A Change of Pronoun

You can read all about Bruce Jenner here – except Bruce Jenner is Caitlyn Jenner now. Jenner always knew he was a woman trapped in a man’s body, so he (she) did something about that:

In an April 2015, 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner came out as a trans woman saying she had dealt with gender dysphoria since her youth, and that, for all intents and purposes, “I’m a woman.” … In June 2015, Jenner debuted her new name and image, and marked using feminine pronoun self-descriptors. Her transition is the subject of an eight-part documentary series that will premiere in July 2015. While she has undergone some cosmetic surgery as part of transitioning, she has not undergone gender confirmation surgery, but has not ruled it out either; she said that life as a woman is primarily a matter of mental state and lifestyle. She said she has never been attracted to men and had exclusively been attracted to women before her transition, but currently identifies as asexual.

She (he) also identifies as a lifelong conservative Republican, even if Republicans don’t like it much, and this was big news:

Premiering the new “her” – as Jenner referred to her emerging gender identity – was done with a photo spread, interview, and Vanity Fair cover shot by Annie Leibovitz, which was released by Jenner via Twitter. This made Jenner the first openly transgender woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. The Vanity Fair cover shot included the caption “Call me Caitlyn” and accompanied her new Twitter handle and the message, “I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” She amassed over one million Twitter followers in just over four hours, setting a new Guinness World Record and surpassing Barack Obama, who, a month before, accomplished the same feat in four and a half hours. Four days later she was up to 2.37 million followers, with another 1.5 million followers on Instagram.

That was odd. Others have struggled with sexual-identity issues – the list is long and there was Myra Breckinridge in Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge and the obscure 1970 film version – so there was nothing new here, and really, this was nobody’s business but Jenner’s. But context is everything:

At the trials for the 1976 Summer Olympics to be held in Montréal, Canada, Jenner scored a legal 8538, setting a world record. At the Olympic Games themselves, Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon, scoring 8,616 points, thereby beating her own world record set at the Olympic Trials. Jenner hit a “home run” by achieving personal bests on the first day, turning a notorious second day into a gold medal coronation…

As a result of winning the Olympic decathlon, Jenner was a national hero and was the 1976 recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States. Jenner was also the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1976. Jenner was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, the Connecticut Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, and the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980. …

In the 1970s, Olympic athletes were considered amateur and were not allowed to seek or accept payment for their positions as sports celebrities. In 1972, during the Cold War, three major Olympic titles that had a long history of American success – basketball, 100 meters, and decathlon – were won by Soviet athletes. Winning back the decathlon title made Jenner an American hero. Tony Kornheiser of The New York Times stated, “Jenner is twirling the nation like a baton. He and his wife, Chrystie, are so high up on the pedestal of American heroism, it would take a crane to get them down.”

Jenner’s agent, George Wallach, told Jenner that there was a four-year window when Jenner would be considered the “World’s Greatest Athlete” – so it was time to cash in. Jenner was considered for the role of Superman, which ultimately went to Christopher Reeve. Jenner appeared on the front of Wheaties box as a “Wheaties champion” – the ultimate role model. On September 21, 1976, Jenner was an invited guest to a White House dinner with President Gerald Ford. It went on and on, even if Jenner’s marriages didn’t. The third didn’t work out. That third time Jenner was married for twenty-three years to Kris, one of the Kardashians. The two of them and their children appeared, beginning in 2007, on Keeping Up with the Kardashians – perhaps the most aggressively shallow show ever to pop up on television, and thus wildly popular. Following their divorce in 2015, Jenner came out – and it was the World’s Greatest Athlete turned a-list celebrity coming out – and Jenner was a Republican too – and Jenner lived in Malibu.

This was big news, even if it shouldn’t have been. Jenner was a woman trapped in a man’s body. That happens. It’s happened before. Jenner worked it out – and it’s hard to see why anyone should care. Everyone has issues. Jenner should live and be happy, as many a Jewish mother has said. This should have elicited a shrug.

That was impossible. Jenner is a public figure, the result of an intense marketing campaign that began in 1976 and never let up, and this is the summer that ten Republicans, so far, are telling other Republicans that they are the one who can defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, because they are true conservatives with rock-solid morals in a world that’s falling apart and going to hell. Anything sexual is a major issue, and Caitlyn Jenner is something… Well, they’re not sure what. But this is wrong, or bad, or something. Each of them needs the enthusiastic support of the party’s social conservatives, and of its apocalyptic subset, the literalist evangelicals. They have to say something about Bruce Jenner, of all people, appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair, all dolled-up in a women’s swim suit. Silence is not an option – but then, some sort of tolerance has to be an option too. In the general election others vote – those who are cheering Caitlyn Jenner on, and those who don’t give a damn one way or the other, and don’t see why these Republicans are all hot and bothered about other people’s private business.

