Identity and Caitlyn Jenner

I’m sure you were wondering, “Yes, but what does Laura Lee have to say about Caitlyn Jenner.”

Several months before Caitlyn Jenner broke the Internet with a tweet about her Vanity Fair cover, a friend of mine, much more quietly, said goodbye to her old male identity. Although she had transitioned in her social life, she was still a man in her work life and decided to use her retirement as the opportunity to live entirely in her new identity. She wrote that she was surprised at the emotions she felt in letting that male self go. It felt like mourning a death, she said.

Most of us have some experience of transitioning from one “identity” to another, at least metaphorically. My first (unsuccessful and unpublished) novel was called “The Birth of What’s Living” an allusion to an Arlo Guthrie lyric “The death of what’s dead is the birth of what’s living.” At the time I was dealing with burning out on a career in radio, and giving up on the idea of myself as a radio announcer. People take on new identities when they marry, have children, change jobs, immigrate to a new country, change religion.

But it strikes me that we do not really consider any of these changes to be a complete change of personal identity in the way we view gender. We generally believe you can be one gender or the other but not both, and each is seen as an entirely different type of person from the other. There is the pronoun trouble that comes with gender ambiguity. The entire language is structured (although not as much as some other languages are) in a way that distinguishes male people from female people.

A change in gender involves a change in name because we have men’s names and women’s names. There are a few other life changes that also come with new names. Sometimes when people join different religious orders they adopt a new name to signal a change in identity. When a woman gets married she usually sheds her maiden name in favor of her husband’s. Yet we don’t really think of the married woman or the convert as being an entirely different person from what she was before.

In the video above and in the tweet announcing the media debutante ball, Jenner ends up talking about herself– both now and before– in the third person. “Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” The male Jenner and the female Jenner are presented as entirely different people. I can’t think of any other aspect of identity that is quite like that.

For that reason I have always found gender particularly interesting as a window into what an identity is in general. The etymology of the word “identity” is sameness or oneness and it refers to that which is continuous, the essence of an individual that remains the same throughout life. If this is truly the definition of identity then neither Bruce nor Caitlyn should be Jenner’s “identity.” The identity would be the unchanged. Yet identity really is a relationship between people. The community, at least a certain percentage of it, has to acknowledge the self you claim. Otherwise you’re considered mad.

So what is the essence of Caitlyn Jenner exactly and how can others recognize it? It is not simply a dress, a hair-style, a photo shoot, a new name.Yet those outer aspects are ways of demonstrating what she feels is that essence. We telegraph who we are through presentation and symbols constantly and largely without giving it a lot of conscious thought.

Those who are close to her would recognize the sameness of Jenner as Bruce and as Caitlyn more than people like me and you who view this stranger through the lens of the media. We are more impressed by the difference. Does it follow then that part of being an intimate friend is knowing someone’s true identity? (Or at least knowing a bit more of it than acquaintances do?)

When I went to look up the Jenner tweet in order to link to it, I couldn’t help but notice that the first comment at the moment comes from someone who wishes that Jenner would find Jesus Christ and turn away from the devil.  The commenter says that he/she will “keep praying” for Jenner. (This will not be the top comment by the time you read this, the responses are coming in so rapidly.)

I felt compelled to talk about this “I will pray for you” language. If you actually believe that someone needs God’s help and that prayer has the power to help– there is no reason to announce that you are praying.

Saying “I will pray for you” is a way for the person standing in judgment to continue to think of himself, and ostensibly to present himself,  as loving and concerned while the actual message he is conveying is “I am morally superior to you.”

My message to the commenter: Pray if you want. Pray silently.


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