Transgender Awareness: Caitlyn, Community and the Authentic Self

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It is all over the media – the hot story for summer. Caitlyn Jenner makes her first public appearance before the entire world. With help from photographer Annie Leibovitz, Jenner introduces herself on the cover of the upcoming July issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Wearing a white, strapless bathing suit with her brown locks cascading down around her shoulders, Jenner recalls the romantic images of golden age Hollywood starlets.

Leibovitz photograph for July Vanity Fair Magazine [Graphic by SynergyByDesign / Flickr]

Leibovitz photograph for July Vanity Fair Magazine [Graphic by SynergyByDesign / Flickr]

Jenner’s story has captured the media’s attention, from newspapers to ESPN broadcasters. In most instances, she has received a huge amount of support. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jenner was America’s “golden child.” As reported by ESPN, while many athletes were pushing the limits of respectability and their own health, Jenner was as radical as Wonder Bread. She was a marketers dream. Eventually time moved on, ending her “Wheatie box” reign. However, in the eyes of America’s cultural story, Jenner’s hero-status was never lost.

That status undoubtedly helped ease public acceptance of her recent transition. According to The Washington Post, the U.S. Olympic committee said yesterday that it would be willing to change the records to reflect Jenner’s new name and gender identification. ESPN will be honoring her with the Arthur Asche Courage Award at the ESPY’s July 15.

In a public statement, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said, “By sharing her journey with the world, Caitlyn Jenner is accelerating acceptance of transgender people everywhere and reminds us all how important it is to live as your most authentic self.” In its press release, GLAAD has offered  “media notes” to assist any news agencies reporting on Jenner’s story or that of other trans people.

Laverne Cox [Credit: Tulane Publications  / Flickr]

Laverne Cox [Credit: Tulane Publications / Flickr]

However, within that support, there have also been some reminders and questions raised, centering on Jenner’s own privilege as well as the definitions and treatment of femininity. In a passionate and now famous Tumblr post, transactivist Laverne Cox touched on both of these issues. After praising Jenner for her courage, Cox admitted that the media attention had got her thinking. She said:

A year ago when my Time magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am “drop dead gorgeous” and that that doesn’t represent most trans people … But what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to health care, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class.

Recently, one story caught the attention of the greater Pagan community. On May 5, Elain Corrine, a Gardnerian/Alexandrian Wiccan living in Washington State, posted this on her Facebook wall:

[Printed with permission]

[Printed with permission]

In an interview, Corrine told The Wild Hunt that she had struggled with gender identity her entire life. When she was five she asked her mother why she was born with boy parts if she was a girl. Her mother “freaked out.” Corrine said, “I learned very quickly to hide what I felt and became very adept at ‘being a man’ outwardly.” She eventually assumed that she was just a straight man with screwed up wiring.

Corrine lived like that for 50 years, before embracing what Ellis called, “her most authentic self.” Corrine said, “The reality is … I am neither straight, nor a guy. I am a woman attracted to other women.” In October 2014, she began the transition. At first privately and then more publicly. She lost some friends, but most of her family was supportive. In a letter to all of them, she said, “I just want all of you to know that I love you and while I am changing … I am still the same person I have always been”

However, life wasn’t that simple. Corrine had long suffered from bouts of depression, and had also been recently diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening lung infection. As if that wasn’t enough, the transition medications exacerbated the depression, while the treatments for the infection came with their own physical unpleasantries. By early May, Corrine felt “alone, hated and so empty.” She said:

I knew coming out as Transgender was going to cause me pain thanks to the small fearful minds of people who have never walked in my shoes but are so sure of their moral superiority and rightness that they can judge me and hate me for trying to be happy. I knew I risked being assaulted, beaten, possibly even killed by those same people. I knew this and the weight of my depression, my friend proving themselves to not really being my friend and the knowledge of the journey I faced was too much. I took enough medication to kill me several times over. Posted my goodbye figuring nobody would even see it until at least a couple of hours after I was already dead and then went and laid down in my bed. I closed my eyes and curled up…

Fortunately, some of Corrine’s friends saw the Facebook post within minutes of it being posted. They sprung into immediate action, contacting Facebook and family members, and sharing the suicide note on a Pagan leadership group. Corrine said that she has no idea how it actually happened, but someone was able to break her door down and get her to the hospital in time. She added, “My doctors told me that I was basically dead when I arrived and that I was lucky to have survived.” While she was angry at first that she survived, she is now very thankful.

Corrine’s story is not unique. According to a 2015 GLAAD survey, 41% of transgender Americans have reportedly attempted suicide. This is in contrast to 1.6% of all Americans. The GLAAD survey itself is comprehensive in illustrating the realities faced by transgender Americans.

However, no two experiences are the same and no one transgender person speaks for all. In Minnesota, Wiccan Kathleen Culhane, owner of Sidhe Brewing Company, said, “Everyone’s journey is hard. Everyone’s is different.” She added that, “I am a success in what I do. I have had some privileges and resources, making it easier for me, than for some. But I’ve also had loss and I have struggled.”

