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23 September, 2015


Until quite recently, society has accepted the definition of a ‘trans’ person to be most closely associated with gender identity. This has been most notably encapsulated in the media by the extensive coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition. The interest in the Rachel Dolezal case (the originally fair-skinned, blond-haired daughter of white parents who came to identify and live as a black woman) however, has begun to question this definition, and has created something of a political storm.

I did not personally know Bruce Jenner back in the 1970s but I followed his career closely and always admired him for what he accomplished as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, world decathlon champion of all time.  I cannot truthfully say, however, that I understand the Caitlyn Jenner that he has become today.  It is all too far removed from the world in which I live.  Similarly, I know nothing of Rachel Dolezal, only what I have read about her in the past couple of months.

Caitlyn Jenner

Suffice to say, I have difficulty wrapping my mind around both scenarios.  In cases like this, which fascinate me, I try to avoid snap judgments and taking sides. In the long run it is much safer to defer to those who study the issues from a neutral and scholarly perspective.
Leading U.S. sociologist, Professor Rogers Brubaker of UCLA, in an article published in Ethnic and Racial Studies believes that we should treat the intertwined discussion of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal as an intellectual opportunity, rather than a political provocation, as it is key to understanding the micropolitics of identity.
The image of a corseted Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, has been a defining moment for the transgender community – marking the mainstreaming of transgender identity. By contrast, the case of Rachel Dolezal, the 37-year old president of the Spokane branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), who publicly identifies as black despite being ‘outed’ as white by her parents, has sparked public debate about self-identification and whether it is possible to be ‘transracial’.

Rachel Dolezal
It has been suggested that Dolezal's decision to misrepresent her racial background may be related to family issues and social justice work she has engaged in. She assimilated into African-American culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity. Her explanations for doing so have been evasive and infrequent.

Within hours of this story breaking, the hashtag ‘transracial’ began trending on Twitter. This term, the author suggests, was deployed largely as a political provocation on the cultural right, intended to embarrass the cultural left for embracing Jenner while censoring Dolezal. Conversely, it was taken as a provocation by the cultural left, which categorically rejected the “if Jenner, then Dolezal” syllogism and proclaimed that transracial was “not a thing”. Analyzing the efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal, Brubaker interestingly shows why it has been easier to accept the possibility of changing gender than changing race.
The article situates the Dolezal affair in the content of the destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks – deducing that this has “significantly enlarged the scope for choice … in the domains of race, ethnicity, sex and gender”. Yet this has generated anxieties about unnatural or fraudulent identity claims and efforts to “police” questionable claims in the name of “objective” identities. The article shows that the contemporary micropolitics of identity is structured by this tension between the language of choice, subjectivity, and self-fashioning on the one hand and the language of essence, objectivity, and nature on the other.

There are major tensions, not just differences, among the differing trans discourses and projects. The trans of trajectory disturbs existing categorical frameworks least, and may even reinforce them. This explains the ambivalence in trans circles about the Caitlyn Jenner movement. Even as it marked a new stage in the public acceptance of transgender identities, it seemed to reinforce and even re-naturalize gender binaries: the person who had once been perceived as the most masculine of men had come out as the most feminine of women. The Dolezal story, too, did more to reinforce than to disturb racial categories. It is the trans of between and – even more so – the trans of beyond that more profoundly destabilize categorical frameworks.
As Professor Brubaker suggests, rather than denouncing the transgender/transracial analogy as fundamentally illegitimate, as many scholars weighing in on the Dolezal affair did, it is prudent to treat it as an intellectual opportunity. Reflecting on the initial round of commentary, Professor Brubaker adds that it is important for scholars to “hold open a space for real intellectual curiosity, for investigations that deepen our understanding of how identity claims and processes function, rather than rushing to offer well-formed opinions based on what we already think we know.” To which I say "amen".

Personally, however, I feel that this is a pointless controversy but nonetheless one that is indicative of a society that takes issue with virtually everything, thanks to easy access to a social media that presents a ready platform for agenda-driven proclamations. This is a dangerous development in public communications because for every well-founded opinion or position, there will be at least a dozen biased expressions that defy common logic and only serve to complicate matters and stir up emotions.  Heaven help us in the event of "the second coming"!...Can't you just imagine the hue and cry from the non-Christians and other religions that make up more than 50 percent of the world's population?

I remain in transition on all of this and continue due diligence.  Strangely, in the process, I have developed compassion for the transgender movement that I do not yet have for the new kid on the block -- transracialism.  It may take me a while to completely understand why anyone would feel so moved as to assume a different racial identity.  I guess what I am looking for is what is to be gained?  I am sure there are some compelling answers to that question.  I have just not heard them yet.  But, transracial?  Why not?

Getting back to the transgender question, I have learned that gender identity is how one identifies in terms of maleness or femaleness.  For a transgender or transsexual person one’s gender identity is different from what one might expect given one's natal or biological sex (‘Sex’ here refers to one’s biological sex – how one was born.)  Gender is not always the same as one’s sex.  ‘Gender Identity’ is how one feels inside, and Sexual Orientation is who one is attracted to vis-à-vis current gender presentation.

‘Gay’, ’Lesbian’ and ‘Bisexual’ are not to be confused with "Transgender"So, what is the difference between Gay and Transgender?’: To be clear, we see that the difference is that one has to do with sexual orientation (who you are attracted to sexually) and the other has to do with gender identity (who you feel yourself to be). 

There has certainly been a mixed reaction to the Jenner story, some of it bitter and insulting. The main objection has been use of the word "hero". What many detractors do not seem to grasp is that he/she (Bruce/Caitlyn) has become a poster boy/girl for the transgendered of the world and to them he/she is understandably courageous and heroic...To me, that is acceptable. 

This should by no means take anything away from our mothers and sisters who we see as true, genuine "real" women -- women who have worked hard to raise families, many as single parents. But there has to be an acceptance of the fact that definitions are changing in a politicaly-correct world as the ranks of transgendered souls continues to grow and uncloset.

Fifty years from now a complete blending of male, female and trans will have taken place in society and this contentious issue will be long forgotten...No need to justify, prove realness, make comparisons or to put down people that were born just a little different and consequently pay a price in their struggle to realize the (true) identity to which they aspire.

Meantime, let's leave poor (may I say, pathetic) 69-year-old Caitlyn Jenner alone in adjusting to a new life of his/her own choosing while the whole world watches -- and judges.

NEWS FLASH: Rachel Dolezal says she’s pregnant. At, 37, she is in her second trimester and expects to have a boy. She resigned her post as president of the NAACP’s Spokane, Wash., chapter earlier this year. Dolezal previously said she has two sons, one is a 13-year-old she had with an ex-husband. The other is a 21-year-old African-American who grew up as her adopted brother, but later gained legal emancipation from their parents. Dolezal was appointed his guardian.

As with Jenner, I think that we should now leave Rachel Dolezal alone to live the life she chooses regardless of her real ethnicity.

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