Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Month: June, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner May Not Be Your Hero, But Here’s Why She Deserves the Arthur Ashe Courage Award

On Monday, ESPN announced that Caitlyn Jenner is the recipient of their annual Arthur Ashe Courage Award. ESPN executive producer, Maura Mand, explained the appropriateness of their choice: “Bruce [Jenner] has received many accolades over the years for being one of the greatest Olympians of our time, but The ESPYS are honored to celebrate Bruce becoming Caitlyn. She has shown the courage to embrace a truth that had been hidden for years, and to embark on a journey that may not only give comfort to those facing similar circumstances, but can also help to educate people on the challenges that the transgender community faces.”

Mand’s rationale certainly seems in keeping with the Arthur Ashe Award description, as printed on ESPN’s Web site. Note the emphasis on “human rights” and “never back[ing] away from a difficult issue, even though doing so would have been easier.”

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Unsurprisingly, the news of Jenner’s win sent many of her detractors, already worked up over her Vanity Fair photo shoot, into paroxysms of rage. Because it’s National LGBT Pride Month — and because it’s the right thing to do AND in keeping with the spirit of the award — let’s tackle some of the status updates and blog posts that have gone viral and explain why Caitlyn Jenner deserves both this award and our applause.

Yesterday morning, Orie Pancione from West Virginia posted publicly a status update criticizing Jenner that has since been shared 148,841 times (and counting). Pancione accuses ESPN of ignoring cancer victim Lauren Hill and wounded veteran Noah Galloway in favor of Caitlyn Jenner, who is “trending” for “play[ing] dress up.”


First: as Deadspin’s Nick Martin explains, “This is an award ESPN doles out based on what they decide, not what is voted on, so anything you think is automatically arbitrary. If you don’t like who wins it, don’t watch the ESPY’s—simple as that. The award does not dictate who is the most courageous person in the world, nor does it diminish what Galloway or Lauren Hill—who people also said should have been the recipient instead of Jenner—have accomplished.”

I’d add: the type of courage defined in the award description (e.g. “using fame and stature to advocate for human rights, although at the time, these positions may have been unpopular and were often controversial”) is a very different type of courage than that used to fight a deadly disease or an enemy soldier.

The award that is more in keeping with either Noah Galloway’s or Lauren Hill’s struggles is the Espy Perseverance Award, which is going to Devon Still and his daughter Leah, who is battling cancer. That award is about having the courage to persevere in difficult circumstances. No one is accusing the Stills of taking an award away from Noah Galloway or Lauren Hill. Rather, they’re attacking the trans woman, saying that she should hand over her award, despite the fact that it would make no sense according to the award description and is quite simply a mean-spirited thing to say — which people seem to get when the honoree is a 5-year-old with pediatric cancer. But trans people are too often treated as less than human and their struggles dismissed.

Second: Caitlyn Jenner is not playing dress up, and to suggest otherwise not only reveals a gross misunderstanding of what transgender means but also perpetuates a stereotype that no doubt contributes to discrimination and violence against the trans community. Jenner has explained to us that her gender identity (female) is different from her assigned gender at birth (male) and that she has made the unpopular and controversial choice to live out the rest of her life as the woman she’s always been. Our job, which is admittedly *really* easy, is to say “Good for you, Caitlyn”; to stop referring to her as “Bruce” and using male pronouns; and to treat her like a human being rather than a child preoccupied at the play station with all the costumes.

Also this week, Emily Suzanne, a conservative Christian blogger penned “Bruce Jenner is Not a Hero” that has racked up over 10,000 Facebook shares in two days. The thesis — that Bruce Jenner is neither a woman nor a hero — is built upon assertions about gender that, in the 21st century, we know are false.


People who insist that God wouldn’t “make the mistake” of confusing gender categories are understandably stumped when passed a copy of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes” or an article about Caster Semenya, the South African woman was was scrutinized because she outstripped other female runners to such an extent that officials had her gender-tested and discovered that she had both a vagina (female part!) and inverted testicles (male part!).

The male/female categories aren’t as clear as Emily Suzanne and her ilk think. Their experience of the world as cisgender isn’t the experience of everyone else; so, maybe (just maybe) they would do well not to play God, leaving instead a person’s gender classification up to, you know, the person; and God’s judgement up to Him . . . or Her.

I said as much in a blog comment, but it remains unpublished, still awaiting Emily Suzanne’s moderation.

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So, I’m taking my comment out of moderation by writing my own blog post — because I want to be courageous in the way Caitlyn Jenner is, although it makes me sad that too often the “unpopular” and “controversial” opinion to voice is one that should be universally accepted, namely: that the transgendered community is not comprised of people who are “mistakes,” but rather people who are more often than not mind-bendingly courageous in the face of adversity (which includes being pelted with countless transphobic comments, like those above).

Here’s to their courage . . . and that’s cour·age \ˈkər-ij, ˈkə-rij\ according to the most “Arthur Ashe” definition of the word.


