At around the time of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, I got a lot of questions from editors about how to refer to her — one consequence of being in the media and outspoken about trans issues is that I tend to be viewed as a go-to resource, as though there’s only one right way to cover trans issues, talk about trans experiences, or address the highly intersectional aspects of trans identity. (See also: The seven separate requests for thinkpieces I got on the day of the cover reveal, because apparently there are no other trans journalists anywhere.)
Eventually I settled for just using a template to respond because I was tired of answering the same question over and over. I genuinely didn’t want to be sarcastic, but at the same time, it was frustrating, because the only response I had really boiled down to ‘I don’t know, try using her name and preferred pronouns?’ Her name is right there on the cover of the magazine, and in the article she’s referred to as ‘she,’ so we’ve pretty much established how she wants to be referred to in the media.
Yet of course there was a stream of deadnaming in the media, as well as awkward pronoun transitions, and this was justified in all kinds of gross ways. For example, how are readers to know who this mysterious ‘Caitlyn Jenner’ is without some kind of context, like her deathname? How can we cover a transgender person at all without lingering over all the lascivious details of her past life, her surgical history, the medical details of her transition, and more? Is Caitlyn really a woman if she doesn’t meet some kind of rigid standard of femininity?
Deadnaming and misgendering are extremely common in media, but they’re also common in society in general. These kinds of attitudes are extremely dangerous for trans people, and they’re fundamentally dehumanising. I’m not talking about accidents — mistakes happen, and you acknowledge them and move forward. I am talking about deliberate, calculated decisions to use the wrong names and pronouns to refer to people, and how these decisions contribute to the devaluation of the humanity of transgender people.
This is what makes it easy to sexually assault and brutalise transgender people — they’re not human, so who cares. This is why so many transgender people commit suicide, because they can’t bear the misery and stress of living in a society that utterly rejects them. This is why people discriminate against trans people, because there’s no place for nonhumans in employment, housing, and other settings. This is why being a trans person is actively dangerous, especially in the case of trans women, who are statistically much more likely to be deadnamed and misgendered thanks to transmisogyny.
When you refer to trans people with the wrong names and genders, you are denying their identity and saying that you refuse to acknowledge them as the people they are. You’re also indicating that you don’t care about their rights as people. And no, the old ‘I don’t care what you call yourself, you’ll always be so-and-so to me’ isn’t any less offensive — maybe you think it’s supportive, a way of saying your relationship to someone hasn’t changed and she’s still the same beloved friend, but it’s not supportive. What you’ve just told her is that her actual identity doesn’t matter, and that you’re stuck on her past, not her actual life and her future.
One of the ways this becomes particularly stark is in the world of trans parenting, especially for step parents. Transgender parents face a number of social and political obstacles, and sometimes those come from their own children. The denial of humanity to trans parents means that they can have trouble picking their children up from school and playing an active role in decisionmaking about the lives of their kids — for example, they may be ignored in hospital settings. They may be accused of abducting their children or of exerting dangerous influences.
And their own children see the model set by society and do the same. They don’t acknowledge their trans parents as real people, and with step parents, this can be even more disturbingly stark. When someone new is brought into a family dynamic, it’s always stressful, but it’s more so when children can’t even acknowledge the gender of their own parents — and when they deadname or misgender them to make a point, at school and elsewhere. Children can put their parents in incredible danger simply to be cruel, simply by playing off social attitudes surrounding transgender people, and unsurprisingly, that hits trans mums especially hard.
Many schools expect parents to be actively engaged not just in the lives of their children, but the school community. Trans mums are very much excluded from that, though. They’re not invited to school events, they’re the subject of whispers and gossips at the school pickup zone, and their own children face consequences too, with other parents refusing to allow them to come over, and the same parents keeping their children away from the nefarious influence of trans parents being parents.
Trans parents and the issues they face are often left out of discussions about trans issues — just as parents and trans issues in general are shunted aside. But these are important conversations to be having, because if we can’t acknowledge the fundamental humanity of trans people, we’re also rejecting the idea that trans people can be — and are — parents who are very vested in the lives of their children.
Image: Vigil for Rekia Boyd, Black Women, Trans Women, and Girls, Ted Eytan, Flickr