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Why Caitlyn Jenner deserves our compassion, not scorn

Lack of societal acceptance holds disastrous consequences for transgender people.

Barry Humphries, Caitlyn Jenner and Germaine Greer
Barry Humphries, Caitlyn Jenner and Germaine Greer 

Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer have taken it on themselves to tell the world what a real woman is. According to Humphries, the celebrity transgender person Caitlyn Jenner is not a woman, but "a mutilated man". According to Greer, Jenner is not a woman full stop. "Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn't make you a f---ing woman."

Peter Craven, writing in The Age on January 14, argues that Humphries and Greer have the right to be offensive. Why should it matter, Craven speculates, investigating the idea that unpleasant opinions are the stuff of free speech and modern democracy, if they're "wrong-headed about the transgender issue?"

But it does matter. The individuals who choose to change their gender and undergo gender reassignment surgery do so at enormous emotional and social cost. It takes courage for a person to contemplate setting their life on a course that runs counter to accepted notions of fixed gendered identity and the body as sacrosanct.

If you believe you are born in the wrong body, that who you are is not congruent with your biological body, and that the gender you're obliged to assume is a fraud, then it follows that you will begin to look for a way to express yourself more truly.

Unfortunately, society doesn't make it easy. You don't want to upset your family or your workmates so you keep it a secret. At some point you can no longer live with the lie and you make the decision to pursue surgery to change your gender from the one wrongly assigned to you at birth to your true gender. Not a decision to be taken lightly. For transwomen its nothing like how Greer characterises it; lopping off your dick and popping on a frock. For a start, it has enormous consequences. You risk isolation through the loss of friends and family who can't fathom who you are any more, and you risk financial hardship and loss of independence through lack of employment.

Many transwomen lose their jobs once they've come out or have undergone surgery. (Most bosses, it seems, just like Humphries, can't cope with the idea of you no longer having a penis.)

Life is put on hold as you navigate the transition process of counselling, hormone therapy, electrolysis, voice therapy and generally learning how to assimilate into society as the woman you are. And all the while you suffer intense feelings of discomfort associated with a gender-incongruent body (gender dysphoria) while you wait for medical services to be made available, knowing that government funding, such as that provided to the Monash Gender Dysphoria Clinic, is critically inadequate.

For individuals who do seek gender reassignment surgery, life does become better afterwards. Faced with societal obstacles and on-going stigmatisation, at least they are themselves. For male-to-female transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner, they're the women they desire to be at last – no matter what Humphries and Greer might think about it.       

Humphries' visceral turn of phrase is oddly Oedipal, as if he fears the chop himself. Greer is aggressively defensive, as if she's anxious she'll wake up in an Alice In Wonderland world full of f---ing entitled not-women.

Their attitudes are myopic, refusing to engage with the wider ramifications of what it means to be "trapped in the wrong body", and what it takes to become free of it.

By opting for inflammatory, indeed, vicious language, they strip transgender people of their humanity; dehumanising them and us, as members of a common society, in the process. By doing so, they not only place a greater emotional burden on the individual, but also increase the social cost on us all.

Perhaps Humphries and Greer would be better off listening to Caitlyn Jenner's daughter, Kylie, talking about her parent. "I like her better than Bruce. We bond a lot more. She is really living her authentic, true self. And that's awesome."

Lack of societal acceptance holds disastrous consequences for transgender people. Global reports of attempted suicide among the transgender community range from 23-50 per cent (with this number reduced by more than three-quarters when individuals perceive social support and reduced transphobia).

Personal attacks aren't uncommon; they range from insults and abuse in public, to refusal of service in bars, entertainment venues and health clinics, to bodily harm, and death. The murder of a young African American, Rita Hester, by repeated stabbing, galvanised the global community to draw attention to hate crimes against transgender individuals. Every November, the Transgender Day of Remembrance memorialises those brutally murdered worldwide as a result of transphobia.

Let's by all means voice disagreeable and nonconformist opinions, but let's call out those opinions that mask an underlying contempt, foster ignorance, and lay the grounds for treating others with shocking intolerance.

Georgia Dacakis is an Adjunct Lecturer in speech pathology, School of Allied Health, La Trobe University, and works with transgender clients in the university's communication clinic.

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