The words “authenticity” and “fashion magazines” don’t usually go together. Yet the fashion magazine Vanity Fair is in the news at present for its role in a carefully orchestrated campaign celebrating the transition of 65-year-old former Olympian and reality TV personality Bruce Jenner into his new identity as the trans woman Caitlyn Jenner.
Marking the public moment via Twitter, Jenner wrote:
“I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.”
The transgender movement has often played a poor cousin to the more vocal and popular efforts of the gay rights movement. Yet as the media frenzy over Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum peaked, it was perhaps the perfect moment for a transgender story to break through: riding, as it were, on the crest of the LGBT wave.
A public already saturated with positive commentary on the progressive dark horse of the Irish Republic could hardly be better situated for an intensely publicised and media-savvy transgender moment. As freelance writer Neil McMahon explained via the ABC:
“Because the Jenner story is a million stories untold. And because these million stories need a champion. And because these million stories are blessed when the champion happens to be someone as famous, eloquent, honest and challenging to our pre-conceived ideas as Caitlyn Jenner.”
As McMahon notes: “you’d be a fool to deny the transformative power of the moment”, let alone to say or write anything remotely critical or discouraging about the concept of transgender. The New York Times has at least acknowledged the behind-the-scenes machinations, stating that “the Vanity Fair article represents the latest in a carefully calibrated series of public steps by Ms. Jenner and her team”, and concluding with an intriguing quotation from the Vanity Fair journalist Buzz Bissinger, himself a cross-dresser with a self-described “fetish for women’s leather”:
“Is she doing a TV show? Sure,” Mr. Bissinger said. “Is she doing it for money personally? Sure. This is America. But I saw a person transformed into a woman, who is joyous and happy and free and living life in a way that Bruce Jenner never did.”
TV, money, and America all help to explain the intensity of media coverage on this issue. But behind the superficiality of marketing and PR there is a deeper quality to the story that attracts a significant weight of public sympathy: the notion that Jenner’s transformation brings his life into alignment with his “true self”, with corresponding joy, happiness and freedom.
In his book The City of God, the fourth Century saint Augustine of Hippo argued in his analysis of the religion and virtue of the recently sacked city of Rome that although the Romans worshipped false gods and mistook virtues for deities, they nonetheless exhibited virtue in their pursuit of glory and were rewarded for it in terms of their temporal success:
“these despised their own private affairs for the sake of the republic, and for its treasury resisted avarice, consulted for the good of their country with a spirit of freedom, addicted neither to what their laws pronounced to be crime nor to lust. By all these acts, as by the true way, they pressed forward to honors, power, and glory; they were honored among almost all nations; they imposed the laws of their empire upon many nations; and at this day, both in literature and history, they are glorious among almost all nations.”
If Augustine was objective enough to acknowledge the positive side of pagan Rome, perhaps we should do the same with the transgender movement and indeed to the associated identity issues of the wider LGBT movement. It is important for those of us with profound philosophical, ethical, and religious reservations to recognise that the LGBT narrative nonetheless instantiates or at least mirrors certain virtues, in particular a quality often referred to as “authenticity” in contemporary language and which could perhaps be interpreted as a variation on the virtue of honesty. The alternative is to fail to understand why these narratives hold such sway among the general public.
As the New York Times article noted: “Bruce Jenner was always lying, she said; Caitlyn can be honest.” To feel as though one is always lying about one’s identity, beliefs, or “true self” would be discomforting, demoralising, and ultimately destructive. Honesty is a virtue, and honesty entails the expression or acknowledgement of one’s genuine thoughts and feelings as much as the simple preferring of truths over falsehoods.
In “transformative moments” such as these, we are all encouraged to applaud Jenner for embracing his true self, and those who refuse to applaud may well be perceived as discounting the virtue of honesty as though we would prefer Jenner to continue lying. But the media script conflates honesty and accuracy; it does not allow us to make the quite modest point that as good as authenticity and honesty may be, we can still be mistaken in what we are honest about.
Honesty is not something we associate with magazine covers, and just as we have been told time and time again not to trust the airbrushed pictures presented to us in all their impossible glamour, so it is wise to exercise caution in the face of strong media approval for such a complicated story.
Honesty is a virtue, but honesty pertains to belief rather than to fact: a person can be honest but mistaken; honesty and lies are not the same as having correct and incorrect beliefs, hence the apparent paradox of a man expressing honesty and authenticity in his factually incorrect self-identification as a woman, or the metaphysically tendentious claim of having “the soul of a female”.
Ultimately, what is truly communicated through the carefully orchestrated charade in the appropriately named Vanity Fair is the dysphoric component of Gender Dysphoria, as Jenner explained in the interview: “The uncomfortableness of being me never leaves me all day long.”
To endure chronic unease, discontent, and dissatisfaction is a debilitating phenomenon; to experience it silently without a wholesome and affirming means of expressing this discontent honestly is a tragedy that unfortunately will be little aided either by the pretence of gender transformation — or by the wholesale condemnation of it.
While Augustine is appropriately critical of the Romans for the limits of their virtue and the shallowness of their temporal goals, he nonetheless uses the greatness of Rome as a rebuke to his fellow Christians, who, he argues, should be all the more virtuous and achieve even greater things in proportion to the glory of their spiritual goal.
In light of the virtues propounded by the LGBT narrative, perhaps those of us with dissenting religious, philosophical, and ethical perspectives should be a little ashamed for not having more honesty, courage, and vulnerability in the expression of our own deep discontent, our own dysphoria due not to gender but the world itself.
So perhaps we can draw two conclusions from the extraordinary spectacle of the media frenzy over Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.
First, shouldn’t those who are sceptical about Jenner’s transformation be honest and express it, but without attempting to minimise or make light of his inner struggle?
And second, shouldn’t our society have more powerful spiritual consolations to offer this unhappy 65-year-old man than “Call me Caitlyn”?
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com