In the Washington Post, Robert Costa and Philip Rucker explore the dilemma here:

In the four days since Bruce Jenner came out as a woman named Caitlyn, many Americans have celebrated her transformation as a courageous and even heroic act. But among the social conservatives who are a powerful force within the Republican Party, there is a far darker view. To them, the widespread acceptance of Jenner’s evolution from an Olympic gold medalist whose masculinity was enshrined on a Wheaties box to a shapely woman posing suggestively on the cover of Vanity Fair was a reminder that they are losing the culture wars.

Across social media, blogs and talk radio this week, conservatives painted an apocalyptic view of America. They said they felt frustrated and increasingly isolated by the country’s sudden recognition and even embrace of transgender people. They see it as immoral and foreign. They drew comparisons to two grimly futuristic novels, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“People feel like they’re under siege and that the terms of the debate are now you either applaud it or you’re a bigot,” said William J. Bennett, education secretary in the Reagan administration. “It’s like American culture is being dragged kicking and screaming not only toward acceptance but approval.”

Ah, but those who want to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election cannot go there:

The GOP’s struggle with the issue was evident by the fact that – although President Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats uniformly praised Jenner’s bravery – no top-tier Republican candidate had anything to say about her this week. Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has made a point of reaching out to people who are normally resistant to his party, declined to comment.

For the ones who have spoken previously, the results were awkward.

After Rick Santorum said of Jenner last month, “If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” conservative movement activists grew irate. So the former senator from Pennsylvania softened what he said.

“It was an attempt to deflect and focus on the principle of loving everyone,” Santorum said in an interview with Breitbart News Network, a conservative Web site. In a Facebook post, he wrote that he “meant to express empathy not a change in public policy.”

One must be careful, but also look both ways when crossing this street:

The Internet lit up this week with scorn for Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher, over a revived video of a February speech in which he said: “I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in P.E.”

Asked to comment Tuesday after an event in Orlando, Huckabee said, “I’m not going there.”

These guys need help:

“My advice: Stay the hell away from it,” longtime GOP strategist Ed Rollins said. “You can wish him or her well, but if you’re not careful, you can end up insulting a large portion of the population. Huckabee’s humor, for example, wasn’t seen as funny.”

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, argued that the electorate has evolved so quickly on gay rights in particular that Republicans risk sounding out of touch whenever they talk about these issues.

“Republican reticence and at times intolerance on LGBT issues is a problem for them because they have become a litmus test for young people,” Pfeiffer said. “Even if they’re conservative on other issues, if you break with them on gay or transgender rights, you look like a candidate of the past.”

Good luck with that:

“When did this get legs? When did this start being taken seriously?” talk radio host Rush Limbaugh asked his millions of listeners on Tuesday’s program. “We should not be lionizing this. We should not be encouraging this.”

If Republicans don’t speak out against Jenner, “you might as well just forfeit the 2016 election now,” Steve Deace, a syndicated talk radio host based in Iowa, said in an interview.

“If we’re not going to defend – as a party of basic principles of male and female – that life is sacred because it comes from God, then you’re going to lose the vast majority of people who’ve joined that party,” Deace said.

As Limbaugh put it, the public acclaim of Jenner’s gender identity makes those who believe in traditional values and gender roles seem like the outcasts. “Conservatives and Republicans are the new weirdos, the new kooks, and that is part of the political objective here in normalizing all of this really marginal behavior,” he said.

This is not going to go well:

As Jenner’s transition unfolded this spring, legions of conservatives have taken to their social networks and right-leaning media to commiserate with the like-minded. They have trained their criticism on the media, sounding an alarm about the obsolescence of their mores.

“The speed with which the West has embraced all things perverse makes Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Brave New World’ look almost quaint,” wrote conservative author George Neumayr at the American Spectator.

David A. French, a Harvard-educated Iraq war veteran, has been busy writing articles critical of Jenner. He said he was “repulsed” by the media coverage. “We have this pretty profound cultural divide that has only been reinforced this week,” he said in an interview.

The vitriol toward Jenner was fiercest on talk radio. Bryan Fischer, a firebrand who bashes minorities of all stripes – Muslims and Mormons, blacks and gays – said on his American Family Radio program Monday that he refuses to refer to Jenner as a woman.

