A simple tip for tough discussions and disagreements.
Caitlyn Jenner has history of giving troubling sound bites.
In the wake of a shooting attack on Republican members of Congress, Jenner “joked” that “liberals can’t even shoot straight.” She once told BuzzFeed that, “the hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.” During the 2016 election she said she wanted to be the “trans ambassador” for vehemently anti-LGBTQ politician Ted Cruz.
Take into account her public transition and her connection to the Kardashian family, there’s no shortage of people ready and eager to call her out for comments like those.
Though we can’t know for sure Jenner’s intent, her status as a public figure and her habit of saying offensive, inappropriate, and ill-informed things makes life for trans people like me that much harder. She wants to speak for my demographic, and yet, when she opens her mouth, she often says things I vehemently disagree with.
It’s embarrassing. It’s exhausting.
Also exhausting, however, is the reaction I see play out every time Jenner says something problematic.
For every on-point criticism of whatever it is Jenner said, there are waves of people who respond with transphobic comments and “jokes” that misgender her and refer to her by her old name.
It certainly seems as though many people feel that Jenner saying or doing something awful gives them the green light to let out some general anti-trans feelings on the world — even if by accident.
While those sorts of comments may be directed at her, they send a really unfortunate message to all trans people, implying that being called the correct name and pronoun is a privilege to be “earned” and that can later be revoked in the case of bad behavior.
Those types of comments suggest that the person making them is merely humoring trans people when using our correct pronouns and names instead of taking us at our word when it comes to who we are.
The bottom line is this: Calling Caitlyn Jenner a “man” or using her old name doesn’t really address what makes her so objectionable.
There’s a name for this kind of bad argument.
It’s called “ad hominem,” and it’s basically when someone comes to an argument to insult someone’s character or body as opposed to their ideas. It’s a pretty weak way to make a point, and honestly, it often affects more than the intended target.
So how can you criticize Caitlyn Jenner without being transphobic? Simple: Avoid ad hominem.
After Jenner’s comments about the congressional shooting began circulating, here’s an exchange I saw take place on Twitter:
One person posted a link to the recent story about her “liberals can’t even shoot straight” comments. Out of nowhere, people replied to that tweet calling her a man, saying things about how her “real name” was “Bruce,” and lots of stuff that had nothing to do with the stupid thing that she actually said.
A better way to respond would be to criticize her comments as being offensive or inappropriate in the wake of the tragedy she was talking about.
What if you just won’t be satisfied unless you can crack a joke? LGBTQ activist Dan Savage pretty much nailed it with his response to her comments: “The liberal black lesbian married cop who took out the shooter got the job done.”
Boom. Critical. Funny. Most importantly, not-transphobic.
There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Caitlyn Jenner — whether the person doing the criticizing is trans or not.
Just because ad hominem attacks aren’t OK doesn’t mean Jenner gets some sort of “free pass” to say troubling things unchecked. It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be held accountable for her words or that she shouldn’t be criticized for her views or politics.
If people feel the need to criticize her for her political views, her charmed reality TV life, or her actions, they absolutely should do that. Believe me, there is plenty there to address.
There’s just no need to bring transphobia into it.
Clarification 6/20/2017: A previous version of this post stated Jenner means well with her comments; it was updated to reflect that we don’t know her intent.