Halloween is such a strange time of year. On one hand, it often brings out the best in people, like young girls dressing up as their feminist role models. And then, of course, we have white men showing off their ridiculously insensitive costumes. Case in point, a father who dressed up as Caitlyn Jenner before and after her gender transition.
Ohio college student Mac Vonderahe posted photos of her dad on Twitter this past weekend, comparing his two outfits for a Halloween party. First, her father dressed up as Caitlyn Jenner pre-transition for half the night, then he played Jenner in drag for the other half. In short, Vonderahe’s dad first wore an Olympic uniform, then switched into a dress and flats.
Vonderahe’s tweet quickly went viral, with Twitter users across the U.S. claiming that her dad “won” Halloween. But once transgender users came across the tweet, they criticized Vonderahe’s father, explaining how the costume is insensitive to transgender women.
“It’s so funny haha over 40% of trans ppl attempt suicide & 25+ trans ppl have been murdered in the US this yr haha nice costume tho,” Twitter user Alex Jacob wrote in response. “I think mocking & dehumanizing trans people is pretty fucking mean.”
hahahaha it's so funny haha over 40% of trans ppl attempt suicide & 25+ trans ppl have been murdered in the US this yr haha nice costume tho https://t.co/DFHXN83wPS— alex (@crucifalex) November 1, 2017
Jacob is right. The costume largely targets transgender women, who already experience high rates for suicide attempts, harassment, and abuse. In an interview with the Daily Dot, Jacob, who is a transgender man, explained he “wasn’t surprised” by the tweet but was still upset.
“I honestly think using trans celebrities [as costumes] is an excuse to mock all trans people,” Jacob said. “Even though I’m used to seeing that sort of thing, it’s still disheartening. It just kind of shows how people view trans people and that’s always a difficult thing to see.”
LGBTQ activists quickly agreed, pointing out that the costume satirizes Jenner’s gender transitioning for a cheap laugh without any understanding of what it means to be transgender. For starters, Vonderahe’s father labeled himself as “Bruce ‘Caitlyn’ Jenner” on his nametag, using Jenner’s deadname—a symbol of disrespect in the trans community—and then putting “Caitlyn” in scare quotes as if that isn’t who she really is. For many, Vonderahe’s father is simply equating gender transitioning with a cisgender man dressed in drag.
There are plenty of reasons why cisgender men should never dress up as transgender women for Halloween. For one, when men dress as trans women, they’re essentially equating a trans woman’s womanhood with the “man in a dress” trope found throughout transphobic depictions of trans women. It’s not unlike cis men playing trans women in movies, really. It’s a simplification that draws on hate speech used against trans women around the world.
That’s not to say cis men can’t dress in drag. Drag (wearing clothing typically worn by the opposite gender) is a totally different concept separate from gender transitioning (a trans woman doesn’t need to put on a dress to identify as a woman; it’s something they may have felt psychologically since they were little). Plus, genderfluidity is great, and it’s important for cis men to embrace feminine-gendered clothing. Crossdressing can even be a liberating experience for transgender women in the closet who have yet to transition and may be perceived as cisgender men in everyday life.
But it’s clear Vonderahe’s father isn’t treating Jenner respectfully. By referring to Jenner as her deadname and making her transitioning into a gimmick, it trivializes all the pain, anxiety, and trauma that trans women experience just for coming out. It also implies that Jenner is really a cisgender man who went from an Olympic star to a man in a dress, which she is not.
Cisgender men that dress up as transgender women often do so for a cheap laugh. They perpetuate society’s ongoing anxiety with trans women’s bodies, reinforcing insensitive stereotypes that suggest people assigned male at birth must be men, and people assigned female at birth must be women—which is nothing short of transphobia. Therefore, this sort of costume reinforces that it’s OK to be openly mean and hostile against trans people, perhaps even violent.
“Mocking an already marginalized population just furthers negative opinions which thus reinforces the actual violence,” Jacob said. “It’s hurtful to see, especially since coming out as trans was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
As for the backlash, it seems like Vonderahe thinks her father isn’t in the wrong. According to her Twitter likes, she’s since responded positively to tweets praising the costume, many of which criticizing transgender people for being “too sensitive.”
“If someone kills themselves because some random dad wore a Halloween costume there is a much deeper issue here,” one Twitter user wrote, which she subsequently liked. “Deep seeded [sic] mental issues.”
Like father, like daughter, clearly.