Caitlyn Jenner was asked "the question" in episode 3 of her docu-series on E!, I Am Cait: Who do you find more sexually attractive, men or women? But more important than her answer was the former Olympian's visible and earnest efforts to connect with real live trans adults, including women of color.
Each week, The Advocate is presenting a look at the moments in each episode that we feel resonate most strongly within the trans community, through two perspectives. What you'll read here are just opinions, not facts.
I'm news editor Dawn Ennis, writing from my experience as a woman assigned male at birth who transitioned in the public eye. To provide variety, a different individual will join me each week on what we're calling "The Advocate's sofa," comparing our notes as we watch, for the duration of the season.
This week I'm joined by the director of I Am the T, a documentary about trans people around the world. Tony's trans activism began at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, in 2008. Tony is a trans health advocate and is currently pursuing his Masters in Nursing at New York University. He is working toward becoming an out nurse-practitioner, focusing on trans-inclusive endocrinology, while continuing to produce I Am the T.
Dawn Ennis: Now, maybe it's hormones, maybe it's where I am in my life, or maybe it's just because there were so many women crying in this episode, but I was in tears, so many times.
Tony: Same! I was thinking to myself, Did I do my weekly T shot wrong today? The tears were running. My roommates kept asking if I was OK. There were just so many raw moments where each woman discussed her past.
Dawn: My biggest question to you, as a trans man, is, Did you relate at all? Was it foreign to you or did you see things that a transgender man can identify with?
Tony:I definitely found points that I could relate to. The part where Blossom Brown discusses not getting into nursing school because she's trans really got to me. It really struck a chord, because I want to work in healthcare, too, and I experienced transphobia while in school. It's just so real -- the everyday discrimination that we as trans people face.We need more trans people like Blossom in health care.
I think the anxiety that comes with putting on a bathing suit that accords with your gender is also something I identified with. The scene where Cait says she "felt free" being in the pool with a bikini on reminded me of the first time I went swimming shirtless after chest surgery.
Dawn: This is the second of two episodes focusing on the bond between trans women, and I wonder if, as a trans man, did you feel ignored or erased?
Tony: I definitely did not feel excluded as a trans man. Of course, our stories are not entirely the same, but there are definitely similar emotional chords that unite our experiences.
Dawn: I mean, if you were cisgender and basing your view on this episode, it's almost as if trans women are the only kind of trans.
Tony: I can see that a cis [nontransgender] person watching the show may get the idea that there are only trans women who exist. I've definitely had people look at me in awe when I tell them I'm a trans man -- they don't understand the concept of being female to male, rather than the other way around. I do feel like it would be nice for a trans man to be included on the show or at least mentioned, but at the same time, trans women do face higher rates of violence.
Dawn: I was glad to see they expanded the visit to the Human Rights Campaign in San Francisco and was so glad to see Cait moved by the tales from the trans women of color, including Angelica Ross and Blossom.
Tony: I agree! It seemed like Cait is now very open to hearing about the experiences of trans women of color and those who are less privileged than she is. Perhaps the producers intended this -- it really conveyed the disparities that exist within our community and how the double-edged sword of transphobia and racism can make life that much more difficult for a trans woman of color.
Drian Juarez, who discussed her previous employment in sex work, also shed light on a reality that many trans women face today. Her portrayal of almost being killed one night while working was another tearjerker.
Dawn: OMG, yes. And that's what has been missing: the real, true dangers of being a trans woman who doesn't live in Malibu. But it's clear to me Cait gets it, as shown by her surprising, selfless, generous gift to Blossom. It was both unexpected and heartwarming, and as Candis said, it's not like she can save the world.
Tony: That seemed like a genuine moment on Cait's part; I'm glad she will be helping Blossom out. I agree with Candis, though -- Cait can't save the world. Lives will be changed, but it's going to take systemic change, like fighting for health care coverage, to really impact the entire trans community.
Dawn: I chatted briefly with Blossom online after the show. She told me she had no idea of Caitlyn's amazing gift until she saw it on TV like all of us. Blossom also told The Advocate she's not yet heard from Ellen DeGeneres; we'll follow up with her show Monday. She gave me permission to share her Facebook post here:
"Omg! I have been trying to compose myself for hours now but I totally have to post this! I truly enjoyed getting to hang out with these beautiful ladies! They felt more like older sisters to me! They are so empowering and yet we must be mindful that we are only a handful of transwomen as compared to so many other transwomen who need their story told especially here in the deep south where I live! I hope our stories continue to multiply and that people understand that we deserve to live our lives in this world just as everyone else! P.S. I haven't forgotten Caitlyn by a long shot! smile emoticon So nice to meet these beautiful ladies and I hope our paths cross again soon! #iamcait #girlslikeus #transisbeautiful #transtruth"
Dawn: On the downside, we are constantly reminded of Cait's distance from the world of Blossom, in that she can have all these amazing homes opened up for her and her friends, and do all these things on the spur of the moment, from roller skating to motocross biking to wine tasting, but that's so far removed from our reality. I mean, yes, I'm jealous, and yet at the same time I worry that people might not understand being trans is almost always the polar opposite of being wealthy.
