When I wrote about Rachel Dolezal in 2015, I warned that the disgraced former NAACP Spokane chapter president—a white woman who passed as black for many years until she tellingly refused to answer a local TV reporter’s question about her race—was also subtly appropriating the language of transgender identity.
Well, she’s back, and this time the comparisons she is trying to draw between herself and transgender people are anything but subtle.
While doing press for her new memoir In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, Dolezal told Salon that “there’s more stigma for race fluidity than gender fluidity right now, and I don’t think anybody would deny that.”
Then she suggested that she hopes that people like her will be able to piggyback on the progress of the LGBT rights movement: “There was a time when we did call transgender, and even gay and bisexual, people crazy—with mental health issues and all these clinical terms—just stigmatized and rejected [them]. Maybe we will evolve and grow, and racial fluidity will become a thing in 20 years?”
And on CNN last weekend, Dolezal compared herself—somewhat—to Caitlyn Jenner: “There is some similarity in terms of harmonizing the outer appearance with the inner feeling, in terms of stigmatized identities, some people will forever see me as my birth category and nothing further. And the same with Caitlyn.” She made similar comments on BBC Newsnight and in other interviews.
But even worse than Dolezal’s specious analogies themselves are the way they are being handled by the media. Once again, voices on the right are wielding Dolezal’s story as a trump card to try to delegitimize and denigrate transgender identity. And voices on the left are failing to challenge or debunk the transgender comparison; in some cases, they’re asking the questions that invite it.
Back in 2015, I outlined all of the reasons why the Dolezal-transgender analogy doesn’t hold water. They all still stand.
There are at least 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States. A sizeable 35 percent of Americans know or work with a transgender person. How many Rachel Dolezals do you know? Virtually every major medical association supports and affirms transgender identity. How many support the kind of identity Dolezal has claimed?
Transgender people can undergo medically-proven treatments developed over decades to alter their sex characteristics; when asked how she altered her appearance, Rachel Dolezal told Matt Lauer in 2015 that she “certainly [doesn’t] stay out of the sun.”
Transgender identity may be a relatively recent topic in our national conversation, but it’s as old as human history and the American Medical Association has been on board since 2008. This is not some edgy new fad that can be compared in any meaningful sense to a single woman who, according to her memoir, used “bronzer sprays” to keep up the appearance of a black or biracial identity when she moved to Spokane.
And yet, news outlets are still echoing Dolezal’s transgender comparison without being nearly critical enough. The Washington Post reported that Dolezal is “stirring new kinds of outrage in the transgender community,” leaving it largely to embedded tweets and screencaps from LGBT writers to make the arguments against the comparison instead of, say, listing the readily-accessible facts about transgender identity that appear in articles like this one.
Even a progressive outlet like Mic initially failed to debunk Dolezal’s comparison, repeating her Salon comments about “racial fluidity” being more stigmatized than “gender fluidity,” with a quick note in a paragraph at the end of the article that “being transgender still comes with extreme social stigma and risk for violence.”
Then, a more-detailed Mic piece published yesterday actually dug into the race-gender comparison, declaring Dolezal “the very worst of white privilege.”
And if Salon pressed Dolezal on the claimed parallels between her identity and transgender identity during their interview, it doesn’t show up in the video clips they released. (Notably, Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams did tear into the transgender analogy in 2015, making points that shouldn’t have to be—but probably do need to be—reiterated every time Dolezal shows up in the headlines given the current climate of misinformation around trans identity.)
So long as outlets on the left and in the center let Dolezal slide on the Caitlyn Jenner comparisons—and continue to give her large platforms to make them—it will keep being cited further right on the political spectrum to make transgender people seem ridiculous. It happened in 2015; it’s happening today. For transgender people, this déjà vu isn’t just tiresome, it’s dangerous.
In a recent article for WorldNetDaily, for example, libertarian columnist Walter Williams wrote, “Today—independent of appearance, genitalia, birth certificate and chromosomes—one is a male or female based on how one labels oneself.”
He then immediately pivoted to the story of Rachel Dolezal with the segue: “This new liberty applies to not only sex but also race.”
Conservative blog Hot Air declared that “the position [Dolezal] is staking out is the exact subject which most of the transgender activists don’t want to talk about,” claiming that, “Both gender and race are obviously biological and we have all sorts of markers we can test ourselves for if we have any questions.” (In fact, transgender activists have talked about Dolezal at length and, like YouTuber Kat Blaque, have repeatedly broken down the fallacy of directly comparing the categories of gender and race.)
The Daily Caller chimed in on Dolezal’s latest press tour, too, with an argument that’s as stale today was it should have been in 2015: “If a man can declare himself to be a woman, and we’re all expected to adjust our pronouns accordingly (and instantly) or else we’re bigots, then why can’t a white woman decide she’s actually black?”
These kinds of comparisons make transgender people guilty by association with Dolezal. They elide enormous differences between the biology and sociology of race and gender to score a deceptively easy point. Worse, they make it seem like “transgenderism” is some trend, pushed by “activists,” when, in fact, it has long been recognized by science and medicine as a legitimate phenomenon.
At a moment when the transgender community is facing backlash from the Trump administration and in the form of proposed “bathroom bills,” it’s more important than ever to spread complete and accurate information about the validity of transgender identity.
Buying into Dolezal’s spurious analogy to further a political war on transgender people is shameful. Giving her a megaphone to compare herself to transgender people without reporting the facts is irresponsible.
No one in the transgender community should have to say that again.
But we probably will.