On my Facebook timeline, where I was busy deleting the same reposted cat video from BuzzFeed again, I saw the latest Caitlyn Jenner catastrophe. Well, let’s be fair, it wasn’t a tsunami wiping out Indonesia or famine in Africa, but people certainly were treating it similarly. Caitlyn, in one part of her interview with Time, said:
“One thing that has always been important for me, and it may seem very self-absorbed or whatever, is first of all your presentation of who you are. 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,"
That sounds pretty problematic. Though, if most people had bothered to read the interview in its entirety, because context is sexy, she talks about how, yes, she is a privileged rich white woman. She says that while she has learned a lot, she still has a lot to learn, and she wants to present more than her own story. Still, to say that looking like a man in a dress makes people uncomfortable is problematic. But then, everything is problematic. Caitlyn Jenner is, but so are you, so am I, so is everyone. I could hop on the Hate Cait Train, but let’s let’s talk about the trans community for a moment.
So many people complain, “She doesn’t speak for me!” “She doesn’t represent me!” Well, no, duh. No one elected her, unless there was a vote I missed. Was it on one of those midterm elections most people never participate in? The reason why she is the “face of the trans community” is because the media made her. Even if she didn’t star in a TV show and receive awards, she’s been a celebrity since before most of her critics were born, and with her step-kids being huge celebrities, she was going to get dragged kicking and screaming into the public eye if she wanted to or not. No one as famous as Caitlyn Jenner has transitioned publicly since Christine Jorgensen over 60 years ago. Now, you could argue that she should “just step away,” as I’ve heard it put, but again, she's connected to arguably the most famous family in America. Barring life in a cave or a Cold War fallout shelter, the media isn’t letting her step away. And the obsession with following her every word — many are afflicted — isn’t helping that argument.
When I question people about who would better represent them, they of course list names of other trans celebrities of lesser fame. Or better yet, people who look, dress, and act like them. It’s almost like a lot of these people complaining we need a better representative have someone already in mind. Themselves.
A lot of the celebrities or people they describe don’t look, act, or dress like me, so what about me? Who’s going to represent us overweight, late 30s, tomboyish girls from the Deep South who have a penchant for swearing and scrambled egg sandwiches? Well, unless that person exists, I don’t have a spokesperson for my experience, unless it’s me. Sure, I’m a vet just like Kristin Beck, but I was never close to being a Navy Seal, and most of the community aren’t veterans. I’m not a teenager, so Jazz Jennings doesn’t represent me.
It almost seems like, and call me crazy on this one,, there is no such thing as a perfect representative. Ah, but you might say, “Well, there are better representatives out there!” Maybe so, but the reasons we give seem to show that we’re putting qualifiers on who is or is not a worthy enough trans person to speak for us.
Here’s another thing I’ve noticed — a lot of these other famous trans celebrities being named as “better representatives” are, quite frankly cis-acting, hetero, and/or gender-normative. If they weren’t out, they could live what they call “stealth” lives. People want to criticize Caitlyn for being obsessed with clothes and carrying outdated attitudes about women, but give a lot of these other celebrities a nice wide path to be just as “regressive.” I’ve seen Laverne Cox tweet about the fancy designer labels she wears on the red carpet. Isn’t that just as problematic as complaining about Caitlyn talking about having men carry her shopping bags? Just because Laverne talks about trans advocacy and issues facing trans women of color doesn’t exactly give the stereotype of being a glamour- and fashion-obsessed woman celebrity a pass. Talking about wearing Christian Louboutin is not exactly a shared experience for the vast majority of trans women. Janet Mock is an editor for Marie Claire, a fashion and beauty magazine, so same song and dance there. So ripping on Caitlyn Jenner for being obsessed with fashion, passing, and heteronormativity while praising Laverne or Janet is frankly a huge ball of hypocrisy.
Candis Cayne and Calpernia Addams both started off as a drag queens, and I know a lot of trans women hate being compared or identified with drag. We won’t even get into talking about people being excited about Carmen Carrera and wanting her to be an underwear model for Victoria's Secret. I thought sexual objectification of trans women was a bad thing, yet we’re excited about the possibility of her becoming a model for sexy lingerie?
Spare me the argument of "these people have been living as a trans women longer or have done more for the community or are saying or thinking the right things." Caitlyn has been out as a trans woman for all of about a year now, and I defy you to name one single trans person who came out fully educated in the field of gender studies. Find me a person who as they put on their first dab of makeup understood the issues of cis and hetero privilege. What about judging other people for their ability to pass? Even brave Janet Mock talks about “passing” as a survival mechanism. Why? Because trans women who do not pass are without a doubt more often ostracized and more easily the subject of violence. Yes, “passing” puts people at ease, because of the ingrained discomfort about questioning gender roles.
Of course we are overlooking that because so many of us decided long ago that we simply weren’t going to like Jenner no matter what she did, what she said, or what she thought. Some of the animus seems to derive from envy. Not long ago, I saw a petition about Jenner being passed around that had some interesting word choices. Right of the bat it stated that she “need(ed) to actively donate some of your vast wealth to the community” and recommended specific charities (to include the charity that the author founded and leads), but “wanted” her to read some specific books. As if Jenner having money makes her less of a worthy trans person or the wrong kind of activist. Then I remember that one of the most important feminist activists in recent history, Gloria Steinem, charges $30,000 to speak to a college. I don’t see people passing petitions around about Steinem or Ta-Nehisi Coates saying they need to donate their money to feminist or black causes respectively. Having a leader donate money as a condition of your support makes you no better than a mercenary and sycophant.
Let me leave this op-ed off with one final comment, derived from a book that for as problematic as it can be, still has some wonderful gems: “How can you think of saying, 'Friend, let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,' when you can't see past the log in your own eye?”