“If you want one snapshot of just how corrupt – how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt – we have become,” Fischer said, “all you’ve got to do is take a look at the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.”

Jenner has put her Republican party in a tight spot here, and Damon Linker – the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test – sums things up this way:

It’s been a brutal few months for social conservatives. When Indiana and Arkansas passed laws to protect the rights of religious traditionalists, a furious backlash ensued, with the media, business leaders, and politicians from both parties uniting in outrage against opponents of same-sex marriage. A month later, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that everyone presumes will end with a late June decision declaring same-sex marriage a constitutionally protected right. Then, last week, there was a Gallup poll showing sharp rises over the past 14 years in the acceptance of gay and lesbian relations, sex outside of marriage, out-of-wedlock child-rearing, and divorce.

And finally, this week, there was sexy Caitlyn Jenner splashed across the cover of Vanity Fair, dispelling any lingering doubts that transgenderism will be the next front in a culture war that has seen the religious right move from a position of strength under George W. Bush to one of demoralization and retreat less than a decade later.

Given all of this, panic and even a dose of anger on the right are perfectly understandable.

Understandable but not wise:

I worry that thoughtful conservatives are moving a little too rashly to denunciation, resorting to language about the triumph of “Autonomous Eroticized Individualism,” and writing about the advent of a new “diabolic age.” (Both phrases come from my friend Rod Dreher.)

Yes, something important in America’s moral culture has changed (with the change accelerating in recent years), but that change isn’t simply a triumph of “postmodern freedom.” (Also Dreher) What we’re witnessing is the withering away of the morality of ends – including a vision of human flourishing rooted in Protestant Christianity – that once prevailed in American public and private life. This comprehensive moral vision is being supplanted by a much more minimalist (but no less absolutist) morality of rights that aims above all to protect individuals from various forms of harm.

That’s an odd distinction, but he can explain it:

Same-sex relationships, sex between an unmarried man and woman, having a baby outside of marriage, and divorce – many more Americans are morally accepting of these behaviors now than they were in 2001. But note that all of them can plausibly be said to harm no one, as long as the parties involved have consented. (Divorce is tricky when kids are in the picture. Though it’s also the case that many now believe it is worse for children to grow up in a household with parents who are trapped in an unhappy marriage.)

As we move down the list, we come to actions that haven’t budged at all – perhaps most surprisingly extramarital affairs, which were approved of by a mere 7 percent of respondents in 2001 and a statistically indistinguishable 8 percent today. If we were well on our way to becoming Autonomous Eroticized Individuals, wouldn’t our negative judgments about adultery be receding as well? After all, what’s wrong with cheating on your spouse if that’s where you’re led by Eros and individualism?

But of course we’re not becoming Autonomous Eroticized Individuals – or at least not simply. We might like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, but we’re also devoted to a strict morality that treats inflicting harm as a bad thing. That very much includes the emotional harm suffered by someone whose spouse has betrayed a promise of marital fidelity.

So we have the curious case of Caitlyn Jenner:

If you’re committed to an overarching (religious or philosophical) vision of human flourishing that precludes gender reassignment surgery, then an expression of disapproval and perhaps even disgust at the Vanity Fair cover would seem to be in order. But if you’ve left behind any such comprehensive morality of ends in favor of a morality of rights, then it’s hard to see what’s wrong with Jenner’s actions, or with the magazine in promoting them publicly on its cover. No one is harmed as a result, and the harm Bruce Jenner felt as a woman trapped in a man’s body has (one hopes) been alleviated by undergoing the surgical transformation into Caitlyn.

But of course many people who uphold a morality of rights go further than merely cheering on Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a woman. They want to protect her from the emotional harm of being judged, disapproved of, and treated as an object of disgust by those who persist in upholding a morality of ends.

That’s where the gap between the two moralities becomes a chasm, since the morality of rights judges the very act of making a moral judgment in terms of a morality of ends to be harmful – and therefore an act of cruelty, injustice, and even evil.

What? That may be no more than saying that these Republicans have no business being all hot and bothered about other people’s private business, and Linker puts that this way:

Conservatives deserve better than to have their comprehensive vision of the human good treated with contempt. But liberals deserve to have their own moral commitments recognized as what they are – expressions of an absolute (if less-than-comprehensive) moral outlook – rather than dismissed as a diabolical drive toward infinite erotic liberation.

That’ll do. In this case, liberals don’t want to end all morality forever in one large orgy of sexual ambiguity. They want the bluenoses to move on and get a life. Caitlyn Jenner is a curiosity. She should live and be happy. She’s not hurting you, is she?

