Variation on a Theme

I’m sure everyone is sick of me talking about Caitlyn Jenner, so I’m not going to do that today.  Instead, I’m going to talk about my book, Celia.

For those who haven’t read it, Celia is the story of a woman whose husband tells her he is going to transition from being a man into a woman.  That bit is a slight plot twist, but there are spoiler reviews out there so I might as well give it away at this point.  It’s told from the wife’s point of view and it follows her journey through the transition process.

(For the purpose of this post, I’m going to refer to the husband as Brian because he is Brian nearly through the entire book.  It’s going to get confusing if I do it any other way.)

Brian is the bad guy in the book.  Here’s the thing, though.  Brian isn’t the bad guy because he’s transgendered.  He’s the bad guy because he lies to his wife.  He’s secretive and hides things from her.  He excludes her, and he doesn’t care how she’s acclimating to all of these changes with him, with their marriage, or even with herself as she figures out how to navigate this new relationship dynamic.  This is something that’s very important.  Trans* people can be good people and they can be bad people because they are people.  You don’t lose your humanity because you are transgendered, so as many variations as there are in humanity, so can there be in any portion of humanity.  In short: Brian is an asshole and he’s transgendered.  He isn’t an asshole because he’s transgendered.

So, why did I write a book about a transgendered person from a spouse’s point of view?  Well, for starters, my former spouse began transitioning during our marriage, so it was the point of view I had experience with.  From there, it might be easy to think that I am bashing transgendered people because of the actions of one person.  Except, the book never undermines Brian’s decision to transition.  There is never that unseen entity pointing a finger and saying, “See what you’ve done?  You should never have done this.  This is all your fault.  You should have just stayed the way you are.”  The book does criticize the way Brian handles it, however.  We’re all dealt a hand of cards and what we get is what we get.  We don’t get to control that.  We do get to control what we do with them, though, and Brian doesn’t make the best choices.

So, why write the book at all?  I think most people think I wrote it for cisgendered people.  The fact is, I wrote it for transgendered people and for people who might be the parents of transgendered people.  Clearly, this is not representative of every transition experience, even those that occur within a marriage.  Not all marriages end in divorce because of a transition (though a fair amount do, including my own, for various reasons).  At first, Brian’s wife does the best she can in order to be supportive of his transition and to help whenever she could.  Many wives and husbands are supportive.  So, while this is not representative of transition experiences, it is a type of transition experience.  This is what can happen when someone is told they can’t be who they truly are.  This is what can happen when someone is beaten for questioning their gender identity.  That child or adolescent grows into an adult who might think that if they could just find the right partner, that partner could “fix” them and they would be normal.  Except, there’s nothing to fix because they’re not broken.  This sets up the transgendered person to be depressed, miserable, and possibly even desperate.  They might marry someone and even have children while they’re living their own personal lie.  This makes for an unhappy home life for everyone involved.

I wrote this book to say, “This is what you are setting yourself/your children (for parents of trans* youth) up for if you can’t be who you are/if you can’t let them be who they are.”  In my own case, there was a lot of pain, not just for me but for my children who I lost custody of.  I live in Indiana.  ‘Nuff said.  While writing this book, I kept thinking back on my former spouse as a child and thought about all the pain that could have been avoided if my in-laws had just allowed my former spouse to be authentic.  If I’m being honest, I blamed my former spouse to some extent, too, for not being strong enough or brave enough to be authentic in spite of it all.  That’s not fair, but we don’t always react fairly when we’re in pain.  I don’t have a high opinion of my former spouse and I probably never will, but it isn’t because of the transition.   I have always supported the decision to be authentic.  I don’t think highly of my former spouse because my former spouse is a selfish asshole who didn’t care about anyone else’s needs.  I don’t hate the cards.  I hate how they were played.

This is why I feel so strongly about Caitlyn Jenner being so high profile.  If it allows one parent to look at their trans* child and say, “You know what, maybe this isn’t such a horrible thing after all,” then she’s done something tremendous.  We are not islands.  We ripple, touching lives beyond our own.  I imagine my former spouse transitioning as a teen, being comfortable enough to say, “This is who I am” and finding someone who is comfortable enough to say, “I want to be with who you are.”  So many people wouldn’t have been wounded later on.  This is why I wrote the book.  It’s a warning, a preview of what can happen when you try to live as someone you’re not for the sake of other people.

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More Thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner

Since I wrote my open letter yesterday, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback.  I’m very happy to see so many people being supportive and making the world just a little bit better by accepting the beings who live in it.  From this point, I see two more camps who I feel need addressing.  There is the camp who says that going public wasn’t intentional and it wasn’t intended to benefit the trangendered community, so we shouldn’t be quite so supportive of it.  There is also the camp who says that Caitlyn Jenner cannot be someone’s hero because she isn’t risking her life in order to help people.  I’m going to address this second camp first.

In my letter yesterday, I mentioned that trans* people encounter disproportionately high rates of suicide, assault, sexual violence, and murder. I want you to take a moment and look here.  Then I want you to look here.  And here.  Keep looking because there is more to see.  Caitlyn Jenner risks her life just to exist as her authentic self.  Her wealth and celebrity may protect her from the brunt of it, but being a celebrity doesn’t keep you from being killed.  There is no guarantee that her being in the public eye will serve some greater good, but I can guarantee you that it will help more than it will hurt.  If even one trans* youth sees her in the spotlight and decides not to commit suicide, then Caitlyn Jenner will have saved a life.  That makes her a hero.  We may never know if that happens or not.  We don’t necessarily need to.  The possibility is there and that’s good enough for me.

