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Casting the First Tweet – Why Someone Else’s Gender Is Not About Me

Karin Kallmaker LIFE + STYLE 19 Comments

When I decide to do something the hard way I like to have a good reason. Wiring the home network with spare ports and power means adding peripherals is easier in the long run. Developing a character with a researched career and life history means smoother first drafting and a more complex book that readers like better. If there’s no good reason to do it the hard way, I can be as lazy as the day is long.

Simplifying Terms

I can’t pinpoint the moment in time when I realized that I was making my life harder for no good reason by holding onto old ideas about gender. People talk about evolution in their thinking, but it wasn’t like that at all. One day I was making a lot of internal noise in my head and the next it all went away. Like a math problem, my brain simplified terms.

Someone else’s gender is not about me. Phew.

Just as the fact of same-sex marriages does not affect opposite-sex marriages, the fact of trans people does not affect non-trans people. Does it harm my life if someone I have thought to be a man, after long consideration, worry, therapy, struggle, turmoil and personal sacrifice says that the word “woman” applies to her? Or refuses to choose “woman” or “man” at all? Like straight people who claim their marriage is damaged by The Gay Marriage, all I could come up with was flummery and fearful pedantics. You know, “Everybody knows that marriage means one-man-one-woman… mumble… and if we change that the world ends… mumble …tradition …mumble.”

Thinking the Hard Way – Why?

So why was I making it hard? Why was I thinking, “He can’t be a woman, he has no idea what it’s like to be a woman in this world, he must be faking, or have some ulterior motive!”? And there was more about “fraud” and “whim” and lots of judgment. Lots and lots of judgment. Wading around trying to make variables into constants and wondering why my equations vexed me so much – such a waste of energy when it got me nothing I needed.

I couldn’t think how it got anyone anything they needed.

My brain-churning, stomach-twisting questioning presumed that I knew all there was to know about what it’s like to be a woman in this world. And I don’t. I let myself off the hook for thinking I had to be in charge of that. Anyone who says they run the clubhouse doesn’t have my proxy either.

I only know my own experiences. I also think after decades in the community I have a decent enough grip on what it’s like for women similar to me and a range across the lesbian community, from women who came out as grandmothers and butches who have long defied stereotypes about what a woman must be. But I can only have informed empathy for Queen Elizabeth’s experience of being a woman in this world, or Malala Yousafzai’s. The same goes for women on the African savannah or those who take up religious orders, and many other kinds of women who through circumstance or choice are living lives I can’t really fathom. Regardless, they are all women’s lives whether I understand them or not.

Especially When It’s So Simple

I offer this simple thought: A trans woman’s life is yet another kind of woman’s life that I don’t understand.

This one step of recognizing that this human being has always been a woman removes all judgment from the apparent “choices” made around how she has lived in the past and how she may identify in the future, none of which is my business. All that remains that could be my business is what she says and does for good or bad toward other people.

Which Brings Me to Caitlyn Jenner

As weary as some of us might be of her media overexposure compared to other trans women, some of the commentary out there is not about Jenner’s identity but rather her wealth and celebrity and the privilege that comes from that. Or the criticism rolls all of those things together and finds fault as if they are inseparable.

All true: Jenner has had access to care and support beyond what most trans people ever receive. She has had to unveil and shape her own identity with little privacy, and every word and visual is under scrutiny because she is famous, rich and now known to be a woman so of course how she looks matters as much or more than what she says. She has also been supportive of politicians who have not been friendly to the LGB or T communities. Jenner’s life is complicated by affiliation to a clan that has perfected the manipulation and monetizing of media attention, much to the approval and/or disdain of others.

We now know what kind of woman Jenner has been in the past: strong, driven, competitive, anguished, hidden, public, conservative, brave. We don’t know what kind of woman Jenner will be in the future. When Hilary Clinton’s age is made an issue by Fox News will Jenner, only two years younger, have anything to say now that she’s on the receiving end of demands like never before about her age, health and appearance? Will the experience of being treated like a woman by the media get as tiresome and restrictive for her as it does for women who have lived with it for decades? Will she long for the days when someone asks about the Olympics instead of her hair?

