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.


  1. I'm interested to know if you can quote anywhere that Caitlyn (or anyone else has actually stated she's Transsexual?

    1. Hi Rachel. I don't know whether Caitlyn has stated that she is a transsexual. However, as someone born a male who has transitioned to female, I think this is a reasonable description of her.

    2. Are you aware as to wether she's had or even seeks to have SRS?

    3. I just did a quick internet search. Some sources are reporting she has had SRS, and some are reporting she hasn't. I suspect the true picture will emerge more clearly with time. I understand that at the time she had the Vanity Fair shoot, she hadn't had SRS, and considered the surgery wasn't necessary to become a woman.

  2. Rachel, regardless of her surgical status, Caitlyn's presentation strongly suggests that the best descriptor for her is "transsexual". Note that there is exactly NO requirement for any individual to have SRS to be considered transsexual - pre, non or post op are all included in the same transitioned bucket/label.

    Vivienne, I strongly disagree with your conclusions, and your assertions. No one is asking that history be re-written - Caitlyn's medals don't need to be re-issued, nor do all of the historical records need to be edited to change her name. However, any new book or other material written about Caitlyn's decathlon win should be written using her current name, with only a cursory mention of her previous name. Your viewpoint, presented under the transgender umbrella from a "questioner", does NOT resonate with any other trans person that I know of, and is unlikely to resonate with the majority of the transsexual community - this is the segment whose opinion and feelings are most relevant, since the answers to these questions are ones that impact us most directly.

    Maybe it helps to look at this from another perspective. If someone got married and changed their name, would you insist on dragging out their old name when referring to anything that happened before their marriage, OTHER than as a passing reference? How about things like the "N" word? There was a time in the US when using that word for black Americans was not only accepted but required in many communities. That does NOT entitle white Americans today to use that word despite the very clearly racist meaning, AND THE OBJECTIONS OF THE BLACK COMMUNITY. That is the key point - the fact that something WAS de rigueur does NOT make it valid in perpetuity. That would be as silly as referring to you as a boy no matter how old you became, or by a common but undesired nickname even if you hate it.

    No matter what you think, your actions and beliefs are hurting people who are directly affected by this, in a way that you are not.

    1. Thanks for posting your comments Tamara. I am always open to other viewpoints, provided that they are made civilly. I do not intend to cause offence, and if you or other readers have a different view, I invite those comments to be posted here.

      One of the themes of this blog is that trans people have more in common than they sometimes admit. I am a lumper, not a splitter, though I openly admit I am a questioner. I question myself just as much as I question others.

      This blog represents a work in progress: my own journey and my own understanding are still evolving, and the blog is simply my way of having those conversations.


    2. Thank you very much for attempting to "educate" me Tamara, However, on a personal level, "surgical status" is very important to me and I (again, personally) believe it is very relavent regarding transsexuals.

      Less so when speaking of "transgender" people, however that is simply my perspective. I had not intended on vocalising it, I simply asked two questions in an effort to try and gain some clarity as to viviennes post/perspective and her motivation for choosing the words she did.

    3. Rachel, I have no idea about your personal circumstances. My comments weren't to dismiss your interest in SRS, but to address what seemed like another attempt to redefine transsexual on the basis of surgical status. I have seen too much of that lately from people seeking to create division and classes of trans people and I'm tired of it. I did not intend to offend.

    4. "Classes" Tamara? You have me interested, is that what you believe SRS (or "surgical status" as you put it) or even transgenderism is about?

      Is it a competition?

      My interest and emphasis on SRS is based upon the capabilties it affords an individual person, the ability (in the case of MTF) to be penetrated by a male partner (or against ones will, by an attacker), a common ability shared by physically female (born) people, hardly a "status" in my opinion.

      I care nothing for competing for or defining "class" for transgender people, In truth, I don't believe any human is more or less "noble" or deserving than any other, I do believe though, that not everyone's situation in life is the same (well illustrated by Ms Jenner and how rapid her transformation has been in comparison to other transgender people)

    5. Hi Rachel and Tamara.

      One of the central themes of this blog is that people are welcome to post their views and their opinions, but they need to do it civilly. This discussion is looking like it could get out of hand.

      As you know (because on this blog I am always banging on about it), I think there is more that unites trans people than divides us. Nonetheless, I think there is a tendency among some groups to divide trans people into categories (full-time vs part-time, hormones vs no hormones, SRS vs no SRS, and so on), and I think that some people can develop a sort of siege mentality about which category they belong to, an us-and-them attitude which can cause them to be critical of those they perceive as belonging to other categories.