That’s not to say Linker is happy with all of this, because he isn’t:

I’ve been taken in by a publicity stunt. The guy who enriched himself by bringing our culture the sordid spectacle of the Kardashians is now a gal who’s promoting a new reality show, and she’s trying to ensure that it gets the highest ratings in the history of trash TV. …

Let’s be honest about what this means. For one thing, and despite what a number of people appear to believe, it’s not especially “brave” – or at least no more so than any celebrity publicizing personal tribulations in order to make money. Is it courageous when an actress who has just emerged from rehab after nearly killing herself with drinking and drugs gives an exclusive interview to a TV news magazine in the hopes of generating buzz about an upcoming movie release? Nah, it’s just PR, ad copy in another form.

That’s exactly what Jenner is giving us – and she’s doing it masterfully, playing off America’s addiction to what Tocqueville called the “perpetual utterance of self-applause.” We love to feel good about ourselves. Conservatives satisfy the craving with gratuitous demonstrations of military prowess and unapologetic expressions of American exceptionalism. Liberals get it from grandiloquent displays of affirmation for the outsider – an affirmation that just so happens to demonstrate the affirming liberal’s own moral superiority.

This has all turned sour:

Gays and lesbians have been the outsiders of choice for a couple of decades. But now, as they finally merge with the mainstream, the transgendered look to be the next marginalized group in line for liberal protection from harm and defense against judgment and exclusion. And here comes Caitlyn, right on cue, ready and eager to pose as a pin-up poster girl for the cause. That her image will also serve to advance her career in exhibitionist television isn’t so much a coincidence as the essence of what we’ve all experienced this week: the thoroughgoing commodification of one person’s struggle with gender identity.

Remember that the next time you’re tempted to moralize about Jenner – or find yourself forgetting the immortal wisdom of P.T. Barnum.

In 1976, Jenner’s agent, George Wallach, told Jenner that there was a four-year window in which to make big bucks. That window eventually closed. This window just opened – and yes, that’s cynical, but there is the new reality show. That’ll make a lot of money.

How should the Republicans react? Hey, Caitlyn Jenner is a clever entrepreneur. She’ll make a fortune by changing a pronoun. Cool. How should liberals react? The grand cause of tolerance and acceptance just turned into one more crappy reality show, with Koch Industries buying the expensive thirty-second slots. That’s a bummer. There are lots of ways to look at this – and the option to decide none of it is really your business at all.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to A Change of Pronoun

  1. Rick says:

    I vaguely remember, sometime from back in my amorphous pre-teen years, some kid brought to school one of those TV-Guide-size magazines that printed outrageous photos never seen in regular publications (a typical example was of someone who had been decapitated in a traffic accident) and articles of questionable accuracy, often of a sexual nature (I particularly remember the one about the hitch-hiking guy who claimed he was picked up by two beautiful women who took him to a hotel and raped him), but this particular issue carried a lurid story about some ex-GI who, they claimed, went to Denmark and got a “sex-change” operation.

    I mean, what was it about this story that gave it sexual overtones, especially for us young boys? The idea of how great it would be to become a girl, and then play with yourself? But then the realization that this probably just wouldn’t be all that satisfying, since you’d no longer be a boy doing that to some girl! It was all quite confusing.

    But once the story turned out to be true, most of us lost interest. Yeah, we still had lingering questions — do you call him a “he” or a “she”? and how does this even work? that is, did they chop off his you-know-what? and if so, how did they…? — but none of us had enough real clinical curiosity to actually try to find out the answers.

    That’s sort of where I still am today on the Bruce Jenner story. Mildly curious, but still not enough to sustain my attention throughout this constant barrage of “news” coverage.

    But I do still have that problem with the pronoun thing.

    A few decades ago, when my wife and I were working in TV news in New York City, we knew a freelance video cameraman named Harvey from somewhere in the midwest, who once visited New York and invited my wife out to lunch. She told me that night that Harvey just wanted to inform her that he was about to have an operation, he now wants to be called “Holly”, and also, he wants to be referred to as “she”.

    As my wife and I talked about it, I found myself asking about how “he” acted and whether “Harvey” seemed more masculine now than feminine. In fact, to this day, I think of Harvey as someone who changed his name to a girl’s name, and that he also decided he wanted people to think of him as a woman, instead of what he really was.

    Nope, I just couldn’t do it — and I still can’t. Yes, I occasionally go through the motions and make the attempt to refer to “Bruce” as “Caitlyn”, and say “she” instead of “he”, but it just seems counter-intuitive, and so I just can’t keep it up.

