I am going to tackle head-on the conservative attack on Caitlyn Jenner that has erupted since the Rachel Dolezal story broke. I will leave the response to Dolezal to others to parse, but I will take my colleague, Jonathan Capehart's advice and "move along" to, once again, school the conservatives in biology.
As Richard Pérez-Peña reported in The New York Times:
But many conservative commentators accused liberals of hypocrisy for accepting Caitlyn Jenner as a woman, but not Ms. Dolezal as black. 'So, to recap, if Rachel Dolezal says she is a man, we must all agree, on pain of being publicly censured,' Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative. 'But if Rachel Dolezal says she is black, it is fair game to challenge her claim.'
In National Review, Charles C. W. Cooke wrote that 'lies are not necessarily delusions, and it is possible that Dolezal is just a good old-fashioned fabricator,' but he predicted that people on the left would eventually come to her defense.
I have to hand it to the right-wing noise machine to not have missed an opportunity for the trifecta of attacking feminists, trans women and African-Americans all at once. Quite an impressive feat, actually, with little preparation. But it all falls apart if we take the simple tweet Jonathan Capehart sent:
FTLOG, Caitlyn Jenner is Not Pretending to Be a Woman.
Charles Cook, quoted above, provides a number of explanations for Dolezal's behavior -- lying, delusional behavior or "good, old-fashioned" fabrication. I can add confabulation, an old-fashioned ruse, or maybe simply a padding of the résumé which got out of hand years ago and fit so well she even forgot her own truth. They all fit under the umbrella of pretense.
Caitlyn Jenner is not pretending. Jenner has been a woman since birth -- or more likely, before birth -- like many, if not most, trans women. The development of transsexualism, the condition of being transgender, is well described by experts in the field as "atypical gender development." There is research galore to satisfy anyone's, including an open-minded conservative's, curiosity. And while there are variations in trans biology, many which have yet to be seriously studied due to the general American discomfort with all things sexual, it really is pretty clear cut: your sense of self as a sexual being, your gender identity, is rooted in your brain. We all, as human beings, have a gender identity. For the small proportion of the population, roughly around a half of a percent, whose gender identity doesn't match their genitals, the choice is to either live with the dysphoria, or reassign their gender to fit their gender identity, with or without anatomical and physiological interventions. This isn't, when you get down to it, very complicated.
Sean Davis, writing in the Federalist, states:
In a 2013 essay for The Atlantic, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explained the social, not biological, foundation of race in the modern age:
Our notion of what constitutes 'white' and what constitutes 'black' is a product of social context. It is utterly impossible to look at the delineation of a 'Southern race' and not see the Civil War, the creation of an 'Irish race' and not think of Cromwell's ethnic cleansing, the creation of a 'Jewish race' and not see anti-Semitism. There is no fixed sense of 'whiteness' or 'blackness,' not even today.
He makes a great point. We know precisely the definition of male (an X and a Y chromosome) and female (two X chromosomes)-or at least we did before society lost its collective mind-but is it possible to give a precise, quantifiable definition of black or white?
Coates argues that you can't, because so much of it depends on the social and historical context of a given culture.
I agree with Coates, because regardless of the biological differences among the groups we classify as races, be they the perceived differences in melatonin levels in skin melanocytes or the genetic heritage of Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi Jews, the lived reality of the "races" in our modern world is purely a social construct. Where he steps in it is his categorical statement, reminiscent of the recent statement of Archbishop Cordileone about Jenner -- "The clear biological fact is that a human being is born either male or female" -- which is utterly false. I've written about this in greater depth the past two weeks, and I won't repeat myself here. Davis doesn't know that the definition of male and female is "precise," because it isn't. That he, like Cordileone, states his cartoonish definition of sex as a simple fact is simply more evidence of the reality of cultural and religious conservatives who have, since the days of Galileo, refused to take the time to understand science or how it works. Ideology trumps reality, and it must be so comforting to be so simple-minded.
There is also a particular reason that this analogy of "transracial" to "transgender" is so hurtful to the trans community. The lead proponent of the effort to repair trans kids, Dr. Ken Zucker of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, once famously concocted a new diagnosis called "racial identity disorder" to justify his team's efforts at reparative therapy:
Suppose you were a clinician and a 4-year-old black kid came into your office and said he wanted to be white. Would you go with that? ... I don't think we would.
In that NPR interview Zucker went on to say:
By declaring the child as transgendered at, say, age 3 or age 4 or age 6, and then saying in a sense, 'Go with the flow,' ... that will impact, I believe, on how the kid's gender identity differentiates.
The reporter interpreted that comment to mean that Zucker has come to believe that taking the view that kids are born transgender ultimately produces more transgender people. So have a few other holdouts, like Bailey, Blanchard and Vilain, about whom I've recently written. As Vilain and Bailey said about trans girls -" we would prefer to save Maxine the serious medical interventions and possible side effects," which is simply a polite way of saying they'd like to spare the world another trans woman.
Finally, to show that not all conservatives are transphobic simpletons, we have this studied response from Nick Gillespie of the libertarian wing:
To say that Jenner's very public coming out disturbed social conservatives is an understatement. Between the ritual unwillingness to use female pronouns in relation to Jenner to exhortations that she is clearly deranged, it's fairer to say that cons lost their shit.
'A surgically damaged man appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the applause is mandatory,' opined National Review's David French. 'If we're not going to defend as a party basic principles of male and female, that life is sacred because it comes from God, then you're going to lose the vast majority of people who've joined that party,' howled Iowa talk-radio host Steve Deace.
It probably didn't help that Jenner called herself a Republican in a widely viewed interview with Diane Sawyer and that low-wattage GOP presidential candidates Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum showed kindness toward the one-time world-record holder.
In a great roundup of conservative responses to Jenner (from which the French and Deace quotes are cribbed) and a keen analysis of why the antagonistic response is 'ultimately a loser' for conservatives, The Economist's Will Wilkinson writes, 'Caitlyn Jenner of Malibu is a leading indicator not of the secularisation of America, but of the ongoing Americanisation of Christianity.'
At Outside the Beltway, Doug Mataconis argues that when conservatives equate Dolezal and Jenner, they aren't making 'serious arguments, of course.' [It's just] another attempt by social conservatives to demean transgender people, a phenomenon that has been quite prevalent on that side of the political spectrum over the past two weeks. Even taking the arguments at face value, though, they don't add up...
Rachel Dolezal didn't 'choose her race,' she committed fraud by lying about her background. She can choose to adopt whatever culture she wishes, but that's not what happened here. She lied about her background, not just to the public but apparently also on job applications.
That's fraud. The people who are trying to use this case to draw analogies to, or mostly just to make stupid, snarly comments about, the issues raised last week by the Caitlyn Jenner story, are just being obnoxious jerks.
Once again we have conservatives behaving badly. I hope we all, including the feminists among us, have learned from these past few days, and will choose to discriminate between pretense and truth.