer to the sports accomplishments of Muhammad Ali before he changed his name? It's an interesting parallel case to think about, because at the time his change was just as shocking and just as much of a media circus as Ms. Jenner's name change is now.

Also, very many female Olympians have married and changed their last names after their athletic careers are over. I don't think I've ever seen anyone make a big deal about using their maiden name to refer to their accomplishments in their former athletic career. One mention near the top, at most, and the rest of the article in their current name.
It certainly seems right to compare Muhammad Ali and Caitlyn Jenner, although Ali's name change came before much of his sporting success. I am not aware of any situation where Ali would be referred to by the name Cassius Clay, except in articles which say something like "Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay)".
What could they make me look like?

Elliott goes on:
Would you apply the same rule in the same way for people who changed their name for any other reason? When referring to childhood accomplishments of, for example, movie stars who use a screen name (Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Queen Latifah, and Judy Garland come to mind), do you insist on always pointing out their old name and saying that they changed it?

If you do not, then the only reason for a difference in how you treat them and Ms. Jenner is that you have some issue about her name change that you don't have about theirs, and you should think about that.
My response to this is much easier. All those names are stage names. A stage name is deliberately chosen for its attractive or unique qualities. A stage name is something one adopts for a stage persona, not a personal identity.

Do Olympic stars have their names engraved on their gold medals? I don't know. But suppose they do. Will Caitlyn Jenner have hers changed? I think probably not. To me it would seem as ridiculous as Laurence Tureau having his junior school Bronze Swimming Certificate changed to the name of Mr. T.

But I guess my final point is this. I can only comment from my own perspective. I don't consider myself to be a woman. I prefer to be treated as one when I am presenting as fem, but I regard this as a privilege which I need to merit, not a right.

Right now, I am not sure about what the future holds. Maybe I will transition at some point (say Jenner's age) and maybe not. Suppose I do, I would be quite happy to acknowledge my former identity; in fact, I quite like it (my current identity), which might be one reason why I don't feel I need to transition.

I don't see, if you could compare me to Jenner at an equivalent age, that there would be much difference between us. I have tried to suppress my feminine side; I have struggled (and still am) to find some balance.

And yet, I don't consider myself to be a woman, though I certainly don't consider myself to be an "ordinary" man either. I can understand how trans people might feel uncomfortable about their previous lives, but nonetheless those lives existed, objectively, sometimes for decades.

I would argue that one should respect an individual's choice of name and gender presentation. To me this is a facet of basic human understanding, tolerance and compassion. On the other hand, I don't think it's OK for an individual to insist that the past be rewritten just because its existence makes them uncomfortable.

As always, this is an ongoing discussion, to which your contributions would be welcomed.