A Woman’s Life is Always a Work in Progress

We don’t know what kind of woman Jenner will become; she’s a work in progress. Well, I didn’t start off as the woman I eventually became either, and after fifty-mumble years of working on it I am not finished.

What I do know is that only now is Caitlyn Jenner beginning to live in a way somewhat similar to how I have lived as a woman in this world. I can’t identify with her anguished life before she openly stated her gender identity, and she can’t identify with my lifetime of experiencing casual and overt misogyny. We can only try for informed empathy. I promise to try to empathize with other women’s lives I don’t understand. I would like other people to try, but I only control me.

Who’s Getting Burned?

And you know what, trying for empathy is easier for me. What’s hard is perpetually assigning people to boxes and getting a throbbing blood clot twitch when they don’t fit. What’s exhausting is stress and anger that serve no useful purpose, none, none whatsoever.

Anger can be a useful fire, but when it has no just cause to serve it burns its owner instead.

When my personal sturm und drang over modern identity disappeared, I realized that caring about whatever path anyone took to their identity didn’t matter nearly as much as watching the path they’re on going forward.

Distraction Versus Action

When you simplify the terms of a math problem it’s suddenly clear which parts are complicated, and where you need to spend your brain wattage.

Judging someone by their identity is a distraction from the harder work of weighing their intentions, studying their actions, and considering context as individuals. In the long run, doing it the hard way is better because I want to live in a safer world and I want that for those I love and care about. I want that for people I will never know and I want that for kids.

And for all that anyone believes is holy, no child should ever think death is better than living personal truth.

Seriously, if you cannot even agree on this point, you need to think about what dark lord you serve.

Which Brings Me to Anne Lamott

It was when I saw a tweet from Anne Lamott, a woman I admire for her observant wisdom and often irreverent wit, that many of these thoughts jelled into a form I could express. I expected more thoughtfulness from Lamott than “Is it okay to be a tiny tiny bit tired of Caitlyn? Yes, was very brave but so far he’s gone from man to mannequin, instead of man to woman.” While she called Jenner by the correct first name, she deliberately chose the wrong pronoun.

It’s hard to imagine that Lamott doesn’t have female friends who have been hurt all their lives by being called “sir” because they don’t suit some waiter’s presumption of what a woman ought to look like. I’d be surprised to learn that Lamott hasn’t read Alison Bechdel. Calling someone the wrong gender by accident is hurtful, doing it on purpose is mean. Anne Lamott isn’t mean, and my first thought was, “Anne, you have better work to do than this.”

When comments on the tweet were generally confused, hurt, but mostly civil, Lamott characterized the pushback as “vicious and hostile.” She deleted an interim tweet that escalated the situation wherein she said she would call Caitlyn “she” when the “pee-pee” was gone, a statement ignorant of the stages of transition and how individuals may or may not undertake them for highly personal reasons between them and their doctors.

Control over their own bodies not judged by others…a concept I have heard something about. Like the right to determine for myself what kind of lesbian I will be, I can’t demand the right of judgment-free sovereignty over my own body and deny it to others.

As feminists we have argued for decades that our biology is not our destiny. We can’t now tell trans women that biology is the only measure of a woman.

Wait, Hold the Kerosene and Matches

But something then happened that takes context to understand and patience to wait for. Lamott deleted the “pee-pee” tweet at her son’s request, who gently pointed out that she had said something ignorant. He added that yesterday she didn’t understand trans issues, he would explain, and tomorrow she would understand better. His way of responding to her told me volumes about what kind of mother she has been. Most people who responded to Lamott also did so with restraint and hope.

Lamott has posted an apology though some quibble about how genuine it is because the first tweet remains. But most seem willing to wait and see what might come next. It’s hard to be patient with our treasured allies and friends whom we admire and want always to be perfect. But we do not have so many that we can immediately douse them with kerosene and grab a lighter when they stumble. Though Lamott may not think so, I was actually heartened by the number of people who basically commented, “This is hurtful, please reconsider” and then gave Lamott time to do just that.