So, going back to the first camp, I am of the opinion that it doesn’t matter how or why Caitlyn Jenner went public.  What matters is that she did and what she does while she is there.  By virtue of being public she has raised awareness.  She has sparked conversations.  She has compelled transphobes to come out of the woodwork into the light of day and that has given the rest of us opportunities to combat that as we encounter it.  I have had so many people say, “I’ve been friends with this person for so long and I had no idea they felt this way.  I just can’t believe there is so much hatred.”  Even if that is the only thing she accomplishes, that’s huge.  It’s caused those of us who are allies to be even more visible.  More people are seeing our support and that increases the chances that we can be there for people who we might not have been able to be there for.  I cannot speak for all allies, but for myself, I more than willing to be an ally to anyone who needs me.  You now know where to find me if you need comfort, support, and someone to have your back.

An Open Letter to Caitlyn Jenner

Dear Caitlyn,

Since your Vanity Fair cover debuted, you have been the subject of many comments.  Some of them were welcoming, some were flattering, but some were fetishizing and objectifying, and still others were plain vitriolic.  I’ve spent the better part of the last 24 hours attempting to combat the vilest of these, but I’m sure you can imagine how effective I’ve been.  Instead, I have decided to address you personally and I hope that this somehow makes its way to you.  I want you to know where I stand on the things some people are saying.

“That is not a woman.”

You are absolutely a woman.  For better or worse, the good and the bad, you are one of us and I welcome you.  I will not relegate you to a sub-woman (or sub-human) status.  I will not exclude you from feminist spaces.  I will not presume to speak for you, but I will absolutely speak up for you.  I will be your ally the best way I am able.

How dare she call herself a mother?! That’s an insult to the sanctity of motherhood!”

I am a mother and I am a birth mother. You identifying yourself as a mother does not threaten me in the slightest.  And, really, why should it?  It’s not like we’re BFFs.  We don’t even know each other.  And even if we did, your parental identity does not impact my parenting ability in any way, shape, or form.  No, Caitlyn, I am not bothered by you calling yourself a mother.  You know who bothers me?  These mothers.  Some sanctity, huh?

“I’m so sick of hearing about this. All she wants is money and attention.”

You know what?  We need you to get attention.  We need to have more trans* people visible in the media and in daily life.  So many people end up being erased, so if you being in the spotlight helps to prevent trans* erasure, I’m ok with that.  Use your spotlight wisely, though.  That’s all I ask of you.

“I have a friend like this and she doesn’t experience violence. That used to be a problem but not anymore.”

Yes, someone actually said this to me.  And in part, this is why it’s so important for you to be in the spotlight.  Trans* people experience much higher rates of assault, rape, and murder than the general public.  You are famous, and beautiful, and wealthy, so you may not experience this.  I sincerely hope you never, ever experience this.  Unfortunately, too many trans* people do.  When a group goes unseen, the violence done to them tends to go unremarked upon.  You have the opportunity to show your heart to the world, to show us who you are as a woman and as a human being.  Maybe if we can start seeing trans* people as human beings, we could finally start treating them like human beings.

“She isn’t brave! Our veterans are brave!”

Yes they are.  You know what?  So are you.  Bravery is knowing the path you need to take is filled with dangers and pain, but it’s what you need to do so you do it anyway.  You did that.  That makes you brave.

“I’d fuck her.”

The people actually saying this one think they’re paying you a compliment.  They are not, and as a woman, you will need to adjust to this reality.  Being a woman means constantly combating the idea that we become community property when we enter public spaces.  Men will catcall you.  Some may try to grope you.  Some may start to follow you if you don’t acknowledge their lewd comments.  Ok, being wealthy and famous might cut down on that a lot.  I wouldn’t know, as I am neither.  Still, these aren’t compliments.  In fact, reducing you down to whether or not you are an acceptable sexual partner is objectifying you and fetishizing you.  That’s not cool.  What makes this even worse is that I have seen women participating in this.  You’d think, seeing as how we deal with this kind of behavior fairly regularly, that women would know better and do better.  But no, some women don’t.  It reduces you to sub-woman status, and that isn’t cool either.

“She only looks good because she had surgery.  Otherwise, she’d just be playing dress up.”

You do look good, but let me be very clear.  You would be a woman whether you had surgery or not.  Whether you had hormone replacement therapy or not.  Wore women’s clothing or not.  We don’t have the right to dictate your femininity.  You will be the woman that you want to be, and it might look different than how other women want to be women.  That’s ok.  Whether you decide to wear evening gowns and red lipstick or sweatpants with a messy ponytail, you are the woman you want to be.  No one else gets to define that for you and no one else gets the right to validate your identity.  Fuck those people.

I am cisgendered, so I will never be able to know what your experience is like.  All I can do is offer my hand in sisterhood and welcome you to the fold.

Best wishes for a happy future,

Erin R. Britt

P.S. You don’t look gorgeous because you had surgeries or could afford expensive clothes.  You look gorgeous because you look so fucking happy and free.  Keep being happy.