In an arresting cover photo on the latest issue of Vanity Fair, we were introduced to Caitlyn Jenner. Clothed in a cream satin corset, a former Olympic champion decathlete posed for Annie Leibovitz and arguably vaulted to the height of the most famous openly transsexual person in the world.
Bruce Jenner wasn’t just a man; he was an icon of masculinity. He held the title of ‘World’s Greatest Athlete’, won the Associated Press ‘Male Athlete of the Year’, and was considered for the role of Superman. Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t just challenge people’s notions of Bruce Jenner’s identity, she also raises deeper questions about our cultural conception of masculinity and femininity.
The public response to Caitlyn Jenner has been overwhelmingly affirming. Celebrities and other public figures have lined up to express their praise and encouragement. Naysayers have been muted or have been forced to issue retractions in the face of overwhelming criticism. Jenner’s transition has sparked sharp differences of opinion among Christians. Many have welcomed Caitlyn to the world, rejoicing with Jenner’s palpable relief at release from the burden of having to ‘live a lie’; others have been vocally critical of the ideology that undergirds the notion of Jenner’s transition and the supposed motives that impelled it.
How ought we to think of and respond to Jenner’s transition? Here are a few reflections.
Firstly, however we may feel about the transition to Caitlyn, Jenner’s story of lonely suffering and self-alienation should excite our compassion. Given the degree to which their lives and homes are exposed to the cameras’ gaze, it can be hard to think of the Jenners and Kardashians as possessing any residuum of a private and personal existence. We are so accustomed to playing the part of gods in their lives — omniscient judges of their characters and actions — it is easy to forget that they relate to and stand before a God greater than E!’s audience. Rather than feeding on the thrill of the choreographed spectacle of reality TV, perhaps we should pray for a professing Christian family going through the difficult aftermath of a very public divorce and the confused feelings and disorientation surrounding Jenner’s revelation and transition.
Secondly, Caitlyn Jenner is a reminder of the way in which other people are invested in our identities. In order to be ‘true to herself’, Caitlyn had to get rid of Bruce Jenner (her ‘deadname’), a beloved son, former husband, and father. Kris Kardashian speaks of having to ‘mourn’ the man that she was married to and loved for twenty years and of feeling as if their life together never existed. Kim’s language of ‘letting go’ hints at an important reality: as father, son, and husband, Bruce Jenner belonged to people who loved him in a peculiar way but, after his transition, although love may remain, the mutual belonging will never be the same again. The gods of autonomous self-realization and personal authenticity require heavy sacrifices of us, the slaying of old selves that belonged to others—through separation, divorce, transition, suicide, etc. — to become ever truer to, yet lesser versions of, ourselves.
Thirdly, seeing Jenner in the ill-fitting accoutrements of his Caitlyn persona we should recognize the sad futility of the transition he is trying to accomplish. Carefully chosen camera angles and poses may disguise his broad shoulders and 6’2” frame, a tracheal shave and other extensive facial surgery may de-masculinise his facial features, hormone replacement therapy may produce feminising effects, and breast augmentation and possible sex reassignment surgery in the future may further simulate a woman’s bodily appearance. However, this is but a façade or hollow parody of womanhood, rightly challenged by many feminists and others who recognize in transgender ideology a challenge to and reduction of women’s identity and a denial of its unavoidable relation to the particular realities of their mode of embodiment. Turning a man’s genitals inside-out, giving him some fake breasts, and altering his facial appearance does not a woman make. Jenner’s Caitlyn persona will never be more than a veneer over or defacing of his more fundamental identity as a man. Forgetfulness of this fact diminishes us all, undermining or rejecting the deep humanizing reality of sexual difference.
Finally, Jenner’s sex dysphoria is a tragic and a real experience, one that shared with many other persons. Jenner’s suffering should not be denied and, as our hearts go out to him, we should relate to and experience the impulse of the supposed kindness that seeks to end it. However, attempting to dissemble and disassemble reality is not a solution. There are some forms of suffering that cannot and should not be escaped, but which we are called to bear both for our good and that of others, and which they are called to bear with us. Bravely born in the Christian ‘fellowship of suffering’, such struggles — such ‘tarrying with the tragic’ — are part of our vocation as Christian communities in this present age, faithful and patient witnesses to a redemption, to a transition, to a glorious transformation of bodies, far more effective and remarkable than any attempted sex change.
 I use the pronoun ‘she’ of Caitlyn Jenner in much the same way as I would use ‘she’ of Dame Edna Everage: Caitlyn is a female persona of a man, Bruce Jenner. When speaking about the persona, feminine pronouns are appropriate; when speaking about the person who has the persona, masculine pronouns are appropriate. For the most part, I will try to minimise use of masculine pronouns and the name ‘Bruce’ as Jenner’s current name when not important to my argument: my aim is not to cause unnecessary offence.