I’ll Be Me, Anne will be Anne, Caitlyn will be Caitlyn

I freely admit that what Lamott so casually tweeted are thoughts I had, back when I believed I was an arbiter of what a woman was and wasn’t. But I’m not, and wonderfully progressive, rocking writer Anne Lamott isn’t either. Throughout her career she has usually been the first person to admit that the only thing Anne Lamott knows is Anne Lamott.

None of us are yet the women we can or will become. Not Anne Lamott, not Caitlyn Jenner, not me. Let only she who is without a lesson yet to learn cast the first Tweet.

Additional Blogs (in case my feelings aren’t already quite clear)

Copyrighted material.

Comments 19

  1. I’m also sorting through this very upsetting situation (for lack of a better word). Yet what I’m finding are the most inspiring and inspired words out there in response to it (ironically not from Anne Lamott who would likely weigh in on something like this in an inspired way). I’m also finding a great education in the trans world that I likely would have gotten no other way. I also wrote my response /reaction/venting about this on my blog but your words are very soothing to me and I deeply appreciate them.

    1. Thank you for sharing your blog, Katie. I’m glad what I wrote was helpful to you. I can’t help but think that given the chance and more conversation with her son and other that Anne Lamott will find inspiration for us again.

  2. I’m not surprised that amidst all the Jenner chatter you were able to add value, Karin. I think your perspective is not only helpful in thinking about what Anne Lamott said, but also provides an excellent response to last Sunday’s NY Times piece on “what makes a woman” which purported to be some kind of twisted feminist analysis. In fact, it’s your piece that feels more authentic as a feminist analysis. Rock on!

  3. Karin, beautifully written post with some very clear and empathetic points. I don’t have the context to understand the part about tweet scandals, but I have been blessed with my own context for the general subject, which I hope you’ll permit me to share.

    Earlier today I had a bonding moment with one of my best friends over the frustration of trying to explain the particulars of dealing with periods to someone who had never had one. This feeling of commiseration is something I think most cis women have experienced at some point or another– that moment of “oh good, now I can talk to someone who GETS it.” The thing is, my friend is a trans man, and he was trying to explain the nuances of the menstrual experience to his trans long-time girlfriend.

    Some people would point to a moment like this and try to use it as an excuse to explain why women assigned male at birth could never truly understand what it’s like to live as a woman, but I’m very thankful I’ve gotten to know both of them so well because their own struggles with gender identity, both internally and with the external world, have led me to the complete opposite conclusion. It’s not their job to make me a better person, but they have anyway. Both of them have opened up my eyes to a lot of the– excuse my language– gender role bullshit that even those of us who claim the enlightened high-ground still perpetuate. For example; when my friend came out to his family, the way certain male relatives of his tried to demonstrate their support for and acceptance of him was to IMMEDIATELY start including him in moments of female objectification: pointing out a girl on the street’s rack, responding to his venting about a domestic spat with a nod and a knowing statement of “women, huh?” He described his shock and anguish in that moment as the realization that, for some (though thankfully he spoke up to his family members & they learned), the price of his acceptance as a man was becoming complicit in the normalized mistreatment of his female friends and family.

    I’m not going to bother pointing out the opposite-direction parallels of Caitlyn’s situation because people like Laverne Cox who are vastly more qualified than me have already explained the pressures trans women can experience to perform to a certain heteronormative standard of femininity just to be accepted, and done so better than I ever could. Suffice to say, I don’t think cis women have anything to worry about, as far as trans women “not getting it” or “watering down the message” or any paranoid sleeper-cell theories like that. If they come out as women, society will hold them to the same expectations– possibly to an even harsher standard. If they don’t “get it” now, they’ll be forced to learn just like we were. My friend becomes distraught enough with worries about his girlfriend and the street harassment she’s beginning to get. Holding either of them (or any other trans, non-binary, or genderqueer individual) to some higher ideal of masculinity or femininity based on what I personally think makes a man a man or a woman a woman would just be an unnecessary and inhumane extra layer of pressure.