    It seems to take too much brain power to pretend that I’m not speaking euphemistically about this guy. It’s not that I’m not the kind of person who’s open to change, but having spent my entire life thinking that you are who you are — and more importantly, are what you are — that each attempt to change the unchangeable seems to shatter my whole matrix of understanding life as we know it. (I suppose this slightly helps me understand what’s going through the collective mind of conservatives when they complain about everybody trying to change the “definition” of marriage.)

    How am I supposed to digest what’s going on here? Did that very public man, “Bruce Jenner”, just sort of die? Just poof, cease to exist, replaced by some previously-unkown but now very famous woman named “Caitlyn Jenner”? And is the fact that it all happened so publicly what differentiates this from “identity theft”?

    Also, are we to believe that he changed, or did he instead always feel, deep inside, like he was a woman? And if the latter, then when “[S]he said she has never been attracted to men and had exclusively been attracted to women before her transition,” is that the same thing as saying that, no, he wasn’t a male homosexual back then, that he was, in fact, a lesbian in a man’s body? (Fortunately, he can partially escape all the implications of that question today, since he “currently identifies as asexual”.)

    Have I lost you yet?

    But just before I flip sides on this, I should also mention that any suggestion further questions I might have concerning the details of exactly how “Bruce” became “Caitlyn” (see “did they chop off his you-know-what? and if so, how did they…”, above) are “none of my business”, is way out of line. After all, he himself is the one who, for whatever reason, decided to go public with all this stuff, and therefore, he’s no longer really in a position to protect his privacy. He can’t eat his cake and have it, too. (And no, I’m still not all that interested in those answers, but if I were, I’d definitely have the right to ask the questions.)

    And while I’m in the confessional, I must also admit that, while I tend to like most gay people I meet, and went from being totally agnostic on the question, to being a believer in “civil unions”, and finally to full-on endorsement of same-sex marriage, I still squirm uncomfortably whenever I see Cam kissing Mitchell on ABC’s Modern Family.

    I mean, I guess most of us have no problem with seeing men and women kiss each other on the screen — since a man can imagine it’s him kissing Audrey Hepburn, and a woman can see herself up there kissing Cary Grant — but most of us just can’t project themselves into a scene where two guys are going at it. (Okay, some straight guys don’t mind watching two women making out, but that’s another issue.)

    Okay, enough about that. Now let’s get to what I do find interesting, which is Republicans.

    Until just now, I had no idea all this Bruce Jenner stuff had caught Jenner’s own party so utterly flat-footed. I guess I was giving them more credit than they deserved.

    Still, we shouldn’t have all been so surprised that Bruce turned out to be a Republican. First of all, aren’t most athletes? After all, athletics is all about competition, which is sort of a conservative inclination, and not about cooperation, which is pretty much liberal.

    In a Washington Post article called “Bruce Jenner is a Republican. Here’s the reason that shouldn’t surprise you”, Hunter Schwarz talks about most athletes being Republican:

    In the 2007 book “Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today’s NFL,” John Feinstein wrote most Baltimore Ravens players were “either neutral, not interested, or Republican, like many Americans in the upper tax brackets. … Most professional athletes aren’t even registered to vote. Those who are almost always vote Republican.”

    Also, that Kardashian family is all about the life-style of the conspicuously rich and self-indulgent, and if that doesn’t say conservative Republican, nothing does.

    In any event, maybe some reporter needs to revisit Bruce about what he thinks about the Republicans reaction to all that he’s going through. It’s worth noting, after all, that according to Gallup in a poll last July, only 21% of LGBTs identify themselves as leaning Republican, while 63% say they lean Democrat.

    Would the fact that his fellow Republicans seem to hate everything Jenner represents change his mind? Probably not, since there’s no lack of other things that would make even an LGBT conservative: smaller government, lower taxes, so many (imaginary) lazy unemployed people living off the public teat — all sorts of nonsense.

    But what does the fact that Republican Bruce’s own party turns its back on him (and also on same-sex marriage) say about the Republicans, despite the fact that Bruce’s changing his gender really hurts nobody, any more than gay marriage does? To me, it says conservatives won’t allow facts get in the way of their opinions.

    I mean, I realize I can’t bring myself to refer to Bruce by anything but the name and gender I’ve always known him as, but at least, as a liberal, I’m not inclined to moralize about what he’s putting himself through, something that hurts nobody at all, and I can genuinely wish him well with it — something the GOP candidates can’t seem to do without having to retract it the next day.

    That’s because we liberal Democrats tend to use our brains to make up our minds, and I honestly can say I have no idea what those conservative Republicans use to come to their conclusions.


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