America was going to have a national conversation about transgender issues, whether we wanted to or not. Our cultural betters decreed we would. The perfectly named Vanity Fair deployed its considerable resources to present the coming out of Caitlyn—née Bruce—Jenner in what it took to be the most favorable and pleasing way possible. Jenner’s upcoming reality show about the transition will no doubt be inescapable in a way that will make even the Kardashians in his family envious. Americans are not being asked to tolerate the former Olympian’s choices, but to deny reality and accept that Jenner is fully a woman, biology notwithstanding.
Now we find ourselves suddenly caught up in a different national conversation about identity, only this time it’s causing our progressive overlords a great deal of pain. It recently emerged that Rachel Dolezal, the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, is in fact a white woman who has been using creative hairstyling and extravagant application of bronzer to present herself as African American. There’s plenty of outrage. But Dolezal’s defense of herself is surprisingly difficult to refute by the internal logic of identity politics: “I identify as black.” The obvious question on everyone’s lips: Why should we have to accept Jenner’s declaration that he identifies as a woman if it’s an affront for Dolezal to suggest she can be black?
The attempts to square this circle have been comedic. See “Why Comparing Rachel Dolezal To Caitlyn Jenner Is Detrimental To Both Trans And Racial Progress,” by Huffington Post culture writer Zeba Blay. “Transracial identity is a concept that allows white people to indulge in blackness as a commodity, without having to actually engage with every facet of what being black entails—discrimination, marginalization, oppression, and so on,” Blay wrote. But aren’t women also subject to discrimination, marginalization, oppression, and so on? A New York Times op-ed by Elinor Burkett, a feminist liberal in good standing, declared that the Jenners of the world “cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman. . . . They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails.” For this, Burkett was decried and slurred as—the horror!—a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
Another charge leveled against Dolezal, formulated by Morehouse College professor Marc Lamont Hill, is that she was guilty of professional fraud. But this fraud argument doesn’t hold up, either. Last year, ESPN’s Grantland website ran an exposé of the inventor of a “miracle putter.” The inventor in question, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was guilty of faking outlandish biographical details, such as claiming to have worked on the team that designed the stealth bomber. Author Caleb Hannan, however, also revealed that Ms. Vanderbilt was born Stephen Krol. After being pilloried by the transgender community, Grantland editor Bill Simmons issued a mea culpa—it was wrong to out Vanderbilt as transgender—and published a guest editorial from Christina Kahrl, a board member of GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) about what Grantland had done wrong.
Vanderbilt (who had previously attempted suicide) killed herself before the article was published. Incredibly, Kahrl all but blamed Grantland for her death. “One of her responses to the fear of being outed as a transsexual woman to some of the people in her life—when it wasn’t even clear the story was ever going to run—was to immediately start talking and thinking about attempting suicide,” wrote Kahrl. But how can those who are transgender be allowed to remain opaque about their original identity, especially when it relates to deception in other aspects of their life—if we insist Rachel Dolezal was engaged in an intolerable fraud?
The inconvenient truth is that Dolezal, who attended Howard University and has black relatives (adopted siblings, a former husband, and a son), has more claim to black identity than Jenner does to being female. With globalization and intermarriage, race is more than ever a social construct, in contrast to the biological certainty of Jenner’s having fathered children. Yet our left-wing grievance culture remains invested in reaffirming arbitrary and unscientific racial differences as a fashionable mechanism for redistributing political power. It won’t admit that when all can declare themselves to be anything, these distinctions become politically meaningless. The story of Rachel Dolezal ought to be the final outing of the fictions that underlie identity politics. In a saner world, we could now turn the page and begin a new and healthier cultural chapter. But don’t count on it.