    Thanks both for your time and for the great article.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Alana. It’s a thoughtful contribution to the discussion. You might be interested in this article which captures some of the ways a trans man noticed privilege being conveyed on him, wanted or not:
      One thing about Jenner’s circumstance – I don’t think she will have to worry about making 70 cents on the dollar; there will be aspects of privilege that wealth and celebrity will bring her that will mask *some* of the misogyny headed her way.

  4. Pingback: Casting the First Tweet – On Becoming, and When a Friend Stumbles | Anne Hagan

  5. I confess to sharing your earlier feelings as far as Jenner’s $$ & position and how that makes her transition so much easier than what the average person could possibly experience. And I also confess to disgust with opportunistic Kardashians and therefore more dislike of Jenner’s process. Having said that, I very much agree with your final conclusions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Joan

  6. Thank you Karin, thank you for writing with that eloquence that comes only from the heart. I’ve never read anything you’ve written before, but this piece brought me to tears (it says something when simple understanding has that effect).

    I’m a very different kind of trans woman from Caitlyn, apart from being the same age and having both transitioned comparatively late in life, we’re poles apart. Yet she’s still my sister, as are you, as are many of those throwing rocks. This whole gender thing is at the same time much simpler and far more complex than those who cling to biological essentialism like a comfort blanket would admit.

    Once again, thank you!

  7. Karin, Fabulous insightful column – I need to remind myself a refrain from my mother when I was growing up “MYOB” mind your own business. Now I am off to read a good book, which is much better than inserting myself into someone else’s real life. 🙂


  8. Reblogged this on The Other Side and commented:
    ” Let only she who is without a lesson yet to learn cast the first Tweet.” Anne Lamott’s Tweet regarding Caitlynn Jenner was hurtful to many people, but how do I respond to it? How do I even think clearly about the entire, I can’t say “issue” because my transwomen sisters are people, not issues. Karen Kallmaker has written the most clarifying blog I have seen to date on this incident. I share it with you in hopes that it stimulates your thoughts and the entire conversation.

  9. Wow. You have written the most articulate and well thought out response I have seen on the entire incident I have seen to date, and I have read over twenty, many of which were written by transwomen themselves. I believe that, for me in my particular need, your response out-explains and out-whatevers (I am lacking in words now) even the lived experience of the women I call friends in that community. I have always known you to be an excellent writer, so I am not surprised as such, but I am pleasantly pleased to find just exactly the response I have been looking for, which I feel I can refer other women to when my words fail me, as they do so often around this incident. Thank you for taking what must have been a great deal of time to put together such a thoughtful and caring post.

    1. Thank you Ona. Anne’s tweet shocked me, and i thought, “But she’s so wise. She just hasn’t thought it through and if she did it’s so much easier than hanging on to ignorance.” I had time and privacy to grow, after all. I hope she does give it thought and people give her some space. She’s earned that, I think.

    2. After some time, and one might say space and grace, to consider what I wrote, i want to be more clear in saying that your post was more clarifying for me, as a lesbian, than the lived experiences of my trans-sisters, because we can be coming from such different experiences while we are all women. I did not mean to negate their experience, just to say that your explanation spoke to my confusion and to the questions I was batting around with two lesbian friends. It is likely that at this late date, no one may ever read this clarification, but I will know I wrote it and that is what matters. Thanks again for being such a talented and lovely writer. I shared it with the publisher of Homofactus Press, a dear friend of mine and transman, and he valued your interpretation of events, but the first thing he said was “What a skillful writer!” I had to agree! May I hope to be half the writer you are when I grow up!

  10. Thanks, Karin, for a timely well written conversation which, many of us have had in our heads. You were far more articulate than my noisy minions, but I understood yours much better. I hope everyone will take time to read and consider your words.

    1. Thanks Jeanne, I appreciate it. It must be one of life’s great lessons because I keep having to learn it over and over though it seems so freaking simple: love is easier.

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