There it was, big as hell, CBS News reporting that Caitlyn Jenner was de-transtioning. And there was I, as I often am while poised at my computer, clutching at my forehead muttering, “Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket.”
Strange, I thought. Caitlyn hadn’t said anything about this on the phone that morning. My friendship with Caitlyn is no secret, of course. I suspect both of us would occasionally describe our relationship as eccentric, and by this I mean, I spend a lot of my time with her yelling at her about whatever it is I think she’s screwed up this time. But that’s all right. I have a pretty big tent when it comes to friends.
Over the last two years or so, I’ve tried to be a good influence on her, tried to get her to understand the many harsh realities facing our community, tried to get her to understand the very complex discourse for talking about the many different ways there are of being trans, tried to turn her into a Democrat.
Some of this, you could say, is still a work in progress.
Caitlyn, like any of us who spend our lives as public figures, has a pretty tough skin. Still, I’ve been on hand plenty of times while she has expressed sorrow over some aspects of her life, many of them things which trans people know well: the abandonment by friends, uncertainty about the future, the fear that she might make the life of her family more difficult.
But regret over coming out? Not a chance. If there’s one constant in Caitlyn’s life since last spring, it’s been a sense of joy at having finally found the courage to be herself.
And yet here it was: CBS, giving credence to what I knew to be abject gobbledegook. Within hours, the story was all over the internet, along with comments — many of them from the trans community itself— saying things like, “I knew it! The faker! The media whore! Schweinhund!”
I spent much of that afternoon in a kind of horrified wonder. Why was CBS — followed by other news outlets — so swift to run the story? Why were so many people so eager to believe it? To what could we trace the glee with which Jenner’s alleged U-turn was reported and reacted to?
The source for the story, interestingly, was a fellow writing an unauthorized biography of the Kardashians. He had not spoken to Jenner personally. And yet CBS — the House of Murrow! — figured, what the hey. No one from the network called Jenner for a comment. By mid day, after a statement from her publicist, CBS changed its online headline to “Caitlyn Jenner’s Rep Responds to De-Transitioning Report.” The whole sad baloney sandwich was tossed on the internet compost heap by day’s end, and with it, I suppose, my interest should have waned.
But I keep thinking about it, not just the glee with which a false story about Jenner was sent around the world, but also about the very ethics of reporting on transition and de-transition itself.
I have known at least one person who de-transitioned for a while, not because she wanted to, but out of a desperate move to sustain her marriage and her family. In the end, she came out again a year or so later, and right on schedule, her marriage dissolved, and she lost her job. I remember following that story on the net as well. On Facebook, reactions to her initial decision were excoriating. Traitor, people called her. You’ll be sorry! As if they somehow knew the realities of her life better than she did herself.
De-transition stories strike at trans people’s hearts, and not without good reason. To some degree, they remind me of that old man at the end of the cartoon, “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” who used to end every episode by saying, “You stupid dog! You made me look bad!”
I used to worry just this — that a de-transitioner would make me look bad, that the narrative I’d developed — that there was no possible choice for me except to come out — was falsified by evidence of someone who, having made the same choice, then found the ability to make another.
Or, to put it more simply, someone who comes out and then later de-transitions, makes us look like flibbertigibbets. It suggest that transition is not a matter of life or death, but something more mercurial and capricious.
For cisgender people, it verifies transphobia, makes them feel as if they knew better than we trans people all along. “Oh, I knew they’d regret it! I told them so from the beginning!”
I think that’s part of why people are fascinated and horrified by de-transition stories. It’s a train wreck that makes us feel good about ourselves: superior and wise about the lives of strangers, about the lives of people whose private sorrows and struggles we do not even know.
In Caitlyn’s case, it gave people further justification for the mixed feelings some have felt all along about her. The trans community, in some quarters, is exhausted with her — with the way she commands the media spotlight, with her curious political views, with her penchant for opening her mouth and saying stuff that makes the rest of us want to groan, “You stupid Olympian! You made me look bad!”
But it’s about more than Caitlyn. Personally, I believe that if a transgender transition is no one’s business until the person going through the process comes out, then the same goes for de-transition. Even if this story were true — which it’s not, duh — to speculate on someone’s de-transition is every bit as shameful as outing anyone else in any other way. It’s a private matter. And — how should I put this: It's no one's goddamned business.
And just because a de-transition fills you with glee — or horror — or contempt — or joy — it’s still none of your business. We have to let people control the stories of their own lives, whether they are emerging as fellow travelers, or packing their bags for good.
If our movement is to achieve anything, it must inspire a greater sense of love and compassion for all of us, and the struggles that we all go through to become ourselves. This is a hard road. Who of us would claim with authority to know what is best for another soul — whether they are famous or not?
When it comes to stories of transition or de-transition, the only person whose voice matters is the person making the decision. And our reaction to those stories should be one of understanding, and compassion, and love. That won’t make us “look bad,” like Courage the Cowardly Dog. That will make us look good, and kind, and human.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN is the author of Stuck in the Middle With You: Parenthood in Three Genders (Random House) and She’s Not There, the first best-selling book by a transgender American. She is a member of the cast of I Am Cait on E!.