135journals Blog. Rachel Dolezal v. Caitlyn Jenner: If you can your sex, can you choose your race?

14 Jun



I'd be very curious about what he'd think about this issue. (photo by Alexandra Hanson-Harding)

I’d be very curious about what he’d think about this issue. (photo by Alexandra Hanson-Harding)

Two people have been in the news for their self-chosen identities lately. Caitlyn Jenner has been called courageous for becoming a woman. Rachel Dolezal, a local NAACP leader, has been called ridiculous for calling herself black.

Critics rightly point out a big difference: Rachel flat out lied. And yeah,  some of her background stories seem quite strange. Jenner, an internationally famous athlete, had no such luxury. His decision to become a woman—or at least a transgendered person—was front page news.

On the other hand, it seems that Rachel has used her identity-of-choice in positive ways by creating successful programs, teaching, serving in leadership roles and trying to help improve life for her chosen community. Caitlyn’s main act of courage recently —and it is an act of courage—is to look better than I ever will in a bathing suit on a magazine cover. Bless her heart.

Otherwise, are they really, truly that different?

What I’m reading in the Twitterverse tells me yes. Here are a few articles :




I get why people could be very angry at Rachel Dolazel. Obviously, lying is bad. She was claiming some people as family members who weren’t. She was pretending to be a black woman when she wasn’t really a black woman. Some African-American friends of mine have suggested that they wouldn’t be offended if she wanted to be a white ally and colleague of African-Americans that would be fine, but that by pretending to be black herself, she was appropriating a history that wasn’t her own.

I completely understand why African Americans could feel that Ms. Dolezel is appropriating African American experience. But if that is so, couldn’t women feel that trans men are appropriating women’s experience? As a white person, I honor but feel that I cannot fully imagine the challenge, richness, pride, and complexity of what it would be like to inhabit the African American experience. I hope I can serve as a respectful friend and ally to my African American friends.

But then I can’t help wondering—is it easy for a man like Bruce Jenner, a tall, strong athlete, to understand what it’s like to grow up as a small female? What it’s really like to grow up in a girl’s body and face the struggles of fighting for your rights to be heard and seen when you are a small, smart, fierce girl child?

Here’s another article article that says it’s wrong to compare Jenner and Dolezal. The author’s reasons? Because it offends African Americans and the transgendered. Is anyone else left out here? http://www.mtv.com/news/2185488/you-must-not-compare-caitlyn-jenner-and-rachel-dolezal/. Oh. Women.

Women are always the ones who are supposed to wait until every other human rights concern are addressed, because some women are always among the privileged. Women worked fiercely for the Abolitionist cause and their reward was a 70 year wait for the chance to vote in U.S. elections. It is not easy to be female in this society or any other. Ever. To face the pain, beauty, and complexity of the female experience means many things too deep to name. It means being viscerally connected with blood, risk, death, life. It means being considered the “variety” kind of human, not the basic unit. It means being treated as a body It means that if you live now, you are only a generation away—barely—from want ads for “men only” and “women only,” and where even today, politicians think that you would think it was “cool” to be unnecessarily transvaginally probed for an ultrasound before you have an abortion. To be female means that you are both full of power and of terrifying vulnerability.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine that someone who didn’t grow up female can truly understand what it’s like to be female. So it’s easy for me to understand why someone who’s African American would find it difficult to understand why someone who didn’t grow up African American would understand what it would be like to be African American.

I can also understand the argument about lying. But even if Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner didn’t lie, surely some transgender people might have good reason to want to do everything they can to cover their tracks in order to start a new life as a man or woman. Anyone who supports allowing a transgendered person to change his or her birth certificate, for instance, should not object to what Rachel did, because both acts are ways of rewriting history in a world that is hostile to those who are different. I don’t think that transgendered people SHOULD be required to out themelves as former men or women, and if they want to put a misleading family picture on their desks at work to ward off snoopy officemates or some other small deception (not a legal one, of course, but a casual one), I would not fault them for keeping them for keeping their private lives private. Think of how many years gay people have been forced to live closeted lives. I am sure that transgendered people’s advocate would support their friends’ courage in moving forward with their lives by separating themselves from their former identities. To say that the Caitlyn Jenner story is different because she didn’t lie is to deny transgender people the freedom to put their pasts behind them.

If America is the land of second, third and fourth second chances, and bless our crazy, crazy hearts, we kind of are—then I say, live and let live. If they aren’t doing it to be mean, if they are just trying to be themselves and live as the humans they want to become, why don’t we just let it go. Isn’t life more interesting and juicy when people are full of quirks? I say let people, including Caitlyn AND Rachel be whoever they aspire to be.

Writing prompt: What do you think, readers?

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