Yesterday I finally viewed the photos of Caitlyn Jenner—a 65-year-old bionic what? We have no word for her in our country except transgender. She claims she is a woman and her outer features are female and beyond the dreams of almost any other 65-year-old woman in the world. She sports the best body that money could buy and a life of pure athleticism could have developed. Everything has been transformed into the most beautiful appurtenances available, bought with a physical and psychological pain that perhaps rivals the growing pains of the typical adolescence. Anatomy isn’t destiny, nor is it physical identity. Caitlyn is, she says, a woman with a penis.
In Thailand she wouldn’t call herself a woman. She’d be one of the third gender, and culturally acknowledged to be that. In the West she has to choose one of two or use “trans” to define herself. In Thailand she would be katoey. How narrow and how revealing our English vocabulary is.
The same criticisms that Nora Ephron laid against James/Jan Morris are cropping up against Bruce/Caitlyn, who seems to look at the state of being female as a perpetual slumber party with the girls and the life-long right to wear nail polish. Morris became a gushing, twee version of Miss Marple in her early interviews but snapped out of it to become a respected writer once again. Maybe it’s the barrage of hormones that turns newly-minted femmes into teenage girls, blithering about hair, make-up, guys? God knows we all go through that stage, even if some of us are smart enough to keep it to ourselves.
And exactly what does Caitlyn mean when she claims her brain is much more female than male? As one of the world’s leading athletic competitors, does she believe that urge to compete and excel is part of her female brain or is that a compensating physical trait developed because she was denied the joys of shopping? I hope she explains because a lot of her fellow-females would like to know about that brain concept, as Elinor Burkett trenchantly inquired in last week’s Sunday NYT.
Burkett seems most annoyed that men are now co-opting the reality of being a woman. “Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity.” Well, no, it isn’t and they aren’t. But they are another sort of female, who in our narrow culture have endured the indignities of being scorned as “effeminate,” “faggot,” and “sick” if they let their female identities slip into the open. That’s a rough road to travel by yourself, as katoey in the West do.
Why can’t we acknowledge that there are more than two forms of gender? And that if brains are shaped by environmental experience, that the experiences of a katoey sculpt a brain that is different, separate but equal, to that of a female and male who grew up in the same culture?
“I was born in the wrong body” isn’t a cop-out, as Birkett suggests. Amy Bloom’s small and insightful book on gender, Normal, proves that. For some, being “born female or male” is the result of a rapid decision made by a doctor who, faced with an infant’s ambiguous genitals, wasn’t really sure. Where are hormones produced and when do they first begin to manifest themselves in a growing body? Children in Thai villages often announce their gender when they are far too young to know about Nong Toom, the katoey boxer, or other social influences. How do they come to that knowledge?
The rage Birkett displays against the vocabulary—of transgenders rejecting the term vagina or even woman—is absurd. “Binary views of male and female” haven’t been smashed at all by Birkett and others as long as society continues to define people solely as male and female. “Gender neutrality” isn’t what’s needed here—gender expansion is. Two is obviously not enough.