Caitlyn Jenner, Chelsea Manning and the Problem People Have With Transgender Women

06/03/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

On Monday, June 1, 2015, Vanity Fair tweeted its latest cover, an Annie Leibovitz photograph of a woman in a silk bodysuit sitting on a stool in a corner, leaning against the wall. I'd peg the woman in her fifties, maybe early sixties, and she's lovely. Her expression manages to convey both a certain kind of shyness when coupled with the way her arms are folded behind her back and an undeniable boldness in the lift of her chin and glint of her eye. It is not an especially racy photograph or, on its face, a controversial one, and yet it has occupied the forefront of media attention since its debut.


Because the woman in the photograph, Caitlyn Jenner, used to be a man.

Even more than that, we, the public, knew Caitlyn as a man, as Bruce Jenner, a gold medal Olympian turned actor and TV personality. She was married to TV personality Kris Jenner for 23 years; together, they headed up the family with the most screen time in the county -- the Kardashians. Following their divorce in 2015, Caitlyn came out as trans in an interview with Diane Sawyer; in this issue of Vanity Fair, she has made the request that people respect her identity by using female pronouns.

Chelsea Manning, a United States Army soldier, disclosed almost 750,000 classified and sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks. When she did this, the world knew and saw her as Bradley Manning. Chelsea was sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses in August 2013, at which time she requested she be henceforth known as Chelsea. In April, in her first interview with the press from military prison in Kansas, Chelsea opened up to Cosmopolitan about her experience in a male prison as a trans woman, as well as her lifelong desire to live as a woman.

Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning aren't the only high profile transgender women. Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), an actress, appeared on the cover of TIME in May 2014 to refute the idea that genitalia is destiny. Lana Wachowski, the director who helmed the Matrix films with her brother, Andy, as Larry Wachowski, revealed she had transitioned during promotion of her film Cloud Atlas in July 2012.

That being said, Caitlyn and Chelsea, unlike Laverne and Lana, transitioned very publicly. The whole world watched them become women -- and, with that transition, become the subjects of shocking vitriol.

After the release of the Vanity Fair cover and photos Monday, Caitlyn Jenner received beautiful messages of support -- and incredibly ignorant messages of hate. A Fox News piece by Neil Cavuto misgendered Caitlyn throughout the segment. Additionally, he suggested her transition and the Vanity Fair cover were a sign of the end of American civilization and mocked transgender people by introducing his next guest, Charles Payne, as "Charlene Payne," to raucous laughter.

Fox News has been similarly deprecating to Chelsea Manning since her public announcement of her decision to transition more than two years ago, referring to her as a "gender bender" and using male pronouns. On-air personality Andrea Tantaros referred to her as "Bradleen." In the aftermath of Chelsea's announcement, Fox & Friends introduced a segment about Chelsea by playing Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady."

But Fox isn't the only network that slammed her.

CNN contributors Avery Friedman and Richard B. Herman participated in a discussion about whether or not the government should pay for gender-reassignment hormone therapy; Friedman restated the question rhetorically as, "Can Bradley Manning get the army to make him Bradley Womanning?" Herman, later in the discussion said, "If he wants to be Chelsea, he can practice all he wants in Fort Leavenworth 'cause those guys are there for a long time so he can get good practice."

That's a reference to prison rape being good practice for being female, in case you missed it.

Why do these women draw such ire? What do we hate about them?

I have a theory.

Are you familiar with gender essentialism? It's the idea that men and women have inherent, unique and natural attributes that qualify them as their separate genders. These attributes are typically biological or sexual, and they're a binary imposition of patriarchal dualism. Put simply, men are strong, women are not. Men are dominant, women are not. Men need sex, women do not. Men are X, women are not-X. The dualism aspect of this places the not-X in a subservient position to the X.

Gender essentialism is everywhere, from "traditional gender roles" to the men's/boy's and women's/girl's sections of department stores.

There's a common misconception, even among LGBT supporters, that transgender people validate traditional gender roles and perpetuate gender essentialism, but transgender people actually demonstrate that a person is not permanently and biologically tied to their gender by demonstrating they have the ability and the right to be autonomous over their own body and to alter it however they like. A common practice during a transgender person's transition is the person freeing themselves from the gender expectations of other people and adopting one that feels more natural to them. The body alteration that is often involved allows them to feel more comfortable in it, which allows them to subsequently reclaim their own body for themselves.

The response to Caitlyn and Chelsea's transitions is what reinforces gender essentialism. We knew Caitlyn and Chelsea as men -- in other words, we knew them as strong, dominant and virile. In transitioning publicly, they declared their intention and desire to leave these positively-associated traits for a construct that lacks them.

And we can't handle that.

We as a culture do not like women as autonomous beings. We do not support them -- sometimes we punish them; for example, we punish them for working by underpaying them. So when we actively see an autonomous man using his autonomy to leave malehood to become an autonomous woman, it's alarming. It goes against what we've been taught. We live in a patriarchal society where men have distanced themselves from "the weaker sex" to set themselves up as superior humans; ergo, it almost necessarily calls out for humiliation when a man leaves that position to join that weaker sex.

Caitlyn Jenner's transition is a beautiful thing, and it's a beautiful opportunity for us, as a community, to talk about gender, move past out-of-date constructs and celebrate our differences.

Don't ruin it by being a dick.

[The author would like to thank GLAAD for the good work they do, and their thoughtfulness in releasing a tip sheet for writing about transgender people.]