Caitlyn Jenner has more than two decades on me. Even so, when I look at that Vanity Fair cover, I feel ancient. Transgender, gender dysphoria, genderqueer, non-binary – all of these terms and the phenomena they describe are exotic to me. A few years ago, I suspect, they were still exotic to many of the people inside the media and out who are now handling them so deftly. When it comes to sexuality and gender, being a Catholic and de facto cultural conservative means being Rip van Winkle. You decide to take a power nap and end up sleeping through a revolution.
These past few days, a number of writers on Patheos’ Catholic Channel have tried to wrap their heads around Jenner 2.0. Some have taken flack for their tone, which critics claim is dismissive, snarky, or outright hostile. In their defense, a VF puff piece is the worst possible opening for a debate on such a sensitive subject. As an athlete, Jenner’s old, old news, and no more deserving of front-page treatment on that score than Leon Spinks. Gender transition aside, she doesn’t seem like a very interesting person. Whatever freakouts readers experience on account of Jenner’s new name, pronoun or wardrobe, are bound to be aggravated by their hard feelings toward celebrity culture in general.
And let’s not kid ourselves, gang. VF is banking on that reaction. It chose a shot where Caitlyn’s crotch is visible pour epater les bourgeois, and to make them wonder, “Damn! What-all she got left down there?” So, no – I can’t blame anyone for yelping when he’s kicked in the shins.
Yet (you’ll have noticed) I’ve elected to use the name and pronouns that Jenner has chosen for herself. Call it a strategic sacrifice. Even if Jenner can’t ever become a woman in the teleological sense, she is one in the legal sense. Disregarding that would be an act of brute defiance, like calling Zimbabwe “Rhodesia,” or Israel “that Zionist entity.” Rejectionism has its merits — it proves the strength of your convictions. But it also disenables you from doing anything but start a brawl.
Anyway, now that questions relating to gender and identity are being dumbed all the way down for us dinosaurs, it may be time to find some more engaging sources. A couple of years ago, The New Yorker ran a piece titled “About a Boy,” whose teenage subject was born a girl. Raised in an “affluent, wooded” suburb of New Haven, a “liberal enclave,” Skylar encountered no resistance when he declared himself male. His friends envy him, believing his story will make a great essay with which to impress college admissions boards. All in all, he comes across as one very well-adjusted, high-achieving kid. For that alone, you’ll hate his guts.
The article reports that stories like his are becoming more common. Increasingly, well-heeled parents see treating a 17-year-old to a double mastectomy as an analog to arranging for top-drawer SAT prep classes. For peers, body modifications like tattoos and piercings have made these surgeries seem more normal. “Because this change is happening so fast, and amid a flurry of mostly positive media attention,” the article cautions “it can be hard to recognize what a radical social experiment it is.”
Along with its generally anti-sensational approach, that cautious note makes the article well worth reading. One girl in a support group for trans teens confesses feeling “behind the curve” because she had started “socially transitioning” in high school, unlike many of the other members, who’d begun in elementary school. Small wonder the kids in this world are setting the pace of their own transitions – parents seem almost desperate to smother their reservations. Skylar’s mother, who “felt misgivings” when Skylar began wearing a binder to flatten his chest, now regrets that reaction as “totally inappropriate.” Of Skylar’s father, the author writes:
Sometimes, deep in a conversation, Chip would mention having had doubts, but he sounded tentative when he tried to articulate what those doubts had been, especially if Skylar was in the room. In one such instance, he said, carefully, “We grow and evolve in such complex ways, and there still existed this lingering thought that maybe he’ll think, I shouldn’t have done this—I could have lived as a man without doing the surgery.”
Between the “wisdom of repugnance” at one extreme and complete surrender on the other, there has to be some middle ground, and it’s heartbreaking that Skylar’s Yale-educated father can’t seem to find it.
But another parent gropes after it a little more resolutely. Danielle, the mother of Aidan, a 17-year-old transitioning to male, proposes that giving kids hormones, along with new names, might not, in the end, make them all that happy. “But a lot of these kids are sad for a variety of reasons,” she tells the interviewer. “Maybe the gender feelings are the underlying cause, maybe not.” She continues:
“The kids who are edgy and funky and drawn to artsy things—these are conversations that are taking place in dorm rooms,” Danielle said. “There are tides of history that wash in, and when they wash out they leave some people stranded. The drug culture of the sixties was like that and the sexual culture of the eighties, with AIDS. I think this could be the next wave like that, and I don’t want my daughter to be a casualty.”
It’s a nice bit of common sense, delivered with unmistakable love.