There isn’t much Caitlyn Jenner can do without making headlines, but news that her tell-all memoir, due out April 25, offers intimate details about her transition has the online gossip rags losing their minds even more than usual.
Radar Online appears to be the only outlet that has gotten its grubby little hands on an advance copy of the book, entitled The Secrets Of My Life, and it made quick work of leaking some of the juiciest bits, including Jenner reportedly revealing that Robert Kardashian told her he knew O.J. was guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson.
Yet even that alleged bombshell seems to be no match for the portions of the book that confirm and detail Jenner’s gender confirmation surgery.
According to Radar Online, and subsequently substantiated by People magazine, Jenner explains that the decision to undergo surgery was “complex” but ultimately it she wanted to “have all the right parts” and she feels “not only wonderful but liberated.”
Radar also states that Jenner writes she is opening up about the procedure because “I believe in candor” and so that “all of you can stop staring.” She adds, “You want to know, so now you know. Which is why this is the first time, and the last time, I will ever speak of it.”
If she sounds a little defensive, it’s not without good reason. When it comes to transgender issues, cisgender (or non-trans) people, aided and abetted by the media, have largely been at best cluelessly insensitive and at worst rude, demeaning and obsessive to the point of fetishizing when inquiring about trans experiences and especially trans bodies.
In fact, a web search of “Caitlyn Jenner surgery plans” reveals pages of stories guessing whether or not she has undergone any procedures, and if so, which ones, and if not, when she would.
This is in part due to the mistaken belief that in order for someone to be transgender, and to transition, they must engage in a surgical transition. While we’ve seen increasing visibility for the transgender community in recent years ― which in turn has helped to educate people about the diversity of trans lives and experiences ― outdated, inaccurate and offensive tropes and stereotypes about trans people still exist.
There are, of course, lots of different ways to be trans ― and to be a woman or a man or both or neither ― and surgically confirming one’s gender is just one option. For some people, like Jenner, gender confirmation surgery may make them feel like they possess the body parts that correspond to their idea of their gender. Others may choose to have certain kinds of surgery, like facial feminization or breast augmentation, but not others. Some trans people use hormones. Some don’t. Some trans people never medically or surgically or hormonally transition. And others aren’t at all concerned about how certain “parts” adhere to ― or don’t adhere to ― their gender identity.
The bottom line is there’s no universal or “right” path to becoming one’s authentic self and no matter how someone chooses to transition, it isn’t anyone else’s business. What’s more, asking trans people about their anatomy or their transition is fundamentally invasive (and in many situations unwelcome) and puts the spotlight on the wrong elements of trans lives.
Laverne Cox made this point beautifully clear in 2014 when she visited “The Katie Couric show” for a segment about being transgender that also featured model and former “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Carmen Carrera. After Couric made an “awkward inquisition” about Carerra’s genitals, Cox explained why that kind of question was inappropriate and problematic.
“I do feel there is a preoccupation with [trans bodies and surgery],” Cox told Couric. “The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”
Cox concluded, “By focusing on bodies we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination.”
It was a teachable moment for Couric and her viewers and, to her credit, she apologized for her questions on a follow up segment.
“I learned that it’s very, very upsetting to the transgender community because they feel that people are too often fixated on this and that your anatomy actually has very little to do with your gender identity,” said Couric, who has since become a passionate ally and advocate for the trans community.
In reality, most people still have lots to learn about what it means to be transgender and asking questions comes with the territory. And some trans people might be happy to share their experiences. Some trans people find it empowering. Others want to help raise visibility and start discussions. And that’s awesome. But just because some people are open to discussing their lives doesn’t mean transgender people must answer personal questions about their experiences or their bodies (or should even be asked those questions in the first place). There are also plenty of legitimate resources on the web to learn more about what it means to be transgender ― including why and how some people surgically transition, as well as what kind of questions are inappropriate to ask a trans person and why.
Imagine if someone sauntered up to you and asked how big your penis was or inquired about the size of your labia. And then imagine if they wanted to use that information to decide if you were a “real man” or a “real woman.” Does that sound OK to you? No? Yah... probably not.
What’s going on under Caitlyn Jenner’s designer clothing is nobody’s business but her own (and, depending on the day, maybe her doctor’s). She ― and every other trans person ― doesn’t need to tell us what procedures she’s had done or why. Our collective fascination with the bodies of trans people simultaneously ignores and exacerbates the discrimination and unbelievable violence that trans people face on a daily basis. It’s time we all play a role in changing that.