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Vikram Johri: Making a woman

Caitlyn Jenner is a newly formed woman, for want of a better phrase. Let her relish her new-found femininity, let her enjoy her delayed girlhood. She has time enough to be a woman, socially

Vikram Johri 

Vikram Johri

In "What Makes a Woman", a piece published in The New York Times last Sunday, Elinor Burkett raised certain issues around the very public and much celebrated coming out as transgender of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner of Olympic glory and reality TV fame.

Caitlyn Jenner appeared in a Diane Sawyer interview on ABC earlier this year to reveal her impending transition to womanhood. Last week, Vanity Fair released its July cover in which a glamorous woman, dressed in a close-fitting satin corset, looks seductively into the camera. "Call me Caitlyn" is splashed across her image. This was the first time we learnt of the new name for her new identity.

Most of the coverage of the transition has been positive, even if it tipped uncomfortably into objectification. Jon Stewart nailed it perfectly on his Daily Show by mocking the media's obsession with Jenner's looks: "Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen. But now you're a woman, which means your looks are really the only thing we care about."

Indeed while it was heartening to see Jenner receive such widespread support both online and off, the focus on her svelte beauty framed a controversial topic among the transgender community. Looking slim and decidedly ravishing, Caitlyn embodied a truth not entirely common among the transgender: the ability to "pass" as a cisgender woman.

Be that as it may, Ms Burkett went one up in her critique of Jenner's coming out by taking an issue with the gendered nature of the debate itself: "For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they're articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one."

A transgender friend echoed Ms Burkett's remarks in a somewhat different context: "I've been asked about the Jenner thing and I may be in the minority here, but this is bothersome to me personally. As a member of the trans woman community, I am tainted by this coming out. A client, a friend, knowing I'm a trans woman, now sees me as the sum total of … lingerie? Which is a difficult mental position for me to then deal with, when trying to change the opinion of others about us. Jenner now has created that sexual image about trans women when she could have created a much more beneficial one."

Both Ms Burkett and my friend have a point, but I suspect they are missing the wood for the trees. Many transgender individuals, more generally but especially after they come out, do tend to exaggerate the external manifestations of their perceived ideas about their adopted gender. As men transitioning to women, they pass through a period in which they ladle themselves with the minutest knick-knacks of girlhood. The very things that are a distinguishing factor between men and women in many societies, such as the length of the hair, are followed to a T.

It is only natural. As women who have never lived as one, transgender women come to their new selves with the full burden of their hitherto repressed identity. Their expression of gender in the aftermath will naturally be over-the-top. It is similar for gay men when they come out. The only partially false stereotype about promiscuity among gay men emerges, in my view, from our desire to fully inhabit the long-delayed romantic lives that we have waited for all along.

In time, we grow up. We see broader aspects of our identity. My own evolution from the rabidly political ("kill breeder privileges") to the quietly nuanced ("fight for equality") is mirrored in the growing comfort that I have come to feel in my skin. I don't need to be in-your-face about my identity any more (though you can tap me anytime for hard knocks on lazy homophobia). But I needed to live through a period of intense in-your-faced-ness to reach here. It is the nature of the beast. To say that I should not have been there/done that is to miss the point and, ergo, be judgmental.

Gender identity is so closely linked to our sense of who we are that when we finally find our real, authentic self, we feel the need to overcompensate for our lack of expression thus far. Jenner is passing through a similar phase. People who criticise her for reducing transgender rights to nail polish and negligee need to remind themselves that she is a newly formed woman, for want of a better phrase. Let her relish her new-found femininity, let her enjoy her delayed girlhood. She has time enough to be a woman, socially.

First Published: Fri, June 19 2015. 21:46 IST