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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner: What We Aren't Talking About

He was the teacher's pet. I was the teacher and he was my pet. Why did I favor him? He had a sixth finger on each hand. That made him stand out. But he was my pet because he was dyslexic. I didn't praise him more than I praised other students, I didn't give him presents, I just took extra time to teach him to read. I did this because I myself am dyslexic. One day he gave me a marble. That was astounding – we were in Nepal, one of the poorest countries on earth. He probably owned just the clothes on his back, canvas sneakers, and this marble, and he gave it to me.

I still have that marble. For years I carried it in my backpack. When that backpack died, I placed the marble in a clear glass container I keep on top of my refrigerator. I never want to forget that student, though I don't even remember his name.

He died in spring of diarrhea. The monsoon starts in spring. People have been defecating in out-of-the-way places all winter. The rains wash a mass of fecal matter into water supplies, and people always die in spring with the onset of the rains.

"Globally, an estimated 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrheal diseases," UNICEF reported in 2013.

I left Nepal decades ago but it's with me today. I think of Nepal and the recent earthquakes. I think of some of the kindest and most beautiful, inside and out, people I've ever met. I think of victims crushed and helpless and very far from help.

When I was a Peace Corps teacher in the Central African Republic, I used to buy my peanut butter in an open-air market. African women made the peanut butter by crushing their harvest of peanuts on smooth rocks with old cans.

I bought my peanut butter from one lady who was about my age – 21 – and who always had a baby tied to her hip with a piece of cloth.

I tried to converse with her in French and Sango, the lingua franca. Her native tongue was a tribal language, neither French nor Sango.

I learned through these stop-and-go conversations that this woman had lost two previous children to scabies. Scabies are mites that burrow under the skin. The scabies themselves don't cause death. The children have dirty fingernails. They scratch at the scabies bites. The scratches become infected. The children die.

This new child also had scabies.

I had no medication. I jumped on trucks; I traveled to a couple of distant towns. I talked to snotty American aid workers who didn't want to help because they thought I was asking for myself. I made it clear that I was asking for an African woman and finally I got my hands on my some medication, brought it back, gave it to my peanut butter lady, and demonstrated through sign language, French and Sango how to use it.

She was so grateful she gave me a chicken and never allowed me to pay for peanut butter again.

I think of the Central African Republic, where two years ago Muslims began a genocide of Christians, and Christians retaliated with a genocide against Muslims, and the world looked on and watched.

I think that this is a beautiful ideal: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need."

I think about the unequal distribution of resources every day. Once you've watched a child starve, I can't imagine that you wouldn't think about these things as I do.

I don't say anything, but when someone tells me that he or she just spent some ridiculous sum on some ridiculous toy, I scream inside.

I once had a boyfriend who thought it made sense to spend a thousand dollars on a pool cue. We fought over this. That relationship died.

I'm thinking about all this this morning because the other day Dr. Anne G Myles, who teaches at the University of Northern Iowa, and who received her own degrees from Bryn Mawr and the University of Chicago – very elite schools – called me an "utterly selfish and mean-spirited asshole on the wrong side of history and justice."

She and I have never met. We were not engaged in a conversation. She read something I wrote about Caitlyn Jenner. You can read that essay here. What I said was that switching pronouns for transgender people is not a good idea. And the good professor, rather than address me with any respect, rather than discuss the ideas at hand, snapped at me as if I were her cleaning woman.

I googled "transgender pronouns" and on the first page of results I found a page saying that "cis gender" people should "shut the fuck up." See that page here.

So, no, we aren't supposed to discuss the fact that we are being asked to change how we use language to accommodate less than one percent of the population that identifies as transgender. We must go along. If we do not, if we think and speak, in however courteous and responsible a way about this societal development, people in power will immediately label us "assholes," and tell us to "shut the fuck up."

We have a right to think and speak. If we redefine "woman" to mean "someone who has cleavage and wears spike-heeled shoes" and appears on the cover of Vanity Fair, non-traditional females like me, who have never owned spike-heeled shoes, or who have had breasts, wombs, and other feminine body parts removed because of cancer, or who are not Vanity Fair cover model material, will be defined as not female – which of course is the fate we suffered under the Feminine Mystique. We worked for decades to say that a woman in a flannel shirt is still a woman, that a woman engineer or mathematician is still a woman, that a woman who isn't pretty is still a woman. The Anne G Myleses of the world want us to change that, and not talk about it before we change it. We have a right to talk about this because it is our language, and our jobs if speech codes come to apply in the workplace, and our money. Obamacare pays for sex change surgery.

People are demanding that I change what pronoun I use, and that is why I am suddenly aware of Bruce Jenner / Caitlyn Jenner, someone I otherwise never thought about. I do not have a TV and I have not watched "Keeping up with the Kardashians" and I just now required both Google and Wikipedia to discover the name of the show.

