Justice

Caitlyn Jenner Is Going Through a Phase of Transition That's Often Ignored

August 10th 2015

By:
Aron Macarow

The third installment of E!’s docu-series "I Am Cait" aired on Sunday evening. In it Caitlyn Jenner does what we're coming to expect: She spends more time confronting her privilege, she listens to the experiences of other women in the trans community, and she drinks champagne in stunning surroundings. To many reviewers, the show has become boring, even an "unwatchable mess."

But something marvelous and unexpected happened on this week’s show: We see Caitlyn Jenner find her voice. In doing so, she challenges the expectation that transgender people must not appear trans if we want our gender identity to be respected. Maybe it's okay even to just be trans as its own endpoint—and either male, female, or something else comfortably in-between. Checking your previous identity or life experiences at the door to get others to observe your gender identity? Not required.

We need this kind of role model for the general public.

Why we needed this week's "I Am Cait" episode

This past work-week, I was called "she" at one of my jobs—not once or twice, but repeatedly to another colleague on our team throughout an extended group conversation.

The misgendering wasn’t malicious, and I doubt it was entirely conscious. My medical transition reached a point where I had to come out as transgender to Human Resources a long time ago. But it was more than a year into working at this particular job that I switched pronouns, and the affronting co-worker had been present for the entire process. The other individual in the discussion did not notice.

Sometimes old habits die hard. Regardless, it stung. Even years after transitioning, I was immediately plunged into brief self-doubt and questioning. I wondered, "Was it something about my voice that made him use the wrong pronouns? What about my mannerisms that day or my slightly longer hair? What suddenly caused me not to pass?"

While Jenner wasn't actively misgendered on the show, she talked through a similar fear that many transgender people are all too familiar with: The women on the show called it getting "clocked," and I call it being outed as trans. It's what happens when some part of your behavior or appearance is judged as not masculine or feminine enough, and you stop being perceived in the world as who you are. Afraid that the timbre of her voice would not be read as female, Jenner had been asking the other women questions about their voices for two episodes now and she looked likely to continue into the third.

So when actress Candis Cayne, one of Jenner's new friends on the show, responded to her fears about the pitch of her voice by saying that Jenner was "allowed to be both"—referring to who Jenner was prior to transition and who she is now—it was surprisingly powerful:

“Your voice is [...] who you are. It’s your identity. You were this other person, and you are allowed to be both and not erase who you are.”

What did Candis mean?

Cayne eloquently says that her friend can be Caitlyn Jenner, a woman, and also have a deeper voice that is authentic to her self-presentation. Similarly, Jenner can be into off-road motorcycling while being into classic dresses. She can also look stunning in a women's swimsuit, but still call herself her children’s "daddy." In short, she can have complexity to her gender, even as a transgender person, and not need to present one ideal of femininity in order to be accepted for who she is. Even better? All of these potentially gender-contradictory events happened in one hour-long episode of "I Am Cait," and Jenner was no less female for it, and it was glorious.

Although I doubt many are fond of the gendered assumptions that are being made about activities here—can't riding a motorcycle be a human interest rather than a "boy" interest?—it's refreshing to not have these standards come down so hard on a transgender person in particular. There's an acknowledgement that transition isn’t a straight line with a simple start and an end, and that transgender people can exhibit a complex set of gendered characteristics just like everyone else. Better, we can carry seemingly opposite gender traits into our transition and not be any less trans for it.

This may not seem earth shattering, but in a world where many still have to play up "maleness" or "femaleness" in order to receive medical permission to transition, this openness is unexpected for a reality program produced by the team that brought us the Kardashians. I remember sitting in a chair answering absurd sounding questions about what area of the department store I shopped in to get approval for my first hormone prescription. I wore my most masculine shirt and tie. I tried to sound as straight and dude-ly as possible, since I knew my gender was up for critique and I only had this one chance to get it 'right.' What if I had said that I still liked pink? Or, that as a child I had liked to play with dolls? That wasn't so long ago; this still happens.

Cait's voice is pitch perfect

The pressure isn't just from outside. When complaints about menstruation or bra straps come up in my daily life, I remain silent concerned that speaking from my own experience will somehow make me less male. It’s also hard to find the words that I feel are appropriate to speak out on feminist issues as a man, but with my unique background, it shouldn't be. I censor myself regularly for fear that outing myself or bringing up my trans identity, even to those that already know, will somehow stop them from seeing me as male enough.

It would be easy to corner Jenner, saying that as arguably the most famous transgender person in America, she should present the most common and socially digestible narrative of transition—coming to terms with her ‘true self’ and erasing the person she was before her gender change. In the past, this narrative has included recommendations to take old photos down of the person pre-transition and hide evidence of their past, never telling anyone again once the transition is 'behind us.'

Luckily, we’ve moved beyond the necessity of some of these more archaic practices. But there is still a considerable amount of pressure to transition in an accepted way, both from strangers, from medical professionals and sometimes from ourselves. The typical goal? To be heterosexual and normatively feminine or masculine.

Jenner may seem like an unlikely torchbearer for wider gender flexibility because of who she is: In almost every scene of “I Am Cait,” Jenner appears in full makeup and with perfectly coifed hair. Her designer wardrobe is featured in magazines like People, and there’s her now famous Vanity Fair cover.

But her gender presentation is more complex in subtle ways, like the group motocross outing in this week’s episode and the language she uses to describe herself in relation to her family. We also get to glimpse it when she discusses her discomfort with being seen in a bathing suit. (She expresses the strangeness of having to “cover up” after having gone topless to swimming pools for most of her life as a male. I've experienced the same in reverse—a feeling that going topless is somehow flashing people, which has led me to reconsider my position on toplessness restrictions for women.)

These are conversations that many transgender people are discouraged from having, either by others or by their own internal fears—and I’m guilty of it, too. So we should listen when Jenner concludes at the end of the episode:

“I have realized that my voice is like the last thing to worry about. It’s about the words that come out, and the importance of those words—not about the pitch.”

At the core of what she realizes is that it’s okay if people recognize that we’re trans. Breaking our lives down into easily digestible, appropriately gendered parts shouldn’t be a prerequisite to being seen as who we are or being trusted to be experts on our own gender identity. This is actually freeing for everyone, trans and cis, as we all muddle our way through restrictive gender expectations on a daily basis.

This means that if I’m comfortable with mannerisms that are more feminine, I’m being my authentic self—a happy, sometimes feminine trans man, just like many feminine cisgender men. Accidental missteps with pronouns may happen, but that doesn’t mean that I should expect them. Or worse, question myself because of them.

She must have been channeling this voice at the Espy’s, too. From my perspective, Caitlyn, you have perfect pitch.

Read Aron Macarow's previous "I Am Cait" recaps here.