I wasn’t going to wade in on the whole Rachel Dolezal problem at first because it felt like a situation where white-identifying people like me should take a damn seat. However, as is the case whenever someone is found out to be lying about what many people regard as a fundamental part of their identity, bigots decided to use this woman as a stick to beat trans people with. >.<
Even then I wanted to stay out of this but since several people on my Facebook friends list and groups keep posting “she lied about being black just like Jenner lied about being a man/woman [delete as appropriate depending on what point the person is trying to make]” I’ve had as much stupid as I’m going to take.
First of all, Caitlyn Jenner did not lie to anyone, so let’s stamp out that falsehood right away. She lived her life as best she could despite her dysphoria (and there’s a lot to be said for her having lived her life very well despite the dysphoria, which is more than most can say) and when she got to a point where she couldn’t go on without addressing that fundamental problem, she faced it head on.
She’s a success in a situation where many people don’t make it and for that, I say good on her. Moreover, she didn’t lie. While there have been no definitive discoveries of the cause of transsexuality (and in fact there appear to be numerous potential causes, giving rise to the possibility that transsexuality is actually the end result of a range of issues) there is mounting evidence that transsexuality is a condition with effects you can potentially test for.
The evidence that is often cited is, of course, the 1995 study by Zhou et al., which demonstrated that trans people have comparable brain structures to cis people of the sex they identify with (so trans men have male brain structure and trans women have female brain structure). This is in the stria terminalis region of the brain, which is responsible for “sex and anxiety responses”. This study was confirmed in 2000 by a follow-up study by Kruijver et al. that also tested a trans woman who had never undergone hormone therapy – she still had comparable brain structure to a cisgender female.
So what we can see from this is that regardless of what you think about transsexuality, it has effects that can be measured and pointed to if someone needs physical proof to back up their claims – and by “physical proof” regarding trans people, it’s nice to be able to discuss something other than “the surgery” for once. (Seriously cis people, what is your obsession with gender reassignment?)
So from this we can see that Caitlyn Jenner will be able to back up her being trans with actual, scientific evidence that she is who and what she says she is. Rachel Dolezal is a different matter. Rachel Dolezal claimed she was a black woman, when she is not.
According to investigations by a professional genealogist (warning: Daily Mail link), Dolezal has no black ancestors as far back as 1671 and is instead descended from Swedish, German and Czech ancestors with a little Native American in there, too. She may have black ancestors from before 400 years ago but when you go back that far, finding accurate records is a problem.
Identity is important to people and I’ve said before that what people identify as isn’t always exactly what you may think they should identify as based on how they look. However, the common understanding of race does involve your heritage to at least some extent; whether that’s because of your upbringing or your ancestry. Dolezal has no black ancestry that anyone can find, and while her parents did adopt some black children, she was already a teenager by that point.
So while Dolezal could very well state that her teenage years living with black adopted siblings has given her an understanding of how the world treats black people – a claim she could very easily back up – she didn’t do that. She didn’t join the NAACP and champion the rights of people of colour from the standpoint of a white woman with black siblings. She told the world she was a black woman, and apparently also stated she was black on at least one official form.
There is therefore little here to back up a claims of black heritage and thus her claim that she “identifies as black” is ringing a little hollow. The cries of cultural appropriation from the black community on Twitter and all across the Internet are looking pretty strong based on this.
I hate to bring this all down to scientific and medical evidence because that feels an awful lot like biological determinism and as a trans woman, I’ve been attacked by fools who don’t understand that far too many times. Nevertheless, she’s claiming to be black when she’s demonstrably not black.
She could have claimed to be a mixed-race Native American but she didn’t do that. She could have joined the NAACP as a white person and black ally but she didn’t do that. She chose to present herself as a black woman, then make up a fake childhood and history of abuse on top of that.
That’s why Dolezal is a liar and Jenner is not. Jenner told the truth and lived her life successfully despite obviously battling dysphoria for a very long time. Dolezal on the other hand just made claims that fell apart the moment someone looked into them. Why? I have no idea but that doesn’t change the fact that this woman’s claims have nothing whatsoever in common with the very real problems trans people face.
So stop using her as a weapon to attack us with. Her lies have nothing to do with our lives.