The Gender Politics of Courage

Bob Costas

Bob Costas

In advance of Caitlyn Jenner’s receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, we heard plentiful buzz about whether Jenner has truly displayed the requisite courage. Among the numerous voices questioning the choice were the Federalist, comedian D.L. Hughly (as reported by the blog Hollywood Life), and NBC sports analyst Bob Costas. Costas was quoted by the Newsbusters blog as saying, “I’m pretty sure they could have found someone … who would have been deserving of what that award represents.”

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner

I’m not going to weigh in on whether she deserves the award. However, the way her actions have been perceived by the public troubles me. Attributing bravery to a person is normally complimentary. However, associating Jenner’s recent life trajectory with courage has uncomfortable implications about how our culture views gender and transition.

Before I deal with that, I need to admit upfront that I’m an ardent admirer of Ms. Jenner. I am powerfully impressed by her business skill, her poise, her speaking ability, and her interest in using her place in the limelight to improve other transgender lives. If you haven’t yet heard her acceptance speech at the ESPYs, listen sometime. It is a masterpiece. Nothing in my analysis should be understood as taking away from the remarkable woman she is or her place in the growth of transgender acceptance.

… associating Jenner’s recent life trajectory with courage has uncomfortable implications about how our culture views gender and transition.

But what does it say about our attitudes that we call her courageous? I can’t get into people’s heads, but I can examine her words and deeds and infer why they might have been seen as requiring courage:

  • She underwent a series of involved and painful cosmetic procedures.
  • She spoke with poise and candor about many (but not all) of her most intimate feelings and experiences in front of a worldwide audience.
  • She publicly wore feminine clothing, jewelry, make-up, and hairstyle.
  • She successfully used her position as a celebrity both to call attention to injustice and to capitalize financially.
  • She subjected herself to the capricious and shallow pronouncements of the media beauty police.

In short, the same as just about every prominent actress, model, female politician, or other woman who makes her living in the public eye. We don’t tend to label such actresses, models, politicians and celebrities courageous simply because they chose professions (as did Jenner, being a TV reality star)  that require them to adapt to our beauty-obsessed, gender-policed world.

So I conclude the attribution of courage has to do with her gender transition.

That dovetails with the experience of so many transgender women I know. We are constantly told how much courage we have, especially by other women, when we’re merely doing the same things they are. It’s possible they are referring to the potential for harassment or violence, though that wouldn’t apply in Ms. Jenner’s case. One would be hard-pressed to claim she is more of a target than other female celebrities, who routinely deal with stalkers, paparazzi, and vocal detractors.

What constitutes courage is clearly a matter of opinion, as evidenced by the fierce debate we’ve seen. What one sees as courage, another may see as simply living life. Whether a culture deems an individual’s actions to be courageous, may say more about the culture than that individual.

Which brings me to why this is so troubling. Three reasons:

First, as pointed out above, she is doing nothing other female celebrities don’t do. But we see it in a different light. In other words, we see Jenner differently from other celebrity women. She’s not, of course. Being a transwoman is simply one, perfectly genuine, way to be a woman. But I fear the public hasn’t yet evolved to that point. They still see her as different from other women, as evidenced by the fact that they evaluate her actions in a fundamentally different way. Putting on female clothing and donning the mantle of celebrity is courageous only if you are seen as not quite female. In other words, some of those who label her courageous still see her partly as a man.

Second, it is still seen as brave for a man to dress himself as female. The stigma against this is so powerful as to be deeply ingrained in our values. Many see male-to-female crossdressing as such a shameful act that it is assumed that any man doing it openly must have courage. In point of fact, those of us who have transitioned male to female, while we might initially have felt a bit of shame, are so liberated by being our authentic selves, that shameful feelings usually fall away quickly. However, the dismaying tendency in our cultural ethos to police gender leads us to proclaim confidently that any male-perceived person whose public conduct strays across gender boundaries shows courage.

My third area of discomfort deals with the perceptions of male and female. A vein of misogyny still runs through our culture to the point that male attributes are seen as more powerful and desirable than female. Want to insult a man’s competence, character, and effectiveness? Call him a girl. But call a woman masculine, and you insult only her looks.That’s why a transition from male to female takes courage in so many eyes. They see Jenner as giving up the superiority of manhood. As I’ve written elsewhere, I do not believe femininity is inferior, but that’s not a widespread viewpoint.

When I’m bothered by applying the word “courage” to gender transition, I suspect I’m not alone among my transgender brothers, sisters, and other siblings. When cisgender people tell us we’re courageous for doing things they do every day, it sets us apart and implies our identities are somehow inferior to theirs (or why would it take such courage to assume those identities?). I generally don’t take offense, and such remarks are always offered and accepted as compliments, but the implications leave a slightly sour taste. I don’t mind people thinking or saying we are courageous, but I invite them to examine exactly why we are more so than everyone else who lives a genuine life. Is it possible that comes from seeing transition as “not normal”, as something that deviates from the acceptable, and therefore requires bravery to embark upon? It is not yet viewed as it should be, a conventional, reasonable, everyday assertion of one’s identity.

I’ll close with my own experiences with male to female transition. There are so many ways I’ve pleasantly surprised myself during the process. I’m amazed that, despite being uncoordinated and oafish in my pre-transition form, I was able to master feminine mannerisms and voice with little difficulty. I’m impressed at my own ability to feel attractive and stylish, despite being a total clothing ignoramus going in. I’ve gone from dreading pain to laughing off the discomforts of facial electrolysis, laser treatments, and vaginal dilators. And I especially love the feminine spirit I’ve developed. I am truly delighted with the woman I’ve turned out to be.

All of these are points of pride. But I don’t see that any of them required courage. Had I not transitioned, I know with certainty that I would have lived the rest of my life under a shadow of ever-increasing dysphoria at not being who I could and should have been.

Doing that would have taken more courage than I have.


About Author

Suzi Chase writes about transgender issues through both fiction and non-fiction. She has had careers in teaching and software engineering and has raised two children.

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