Caitlyn Jenner, Gay Marriage, and the Importance of Group Identity

I almost wrote a piece for the bloggity blog a few weeks back when Caitlyn Jenner’s Variety cover came out and drove the conversation on social media for a news cycle or two. It wasn’t Jenner herself that fascinated me about the whole thing, but the bifurcated response from the news media. Now that we’ve gotten last week’s SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage and a similar response that’s more general than just media-driven I feel that I can fully and completely write what I want to write on the topic.

I don’t really want to focus so much on gay or transgender rights. I take it as a given that gay people should be accorded all the freedoms straight people possess. I take it as a given that transgender people should be free to identify themselves however they desire. It’s a moot point to me. This actually surprises me to some extent, as I know that 12 or so years ago I would have seen Caitlyn Jenner and the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling as an attack on the church and all I stood for.

This is why I think it’s important for me to offer up my thoughts on this. I am not gay. I am not transgender. I do, however, have gay friends and transgender friends. I have friends who count themselves as friends and allies to the gay and transgender people in their lives. I rejoice that the world has gotten a little to a lot better for those folks over the last month and am gratified to see that the arc of the universe is lately bending a little farther in the direction of justice. I also know that past versions of me would be horrified to learn that the current version of me feels this way.

I’ve realized that the entire fight we’re currently witnessing comes down to a binary set of beliefs. On one side of the fight are those who believe that each person gets to define who and what they are according to their own beliefs. On the other side of the fight are those who believe that the group gets to tell everyone who and what they are according to the group’s beliefs. The former group is the ultimate expression of the Declaration of Independence and the core beliefs set down in the preamble, that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights. The former group, then, is engaged in an exploration of what it means to be American and live in the nation created two hundred and twenty-five years ago through the crucible of blood, hardship, and sacrifice.

The reason the Caitlyn Jenner story crystallized this thought in my mind is simple. In the days following the release of that Variety cover it was absurdly simple to figure out who was on what side. Those who agreed used “her” and called her “Caitlyn.” Those who disagreed used “him” and called her “Bruce.” It was that difference that allowed me to discern the true motives behind the allies and the enemies. Caitlyn said, “I am a woman, call my Caitlyn.” One side said, “Okay, you’re Caitlyn.” The other side said, “Shut up, you’re Bruce.” One side said, “You get to tell us who you are.” The other side said, “We tell you who you’re allowed to be.”

Gay marriage follows the same logic. One side says, “You get to decide who you love.” The other side says, “We’ll tell you who you’re allowed to love.”

The fascinating thing is that this isn’t even a religious divide. I could give you the names of religious friends and acquaintances who are overjoyed at the new-found freedoms of gay Americans and accept Caitlyn Jenner’s self-identification. I’ve seen several examples of self-identified non-religious people who are all about “straight pride,” whatever the fuck that is.[1]

What it comes down to, then, is something that goes deeper than the divide between liberal and conservative. It’s an issue of security versus insecurity. If a great sports hero and champion of masculinity like Bruce Jenner can come out as Caitlyn Jenner what does it say about a lesser man? If a great Christian nation like America can make gay marriage the law of the land what does it say about Christianity?

Those of us who don’t define ourselves according to what others say can handle that sort of change. Those of us who define ourselves according to what others say cannot handle that sort of change. It’s that simple. Bruce Jenner’s re-introduction to the world as Caitlyn doesn’t make me a woman. The legalization of gay marriage doesn’t make me gay. Since I am aware of this I can rejoice at the fact that Caitlyn Jenner has now made life easier for transgender folks and the Supreme Court has now made life easier for gay folks.

It’s a beautiful thing, being able to celebrate with those who rejoice.


[1]Straight pride. Ugh. This is one of those things that baffles me.

To make an analogy: I am one of the whitest people you will ever meet. I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, which is pretty much known as the white, Evangelical Mecca. I went to school next door in Glen Ellyn, a wealthy, predominantly white suburb. In grade school I think I had one black and one Filipino friend. It’s not because I was racist, it’s because I think those were the only non-white people in my grade. My junior high and high school were similarly lily white. Hell, I was friends with the only black guy on my floor when I was in college and the only two black guys I worked with when I lived in Texas. I’ve lived a fairly isolated life is what I’m saying. I didn’t seek that out, it just kind of happened.

That said, when I was in college I worked with the InterVarsity chapter at WIU. The year I was installed as the outreach leader the regional chapter decided to have a white culture retreat. I thought it was the dumbest fucking thing I’d ever heard, but it was my job to promote it because outreach guy. So we, and by “we” I mean, “The leadership group, over my objection,” decided to do a skit at the weekly meeting to promote the fucking white culture retreat. I’d also like to point out that in the time I was in said InterVarsity group there was one non-white person. Seems important.

Either way, the week of the meeting where we were to do the skit I got hit with my annual flu bug. Basically, there’s about three days of the year where I get extremely sick and spend my days wrapped in a blanket, unable to move, and wishing I was dead. I dragged my ass to the meeting and did the skit, where I still vaguely recall saying, “We’re white, we have culture, go to this retreat,” with all of the verve of a man who thought he was about to puke his guts out and die in a puddle of vomit. To this day I think that’s more enthusiasm than the notion of a white culture retreat deserves.

The problem is that I didn’t have the vocabulary to truly object at the time. I knew it was really stupid, but I didn’t know why. The whole thing was cooked up as a sort of salve to the notion, both within and without InterVarsity, that we should celebrate diversity.

The reason we have Black History Month and not White History Month is because every month is White History Month by default. White is the default color through which we view western civilization. Male is the default gender. Straight is the default sexual orientation. Anything outside of straight, white male is considered a deviation from the norm. Black History Month, then, is a necessary reminder that not everyone is white. Gay pride parades, then, are a necessary reminder that not everyone is straight. We don’t need white pride. We don’t need straight pride. That sort of idea just gilds the lily.

It occurs to me that this dovetails nicely with my thoughts on the Confederate flag. There’s no Northern pride movement to counteract Southern pride because those of us from the North know we kicked the South’s ass and that the South won’t, in fact, rise again. We don’t worry about a pride movement because we’re secure in our position as undeniable victors in a long, bloody war. This is a negative comparison, however. It’s why we need to lower the Confederate flag and raise the rainbow flag. The Southern pride that holds the stars and bars as an ideal is a divisive aspiration that holds to the notion that some people are inferior to others by dint of minute genetic differences. Southern pride as espoused by those who hold the Confederacy as an ideal, then, is weak, divisive, and easily pushed aside by any true ideal that holds to the notion that all men and women are created equal and possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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