Tony: Yeah, I think there is this notion that "trans is in vogue" that makes people associate being trans with being glamorous and wealthy. The reality is, the life Cait has isn't obtainable for a lot of trans people. And like many others, we occupy many different socio-economic positions. I think we must disconnect the association to wealth.
Dawn: Yes. That said, I loved how in this episode, Cait really opened up about her fears, about letting down her kids.
Tony: The part where she began crying talking about her family was very touching. I think every trans person struggles with family issues, whether it be coming out to your parents or telling your children. My family actually disowned me at the beginning of my transition.
Dawn: Mine too. And she revealed her fears about, as you said, exposing herself in a bathing suit.
Tony: I think what all these different moments get at is exposing your private self. These moments of revelation can be very daunting.
Dawn: She's still obsessing about her voice,which she touched upon last week too. And for the first time, we're talking sex. Now, I don't think it matters nor should it be anybody's business what is between her legs, but it seems clear from the dinner conversation that Caitlyn is confirming what Vanity Fair reported, that she's opted to not undergo "bottom surgery." What's more important to me is her very limited definition of femininity, in that having a man pay attention to a woman is what makes her feel more feminine.
Tony: I wanted to go through my TV and explain the distinction between gender and sexuality to Cait. I think this form of thinking is still prevalent in society -- believing that a woman only dresses nicely to attract the male gaze. I wonder if Cait's views on gender will evolve?
Dawn: Gosh, I hope so! Has she NEVER met a lesbian??? Hello?
Tony: Seriously. It's almost as if she's not OK with being a woman who is mostly attracted to women.
Dawn: I'm loving how Jennifer Finney Boylan answered Cait's comment about feminity very securely and completely without invalidating Cait's view: that she has always been attracted to women and that she doesn't think that being a woman attracted to women makes her any less feminine.
Tony: I loved that part! Jenny Boylan is like the wise woman on the show, and she's such an academic badass. Boylan is right -- your sexuality shouldn't definite your gender, and vice versa. It's about being who you are without caring about what society thinks about you. There are plenty of trans people who are gay, straight, bi, queer, pansexual, you name it. One identity doesn't make you any less or any more trans.
Dawn: So true. And more than ever, this episode showcased Jenny -- someone so different in every way from Cait -- as a major force in the formation of both Cait as a person and the direction of this docu-series. We hear her talk about adjusting your voice to suit others: "This is it, people!" She makes the case for why trans women riding motorcycles is relevant: "Do something new. Do something brave. Do it out in the open." And we see her offering personal stories of being bullied, counseling Ronda, Cait's best friend and right-hand woman, then she's off roller skating, biking, swimming, and she has all the funniest lines too! "Watch my eyelashes disappear!"
Tony: I absolutely love Boylan's character and her role in the show. She really is like the wise spirit guide to Cait and many of the other characters. Funny story: Boylan went to my alma mater, and I remember reading her book She's Not There while figuring out my own gender identity. She is such an academic force, and I'm glad that she is on the show. It helps draw attention away from the Kardashian elements of the show. I really feel like Boylan understands gender norms and can help steer the series in a direction that is very trans-positive.
Dawn: I think the part that needs to be underscored for trans women and those who love us is this concept of what Jenny called "the pink cloud." We are so thrilled to be living in the real world, we seldom remember those who stood by us before, and it's a good thing to come back to ground level and reconnect, if possible.
Tony: Yeah, I can definitely remember that cloud at the beginning of my own transition, even if mine wasn't pink. It's almost like we become so consumed by what's happening to our body that we forget about the outside world. Not because we intend to, but because it's such a new feeling -- to be comfortable with ourselves.
Dawn: That's the whole point, and Cait drove it home, how comfortable she felt this week. And for the second week in a row the producers are building up the Cait and Candis romance. Now, is this just reality TV, or am I right to feel a bit manipulated in that we keep hearing about it, without actually seeing it, until they finally go off together? Next week should give us more to see, it seems.
Tony: Yeah I'm not sure if Candis is into Cait. I feel like the whole thing is just being done for drama. I hope that's not the case, but it's E! after all. It would be nice to see Cait happy with someone though.
Dawn: I agree, Tony, and thank you for joining me on the sofa this week. But I have to say, this series is far and away different from everything E! has done before, so I feel I have to repeat that I remain impressed. It's clearly not meant to be every trans person's story, but there's a lot here that hits home. And it's not really meant for us, anyway.
A friend who teaches high school in Louisiana posted this on my Facebook wall, after watching I Am Cait:
"I'm watching for no intended purpose beyond reality TV entertainment with my 14-year-old. I Am Cait gave him a spontaneous opportunity to ask questions like,"what does someone do when they transition with the surgery?" And, "why do some people transition in high school?" He also asked if in the past transgender people were not accepted like today. "Yeah, it's kinda recent and a work in progress" [she told him].
"This conversation occurred in a red state cisgender household -- he has never to his knowledge met a transgender individual (he knows of friends of mine in far away places, like Dawn, who have transitioned over the past few years though) -- his teenage understanding is mostly shaped by what he sees on TV, especially from Caitlyn Jenner. That is the real value of this show." -- Ashley Heyer Casey, Baton Rouge, La.
Join the conversation on Twitter @TheAdvocateMag.
Watch the clip in which Candis Cayne and Cait's other new trans friends discuss dating, from Sunday's episode of E!'s I Am Cait, below: