The woman who represents the United States at the United Nations took time this week to recognize the woman who people around the world see as representing transgender women. But that representative, Caitlyn Jenner, at times misspeaks or makes statements seen as problematic by the wider trans community.
In an online video, Jenner at first appeared to suggest with a seemingly casual comment that violence and discrimination against transgender people in the United States wasn’t of concern to her compared to that in other nations. Her exact words were that she was "pretty comfortable with the issues here in the United States," conceding that, "we have a long way to go," and then moving on to discuss the international problem.
Anti-trans discrimination was never mentioned, and the fact that 21 trans women were murdered in the U.S. this year was not discussed until much later in their conversation.
This happened Thursday at the United Nations, when Ambassador Samantha Power met Jenner as part of the U.N.’s observance of International Human Rights Day — the day that annually commemorates the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Video of their conversation was posted to the ambassador’s Facebook page.
Calling her “the great Caitlyn Jenner,” Power praised Jenner for her work on behalf of transgender people and singled out the former Olympian, who she said “changed so many lives, touched so many lives” by coming out this year.
“LGBT rights are human rights, Power said to Jenner in the video. “We have tried here at the United Nations, so hard, to lift up LGBT rights. We’ve made some progress, but I confess the road ahead of us is long.”
“We got to start somewhere,” Jenner said. “You don’t win the race if you don’t start it.”
Jenner noted in the eight-minute video that trans rights are an issue without borders, and that trans people worldwide face violence, up to and including murder. “This is humanity, this is part of humanity,” she said of the trans community.
But how Jenner then characterized the struggle for transgender rights in the U.S. could rankle LGBT activists and allies as well as many trans Americans who can get fired for coming out, cannot change their identity documents to match their authentic identities, and are prohibited from using a public bathroom in some cities like Houston, for fear they may be sexual predators, unless they use one matching the gender they were assigned at birth.
Jenner told Power:
“If you look at issues on a worldwide basis, I’m pretty comfortable with the issues here in the United States."
“We have come a long way, we have a long way to go,” she added.
“You’re helping,” Power interjected.
“We’ve come a long way. But If you look at this on an international level, these issues are huge. I mean, people are murdered, killed, hung over this issue, and it just doesn’t have to be that way,” Jenner said.
A few minutes later, Power talked to Jenner about the problem of what she called “no-go zones” here in the United States as well as around the planet, where LGBT people, especially those who are trans, cannot travel safely without fear of violence or oppression.
But it was not until this halfway point in their apparently unscripted conversation that Jenner talked to Power about the high rate of suicide among trans people, especially among trans youth, and that in the U.S., at least 21 transgender women were murdered in 2015, a number almost double that of last year. It was not mentioned that the vast majority of victims of transgender violence are women of color.
“I am not a spokesperson for the trans community,” Jenner told Time magazine recently in a wide-ranging interview, timed to coincide with her making “the short list” for its person of the year. “I am a spokesperson for my story, and that’s all I can tell. And hopefully by telling my story, I can make people think.”
One thing many trans people think is that like all of us, sometimes Jenner misspeaks, except that when she does, it makes headlines. Take for example the evolution of her position on same-sex marriage. After admitting to Ellen DeGeneres she had once opposed it, and after being called out by Ellen for her tepid endorsement, Jenner then had to clarify her wholehearted support for marriage equality in a blogpost. This past summer she came under fire for endorsing a controversial Caitlyn Jenner Halloween costume, and for eyebrow-raising comments on the first season of her E! docs-series I Am Cait, when she suggested that some people prefer welfare to work, a comment in line with her conservative political views.
This week, Cosmopolitan magazine harshly criticized Jenner for reportedly telling Time, "if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable." Although that quote does not currently appear in Time's article on its website, Cosmo's popular culture editor Alex Rees included Jenner's full statement in his critique, bashing Jenner for "transpobic stereotyping:"
"I think it's much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you're out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable. So the first thing I can do is try to present myself well. I want to dress well. I want to look good. When I go out, as Kim says, you've got to rock it because the paparazzi will be there." — Caitlyn Jenner to Time
The Advocate has reached out to Jenner's spokesperson for comment on her newest remarks.
In her conversations with both Time and the ambassador, Jenner revealed she is in talks with corporations to raise money to start a foundation on a global scale, to make a difference in the lives of transgender people. Power and Jenner pledged to work together to expand trans rights worldwide.
A conversation with Caitlyn Jenner
Today is International Human Rights Day. At the United Nations, we’re working to integrate LGBT rights into every discussion on human rights, but there is still so much more we can do so that everyone has the freedom to live as they are without fear. It was good to talk to Caitlyn Jenner recently about the important work we can do at home, at the UN, and internationally. Around the world - and here in the US - transgender people face bullying, abuse, and even fatal violence simply for who they are. The threat is all too real for too many: from 2008-2014, over 1,600 transgender people were killed worldwide. #HumanRightsDay
Posted by Ambassador Samantha Power on Thursday, December 10, 2015