“Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.”
That’s how the New York Daily News greeted news of Christine Jorgensen’s sex reassignment surgery in 1952, when Caitlyn Jenner was just 3 years old. Jorgensen, the first transgender woman in the United States to be exposed to such media scrutiny, was hounded by reporters when she came home from Denmark the next year. Photos show her surrounded by cameras and microphones, perfectly poised in a fur coat.
“I’m very happy to be back and I don’t have any plans at the moment and I thank you all for coming but I think it’s too much,” she announced.
It continued to be “too much” for decades. As transgender writer and activist Monica Roberts wrote, “It was [Jorgensen] who endured the stifling media scrutiny of being a trans person under the white hot glare of media publicity from the moment she stepped off the plane… until she passed away in May 1989.”
The year after Jorgensen died, Jenner met Kris Kardashian and temporarily stopped transitioning. It would be 25 more years until a newly-out Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair.
You might think that our fixation on transgender people’s genitals would have abated in the six plus decades since Jorgensen came home from Denmark. It hasn’t.
That’s how Radar Online, the first tabloid to discover that Caitlyn Jenner has had sex reassignment surgery, relayed the news this week. People has since confirmed that Jenner’s forthcoming memoir The Secrets of My Life contains an acknowledgment from Jenner that she has undergone the operation: “I am telling you because I believe in candor. So all of you can stop staring. You want to know, so now you know. Which is why this is the first time, and the last time, I will ever speak of it.”
But, of course, they haven’t stopped staring. The crass headlines about Jenner’s surgery only multiplied—headlines like “Caitlyn Jenner Confirms Her Penis is Gone!” and “Caitlyn Jenner Is Penis-Free & She’s Ready To Tell The World All About It!” (In fact, as noted above, Jenner reportedly writes in her memoir that she will never speak of it again.) And the same day the Radar Online report went up, The Daily Mail announced: “Legs for days! Caitlyn Jenner steps out in a flirty blue mini dress after revealing she has undergone gender reassignment surgery.”
It’s Christine Jorgensen all over again. And worse, it’s happening at a time when transgender rights are under constant threat. But the truth is that both of these trends—the media’s preoccupation with Caitlyn Jenner’s body and the “bathroom bills” that are constantly cropping up in state legislatures—are linked. At their heart is a seemingly inextinguishable obsession with transgender people’s genitals.
Whether it’s Germaine Greer declaring, “just because you lop off your penis… it doesn’t make you a woman,” or U.S. Republican state representatives trying to pass laws restricting bathroom usage by “original birth certificate” (i.e., the genitals you were born with), transphobia is often fueled by a fixation on the contents of people’s pants.
Indeed, many of the same cisgender people who bristle at having their genitalia scanned in airport security lines seem to think they have a right to know what transgender people have below the waist.
That entitlement—that need to know—stems from several different sources. Sometimes, it’s a lurid fascination with the anatomical details of transgender surgeries or with how transgender people function in bed afterward. Jorgensen, for example, famously walked off The Dick Cavett Show after being asked about her sex life.
In the U.S. political context, legislation that targets transgender people’s bodies ostensibly comes from a desire to protect “privacy” by keeping certain kinds of genitals in one bathroom and other kinds of genitals in another—even though there’s no evidence to suggest that non-discrimination protections for transgender people endanger cisgender women.
Fear of the other and a need to fundraise off of yet another culture war might be more likely explanations for the uptick in “bathroom bills” we are currently witnessing.
And on a cultural level, it’s no surprise that with the bizarre level of significance we ascribe to our genitalia—from gender reveal parties based off of ultrasound imagery to the conversation around penis size to the trend of cosmetic “vaginal rejuvenation” procedures—that grown adults would focus so intensely on procedures that construct a vagina or a penis, especially when a small but visible minority of people seek them out.
As long as people still see genitalia as wholly determinative of gender—as the very foundation for their manhood or womanhood—the obsession will remain.
Wherever it comes from, the focus on genitalia doesn’t do transgender people any good in an atmosphere of widespread discrimination. As Laverne Cox told Katie Couric back in 2014, “The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences.”
In a world where transgender people weren’t perceived as potentially predatory monsters and legislated against accordingly, this obsession with transgender genitalia would be laughably absurd. After all, who really cares what genitals someone else has? Who even cares if someone is transgender period? As Survivor contestant Zeke Smith joked after being forcibly outed as a transgender man on national television this week, “The only people who need to know are medical professionals and naked fun time friends.”
Indeed, the issue of transgender surgery ought to be seen a benign medical issue. Since 2008, the American Medical Association has recognized sex reassignment surgery as a form of “therapeutic treatment” for many transgender people, backed up by “an established body of medical research.” And since 2012, the American Psychiatric Association has officially recognized “that appropriately evaluated transgender and gender variant individuals can benefit greatly from medical and surgical gender transition treatments.”
Sex reassignment surgeries for transgender women have been happening since at least 1930 when Lili Elbe, the subject of The Danish Girl, underwent an early form of the procedure in Germany.
The modern procedure—of which there are a handful of variants—has been honed over time and, as the World Professional Association of Transgender Health notes, it currently “plays an undisputed role in contributing toward favorable outcomes” when performed in accordance with their standards of care.
Christine Jorgensen herself saw her surgery as relatively simple matter of necessity. In excerpts of a letter that were published by the New York Daily News back in 1952, she wrote to her parents, “nature made a mistake which I have corrected and now I am your daughter.”
It could have been left at that. Jorgensen shouldn’t have had to spend the rest of her life fielding questions about her body and her sex life. And even when she didn’t speak with the press, as she noted in a 1986 television interview, they “invented stories day after day after day.”
“They followed me when I went to get my driver’s license,” she recalled. ‘They got a picture of me getting out of my car, they got a picture of me getting into my car. Who cares about me getting in and out of the car?”
That 1986 interview is eerily prescient: In 2015, the New York Daily News and other outlets reported on Caitlyn Jenner getting a new driver’s license. Radar Online, of course, had screeched in advance: “Sex: Female! [Caitlyn] Jenner Planning Secret Trip to DMV for New Driver’s License as a Woman.” Pictures of Caitlyn Jenner getting into and out of her car are now a mainstay of the paparazzi.
And when the former Olympian and reality star goes silent for too long, the press invents stories about her just as they invented stories about Jorgensen.
Last year, for example, CBS News relayed a tawdry tabloid report based on anonymous sourcing that claimed Jenner would “detransition”—a rumor that tends to swirl with particular viciousness around transgender women who haven’t yet had genital surgery.
Then, having hounded Jenner for years before she came out, the tabloids spent 2016 guessing when she might get the surgery. In an ideal world, this would be about as ridiculous as speculating about when an aging actor will get a knee replacement.
But the obsession, it seems, will never die. Those who want to “erase” transgender people from of “public life”—as Laverne Cox has summarized recent attacks on restroom rights—will continue to use the specter of different genitalia in one space as a political tactic. People who are just “curious” about how surgery works—or how sex happens afterward—will never be sated so long as transgender people are seen as an exoticized minority.
Our genital-obsessed culture will change slowly, if at all. The fact that Caitlyn Jenner is dealing with the same problems as Christine Jorgensen almost 70 years later is not exactly an optimistic sign that things will improve.
In that 1986 interview, three years before her death, Jorgensen answered her own rhetorical question.
“Who cares about me getting in and out of the car?” she asked. “But obviously the world did.”
Maybe one day the world won’t care so much anymore. Not anytime soon.