I care about language because I speak. I care about what society says about gender because I'm a woman who has always been given a hard time because I am what used to be called a tomboy – I'm taller than average, I've never been pretty, I don't wear makeup, I spend my free time in the woods, and I unscrew my own jars. At the same time, I am bad with math, machinery and computers and I really do need a man to rescue me at least once a month, and men are generally kind enough to do so.

I like that feminism encouraged society to embrace and support tomboys like me. I lived in Poland and while there I felt societal pressure to be more feminine than I am and I hated it. So, yes, this all matters to me. When people in power like Anne G Myles insist that we have to define "woman" as "someone fluffy and feminine and self-trivializing" I see society take giant leaps backward and I don't want to go along.

So, yes, I have been reading about Caitlyn Jenner.

Here's a little Caitlyn Jenner fact that very few people are talking about: cost.

Some say the new face cost $70,000. Some say the complete transition cost four million dollars.

I have no idea if any of those numbers are correct.

In any case, Caitlyn's appearance is not cheap.

In a Facebook conversation, one poster said that Caitlyn was a great role model for seven-year-old transgender children.

I'm not supposed to question that, because if I do question that, the gender gestapo will descend.

I'm questioning it anyway.

Is a four million dollar transformation really a role model for a seven-year-old child? Or an adult who identifies as transgender? According to the Movement Advancement Project, transgender people are disproportionately very poor. Is dangling an unattainable, multi-million-dollar makeover in front of them a responsible thing to do? Even basic gender reassignment surgeries, without all the refinements Jenner enjoys, can costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Can we talk about this allotment of resources? Or if we do will we be arrested and thrown into Politically Correct thought crime jail?

The Daily Beast published "Obamacare Now Pays for Gender Reassignment" on August 25, 2014. You can read it here.

In it, forty-something Devin Payne said that he felt uncomfortable in the role of husband to his wife and provider to his four children. "I was just horrible at it because it wasn't who I was." "He felt increasingly anxious, and in late 2012, a therapist helped him to realize that he was meant to live as a woman. Payne said his entire outlook on life changed when he started taking female hormones."

Taxpayers footed the bill.

It is not established science that gender reassignment surgery is the only course to health for some people. On June 12, 2014, Johns Hopkins psychiatrist-in-chief Paul McHugh argued that gender reassignment surgery is so questionable that Johns Hopkins, "the first American medical center to venture into 'sex-reassignment surgery'" "launched a study in the 1970s comparing the outcomes of transgendered people who had the surgery with the outcomes of those who did not." On the basis of that study, they stopped doing gender reassignment surgery. You can read his account in the June 12, 2014 Wall Street Journal here.

On July 30, 2004, The Guardian, a liberal publication, wrote "There is no conclusive evidence that sex change operations improve the lives of transsexuals, with many people remaining severely distressed and even suicidal after the operation, according to a medical review conducted exclusively for Guardian Weekend tomorrow."

On November 11, 2014, The Federalist published "Trouble in Transtopia: Murmurs Of Sex Change Regret: Transgender People Who Regret Their Sex Changes Typically Get Buried in Venom Rather Than Loved."

The article contains sobering testimonies from those who regret having had gender reassignment surgery, including this one, "What's scary is you still feel like you have a penis when you're sexually aroused. It's like phantom limb syndrome. It's all been a terrible misadventure. I've never been a woman, just Alan . . . the analogy I use about giving surgery to someone desperate to change sex is it's a bit like offering liposuction to an anorexic."

And this, "I get a lot of letters from people who are considering having this operation…and I discourage them all."

The cost, way out of the range of what most can afford. The reports of regret. The lack of established science. The demand to change language, and to change the definition of woman back to the feminine mystique version.

We need to talk about this. And we need to respectfully overcome those who would shout us down.


  1. I think that this is a beautiful ideal: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need."
    I do not agree, ma'am. That's a sinister ideal. Who will say what are his abilities, what are his needs? I'll tell you who, ma'am. The same people in position of power telling you what you can and cannot say about that glamorous Frankenstein with whom almost everybody is in rapturous love right now. The intellectual elite.

    "[She] snapped at me as if I were her cleaning woman." That is an unfortunate analogy. We don't snap at the service. Is called mannerliness.

    1. Cristina, "from each..." etc doesn't work if it is forced. It can be voluntary and often is. Someone dies; neighbors bring over a casserole. It's a beautiful thing.

      I'm glad you don't snap at your workers. I have been a cleaning woman and it isn't always so nice.

  2. The ideal we are talking about is the distributive principle of communism. What you described is charity.
    There is no voluntary giving to each according to his needs, etc. We give him, materially and otherwise, as a help not as a solution to his plight. We do not give him as much as he needs. We never do, or could do, it according to his needs. Much less so according to his capacities.
    I have been in the receiving end of some snapping several times. No, it's not nice.