Founder Kathleen Culhane at Sidhe Brewery [photo Cara Schulz]

Co-founder Kathleen Culhane at Sidhe Brewing Company [Photo: C. Schulz]

When Culhane first transitioned in the late 1990s, she lost “access to much of her birth family” and was fired from her job. But she quickly added, “I learned early that things really do happen for a reason. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.” She noted that, without all of that forced change, she would never have moved to Minnesota, where she met her current friends, became involved in the local Pagan community, and began the Sidhe Brewing Company.

Culhane said, “When you are on the other side of transition, you see these great barriers. But they are false fronts, like the sets of a old western movie. They have no substance to them, or not as much as you give them credit. When you start to push through them, you can overcome and succeed.”

We also spoke with Luke Babb, a transmasculine Pagan, who agreed with Culhane in saying that the journey is unique to each person. Babb said:

Luke Babb

Luke Babb

I didn’t harbor a dark secret. I didn’t start becoming something I had never been before. What I did was become more comfortable with myself and start to navigate how to get other people to recognize and respect me for who I am. The difficult part of this, for me, has been getting other people to respect my identity. The details of my legal and physical transition have nothing on my ongoing difficulties with my family, my partner’s family, and the complete strangers we have to deal with every day.

Similar to comments made by others, Babb stressed that their “massive amount of privilege” helped in the process. Babb explained:

Im well off enough to live comfortably on my own, and pursue the level of medical transition I need to feel good in my own body. (Which, right now, don’t include…) I have support networks. I’m white, and transmasculine, which means I get to avoid the racism and transmisogyny that make life so difficult for many people on the trans spectrum. I’m able-bodied… I cannot even start to compile a list of all the privileges that make it possible for me to say that my biggest struggle in transitioning has been other people.

Corrine, Culhane and Babb all noted their support for Jenner’s transition. But like Cox and other transactivists, they commented on the media’s emphasis of her physical appearance. Corrine welcomed the public conversation about transpeople, but also called the media’s attention “a circus” and feared it was “making a mockery of the issue and of people like [herself].”

Culhane said, “The media sexualizes transwomen and focuses how fabulous we look.” While she did say that this is not much different from what is done to cisgender women, she speculated that it may be potentially worse because society, in general, can’t easily understand why a man would “willing gives up that oh so important masculinity.”

Echoing portions of Laverne Cox’s Tumblr post, Babb said:

I deeply dislike the tendency to link a trans person’s legitimacy to their attractiveness – especially because that attractiveness is always judged based on how much they resemble a cis person. (Usually a cis heterosexual person.) Caitlyn’s photos are stunning, and I’m incredibly pleased that she’s comfortable with herself and her body. But I do think they participate in some of the more problematic standards of our society. Caitlyn’s legitimacy as a person should not be based on her attractiveness. Nobody’s should.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Rhonda Garelick discusses this very issue, observing that not only is the media focused on Jenner’s beauty, but also how that beauty is marked by youthfulness. After quoting Simone de Beauvoir, Garelick writes, “To be admired in the public eye, to be seen, a woman must still conform to an astonishingly long, often contradictory list of demands – the most important being that she not visibly age.”

If nothing else, Jenner’s public transition has brought forward multiple, very important, public conversations on society’s gender expectations, treatments and definitions. As Babb said, “Anything that keeps the public interest in trans issues a little longer, and educates a few more people, is a good thing.”

In a recent post, Pagan blogger Erick DuPree reacted to the Vanity Fair cover, writing:

Some may argue that celebrity and privilege provide Caitlyn Jenner opportunity that other transgender women and men do not have. And perhaps that is true? However, what I see is platform, awareness, and unlimited potential that is known as Shri. The more face that is given and the more name that something has, the more awareness and more breath for growth something has to foster change. The Goddess breathed new life into a woman, and I find that unbelievably courageous and empowering.

It has been suggested in numerous articles that Jenner now owes the trans community her support; that Jenner should use her clout to further awareness of transgender issues, and even help fund outreach organizations, such as the Trans Lifeline. While Culhane, Babb and Corrine all said that they don’t believe that Jenner owes the transgender community anything, they did stress how essential community is. Whether that network is made up of family and friends, transgender organizations, the greater LGBT community or Pagan or other spiritual groups, community provides the needed support during difficult times. Culhane, who found strength through her local Wiccan friends and Pagan festivals, stressed, “Community is everything.”

As for Corrine, she is now taking everything one step at a time, but she is moving in a positive direction. She joined a Trans support group and will soon be attending her first Trans Pride march. Corrine said:

During the time I was in the coma, I was crossing over the veil to see my Goddess; to enter my rest and be free from my pain both physical and emotional. But I wasn’t ALLOWED to take those final steps that would have ended my life on this Earth without seeing the massive outpouring of love, healing energy, concern, fear, hurt and worry directed at me. I was forced to look and when I did… I came back. I couldn’t leave. This suicide attempt did two things for me. It showed me how many people loved and cared for me… and it removed all doubts in my mind, heart and soul, that my Goddess is very much alive and real and working in my life.

She is thankful for all the support that she has received. When asked if she had advice for those experiencing the pain that she felt just a month ago, she said, “Each person’s struggle to find and accept themselves is unique but we all face many of the same things – Fear, rejection, aloneness, sadness, despondency…. It hurts when we are rejected. It hurts when we feel alone. But I have learned that we are really never alone. Even when we think we are, there is someone somewhere who cares and worries about us …”