Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and Identity

Rachel Dolezal was born a white woman but has been passing for black for some time, apparently by darkening her skin and getting aggressive perms. She became president of the Spokane NAACP and a spokesperson for the African American community in Spokane, which I understand is small. Now a lot of people are really pissed at Dolezal for passing herself off as something she wasn’t.

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, has been surgically made over so that Jenner can live as a woman instead of a man. Many of us have been defending her. I’m of the “it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg” school of thought on this, frankly. If being a woman makes Jenner happy, I don’t have a problem with the gender reassignment.

So is this inconsistent? Not exactly. I wouldn’t choose Jenner to represent women’s interests or to become head of NOW. The life experiences of trans women are not the life experiences of biological women. Trans women have never had to deal with menstrual cramps or leaks. Pregnancy, childbirth, abortions, miscarriages — or avoiding those things — are huge parts of a biological woman’s life but are not on the transgendered’s radar. Have they ever had to find a place to nurse a hungry baby away from home? How about the joys of menopause? And then there’s the fact that someone who has lived into adulthood as a man is unlikely to have lived with the constant putdowns and sleights, socially and professionally, that all women experience. They may experience those things after the reassignment, but they didn’t have to grow up with them and have to struggle to not let it define them.

A few days ago in the New York Times, Elinor Burkett wrote an op ed arguing that transgendered women are threatening to derail progress for biological women. I was unaware of some of the stuff that has been going on —

…it’s growing harder to avoid asking pointed questions about the frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies. After all, the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.

In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word “vagina.” “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” responded @DrJaneChi.

WHEN Ms. Plimpton explained that she would continue to say “vagina” — and why shouldn’t she, given that without a vagina, there is no pregnancy or abortion? — her feed overflowed anew with indignation, Michelle Goldberg reported in The Nation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one blogger. Ms. Plimpton became, to use the new trans insult, a terf, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.”

In January, Project: Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, a self-described liberal arts college for women, canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” explained Erin Murphy, the student group’s chairwoman.

Let me get this right: The word “vagina” is exclusionary and offers an extremely narrow perspective on womanhood, so the 3.5 billion of us who have vaginas, along with the trans people who want them, should describe ours with the politically correct terminology trans activists are pushing on us: “front hole” or “internal genitalia”?

Even the word “woman” has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Mr. Stoffer was referring to the possibility that a woman who is taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who does not identify as a woman, can still have a uterus, become pregnant and need an abortion.

Let me repeat that last one —

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.”

You see the problem. Seems to me some of the trans ladies may have lost their penises but not their sense of privilege. Now they’re mansplaining to us what womanhood is.

I also agree with Burkett that a lot of trans women seem to have embraced some aspects of the feminine mystique that Betty Friedan raised hell about back in 1964. No, dears, let’s not go backward now.

So, while I have no problem with people choosing to live with a different gender identity than they one they were born with, it has to be said that they are not fully biological women and they have not had the life experiences of fully biological women. Therefore, they don’t get to define womanhood or decide what issues are important to biological women. They need, in short, to STFU about what’s important to women or what words women are allowed to use to discuss their own bodies. End of discussion. If that makes me a “terf,” bite me.

Burkett also said,

Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

And that brings us back to Dolezal. I’d be curious to know if she could have gotten away with the charade in a less white part of the country; Mississippi, say, instead of Spokane. She wouldn’t have had the same life experiences as someone born black, and genuinely intimate experience is hard to fake.

Without knowing Dolezal’s motivations or how her head is wired it’s hard to know what was going on, but it seems to me that if her interest in African-American well-being were genuine she would have respected the African-American experience enough to not try to fake being one in order to take leadership roles. That’s what strikes me as odd. I could see that someone white might fall in love with black culture and come to admire the unique beauty of African American women and want to copy that, but Dolezal went far beyond that.

The whole identity issue is a tricky thing. From a Buddhist perspective, things like race and gender are just temporary conditions, empty of self-nature. They are not who we are. However, they do have a big impact on how we live our lives, so we can’t very well ignore them.

Wanting to be something other than what one is comes under the heading of bhava tanha, “craving to be” or “craving to become.” It’s a particularly nasty sort of craving that has a lot to do with why people get stuck in samsara. And note that the craving itself is the problem; one can desire to be something good, like a nun or a heart surgeon, and it’s still a problem, especially if it’s more about enhancing one’s status than living on behalf of others. As soon as we think in terms of what we want to be, and not just what we hope to do, we’re in trouble.

So this whole issue of changing gender or race or anything else about oneself has a great many facets — biological, cultural, social, and spiritual — that we’re not really discussing, and which people need to consider and work out for themselves. In short, it’s complicated.