The Only Duggar Spinoff That I’d Watch

June is National LGBT Pride Month, and TLC has yet to make a decision about the future (or not) of its hit show 19 Kids and Counting. Josh Duggar, who recently resigned as Executive Director of Family Research Council Action, has spent the past two years lobbying against LGBT rights, among other conservative causes. From suggesting that marriage equality will destroy the American family to fighting against anti-discrimination bills designed to protect the LGBT community, Duggar’s ethos as the “Face of Faith and Politics” has crumbled in light of a molestation scandal.

On May 21, In Touch Magazine published police reports from 2006 that detail an investigation against Duggar, who was accused of (and subsequently confessed to) molesting five underaged girls, some of whom are his sisters. While we should no doubt offer words of support to these (and all) victims of sexual abuse, and respect their privacy accordingly, we should also — as Alexandra Petri argues in The Washington Post — ”start pushing back against” an ideology that privileges a son’s reputation over a daughter’s safety; that equates one’s worth with one’s “purity”; and, I would add, that maligns families like Zach Wahls’s by wrongly suggesting they’re inferior to traditional families.

The best way to push back is to demand that The Learning Channel cancel the show, which — in a touch of irony — filled the time slot left vacant by Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, another popular “reality” show that was cancelled when the family matriarch began dating a convicted child molester. Fans of 19 Kids and Counting will argue that the situation is different — that Duggar was only 14 and 15-years-old (never mind the fact that, even at this age, he fits the medical definition of a child molester); or, that he made “mistakes,” turned back to God, and is consequently cured (never mind the fact that he initially received no professional treatment — which not only did a disservice to his victims but also to him).

For these reasons alone we should demand the show’s cancellation. But, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we should have demanded the show’s cancellation even earlier — in solidarity with the LGBT community. We should have said “no” to 19 Kids and Counting when Josh capitalized on the success of the show by scoring a position with FRC, which has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center — or, more recently, when Michelle joined her son’s campaign against an anti-discrimination bill by recording a robocall that compared transgendered people to pedaphiles.

While the Duggars are free to think and preach whatever they like, we — as the viewing public — do not have to sponsor them financially. In fact, I would argue that we have a moral obligation not to do so. 19 Kids and Counting has made the Duggar family wealthy and influential, and they’ve used that wealth and influence to become political players. See, for example, their 2012 video “19 Reasons and Counting to Vote for Rick Santorum.” There is something particularly noxious about watching children who are much too young to vote pledging to support a presidential candidate because he’s promised to secure our borders and has an A+ rating from the NRA.

We should have responded by voting “no” with our remotes years ago — because TLC is supposed to be the learning channel, not the propaganda channel.

Unsurprisingly, the Duggars are fighting hard against cancellation by encouraging their fans to contact the network and “make your voices heard.” Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have scheduled a Fox News interview with Megyn Kelly for Wednesday night. And, according to rumors, TLC is considering a spinoff featuring daughters Jill Dillard and Jessa Seewald, and their respective husbands.

Here’s the problem: Jill and Jessa are devotees of the same branch of archaic, conservative Christianity as their parents. We felt culpable when we realized that we’ve promoted, through our viewership of 19 Kids and Counting, a patriarchal system that is dangerously sexually repressive; that first ignores female accounts of victimization and then responds inadequately once they’re (of course) repeated. I, for one, am not interested in promoting, though my viewership of a “Jill and Jessa” spin-off, that same patriarchal system with only different key players.

The only Duggar spinoff that I would be willing to watch would be one in keeping with The Learning Channel’s namesake: Episodes might include:

the Duggar girls take a gender studies class at a state university

the Duggar boys take a gender studies class at a state university

the Duggar kids read the Harry Potter series

the Duggars study the Living the Questions progressive Christian curriculum

the Duggars hang out with __________ (fill in the blank: Zach Wahls, Bill Nye, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, etc.)

Because here’s the thing: “secular” America has let the Duggars into their homes and has seen them humanized. We can understand and disagree with the Duggar family’s ideology while enjoying the cute kids, empathizing with the family when they grieve (e.g. over Michelle’s miscarriage), and appreciating all those moments in the universal human experience, like young love, that play out on screen.

We’re only interested in a spinoff if they’re willing to offer the same courtesy to us, to learn about different ways of seeing the world in a way that humanizes rather than demonizes. The Duggar kids should be able to choose differently from their parents without fear of losing their parents’ love, ruining the family image, suffering eternal damnation, etc. Granted, they should also be able to choose similarly to their parents, but the key word is “choice.”

My wish for the Duggar kids is that all of them will be free, sans television camera, to explore and experience the world more fully, that they’ll become “pro-choice” in the most basic sense of the word, and that having the freedom to choose their own way in life will make them more willing to accept and protect the choices of others.

In that spirit, Happy National LGBT Pride Month.