      I personally think this should be resisted. I sincerely believe there is much we can learn from one another, regardless of our background or "category". But this can only happen if we agree to talk civilly and respectfully to one another.


  3. Vivienne, in honesty I have very little personal investment in any debate about this, I never sought to start any argument(s) my only (and original) question was s to why the word transsexual was chosen in this instance to define Caitlyn Jenner.

    I have not at any point seen her refer to herself as transsexual (and according to your comment neither have you) and yet you chose that word for her, you must have done that for some reason (?)

    I thought perhaps you might have heard confirmation that she's had SRS (I hadn't heard that) and that perhaps that was why you chose to call her transsexual (it seems that is where most people draw the "line") which is why I asked the second question.

    Tamara states that there is no difference (or should not be) and yet you've both chosen that word for her (and defended your choice) when she (caitlyn) has not chosen that word for herself.

    You are both labelling her, taking HER right to self definition away from her (in spite of Tamara's apparent belief that we should all be able to self define and our decisions should be respected)

    I'm simply trying to understand why that's so?

    Perhaps Caitlyn is happy to be defined or considered (simply) Transgender, and perhaps she's happy enough with herself and her body without having had SRS.

    I (for one) see no problem with that, but I think (after this exchange) that perhaps it might help you both to take some time and do some work introspectively.

    1. Hi Rachel,

      You're right, of course. I am applying the label "transsexual" to Caitlyn, without her using that word about herself. As I stated above, it seems "reasonable" to me.

      If there were clear agreement about the definition of the word "transsexual" then I might be prepared to entertain your argument that I have misapplied it. But another of the themes of this blog is how loosely any term to do with gender non-congruence is defined or applied. People appropriate words, insist upon their own definitions, and react vehemently against anyone who disagrees.

      Of course, if I disagree with you (or anyone), the reason must be because I haven't thought about it hard enough. I assure you this isn't the case!

      However, I also assure you that I do change my views based on others' opinions and feedback. A good way for you to provide this feedback would be something like this: "I am not sure that transsexual is the right word to describe Caitlyn Jenner. She hasn't used that word about herself, and I don't think she's had SRS. I think it would be better to use the term transgender woman". I think an approach like that is far more likely to result in my thinking about changing my mind.


    2. Vivienne, I'm not here to, nor interested in changing your (or anyone else's) mind.

      I believe, it's people's motivations that I'd need to change in order for us to reach agreement and I think there's nearly as much chance that I'd suceed in telling the sun not to shine or a dog not to bark, further, I stand nothing to gain for even trying so why waste my time and start a disagreement that will only see me suffer.

      No, you're entitled to free speech and to your personal opinions, I won't make any effort to take them from you.

      With that said, I think the term transsexual (regardless of what I personally believe it to mean) is clearly understood by almost all people. It seems (at least) both you and Tamara understand it well enough to apply it to someone (whether rightly or wrongly).

      All I would say again, is what I tried to say before: love yourselves! It's more important than any of this pointless back and forth, and it's more important than anything anyone else might think, say or do to or about you.


  4. I think there is no one way that is going to satisfy everyone, besides asking the individual what they prefer and respecting it. As for the past references,, again it is up to the individual to decide in this matter not society or someone else. By doing this we are respecting how they want to be addressed.

    As for individual they should return the respect by understanding that it is confusing to some people and they might get it wrong. Especially if the person is referring to something in the past and may not know the individual changed their name. The individual should not take it as offensive or an insult to who they are as a person. Just a misunderstanding and correct the person so they know how to refer to them in the future.

    1. Thanks for this very balanced comment Michelle.

      I think we have reached a watershed, thanks partly to Caitlyn Jenner herself, where suddenly people are much more aware of trans people. I think it has resulted in society developing more accepting attitudes overall (with some predictable pushback). As a result, perhaps it will be common for people to be asked which name and pronouns they prefer, and to give the answer without taking the question as an attack.


  5. To the article - I'm a transman, i transitioned in my 40's. I dont use the term deadname and do find it a rather repulsive term. My parents do use my birthname when refering to my past/childhood. I even think of myself as birthname when thinking of my youth. So for me it is the past tense. It would not be fine to use my birthname to me now, because i am not that person anymore.
    As to the transsexual 'discussion'. I believe my medical diagnosis described me as a transsexual with gender dysphoria, (all while i was still birthname and presenting as a female) so yeah not sure what surgical intervention had to do with that?

    1. Thanks for posting your comment Ade. I think your approach to your birth name is reasonable and balanced.