The Caitlyn Jenner Effect

My first real exposure to transgender life was a little over 10 years ago. I read a book by one of my college professor’s who had made the journey from man to woman. James Boylan was how I knew him on campus in the early 1990s at Colby College. Jenny Boylan was who she was now.

I remember a scene in Jenny’s bestselling book, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, where James was starting to make the transition to Jenny. He was taking hormones and going out in public in women’s clothes, but he wasn’t fully Jenny yet. One night after playing with his band at a club in Maine, he walked out to the parking lot to get in his car. While in this dark parking lot, a deep sense of fear came over him. He realized in that moment what it must feel like for women when they go into an empty parking lot at night.

As a guy, James never felt unsafe or threatened. Now, as an emerging woman, (s)he felt scared.

Reading this short anecdote had a profound effect on me. I remember feeling validated and understood by James as I read this passage. I also had empathy for what Jenny would now face on a day to day basis. I felt that if James could articulate this very real physical experience in his emergence process as a woman, that maybe we could build bridges to further understanding between the genders.

It’s no fun walking around and feeling unsafe in one’s body. The very real experiences of being raped, harassed or sexually assaulted are far too common for all of us women.

I have been wondering if the growth of the transgender movement will help us fill in the blanks to help us better understand each other as women and men. I have been wondering if the transgender movement will help us better understand the masculine and feminine principles and how they play out within us, whether we identify as woman or man.

I have also been wondering how the transgender movement can support gender equality, women’s rights and more compassionate living amongst all of us.

It is clear the world needs to heal so many areas of separation, including racism, classicism, sexual orientation discrimination, disability discrimination, ageism and, of course, gender discrimination.

Could a more enlightened understanding of the journey of a transgender individual help us further break down our walls of separation?

Jon Stewart did a brilliant piece on The Daily Show earlier this week about Caitlyn Jenner and what it means to be a woman in America. He makes the point that Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) will now, as a woman, be relegated to being judged and talked about only for her looks. Forget about her physical prowess or any other kind of accomplishment she makes.

Rhonda Gharelick, a professor at Princeton University and author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, explores in the New York Times the effect of Caitlyn Jenner. “While the fanfare around the emergence of Caitlyn may advance our acceptance of transgender individuals, it does so, in this case, at a price: the perpetuation, even celebration, of narrow and dehumanizing strictures of womanhood sustained by the fashion and entertainment industries,” she says.

Whatever your opinion on Caitlyn Jenner, the conversation has arrived.

Let’s see what we can accomplish together to advance our understanding of gender, gender relations and respect for the human rights of all beings.

You can start right now by sharing your comments below.

Tabby Biddle, M.S.Ed., is a women’s rights advocate, writer and leadership coach, specializing in helping women find their voice. She is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller, Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action, now available in paperback. Get your copy here.