Few would argue that Caitlyn Jenner is the most prominent transgender person in the country right now.
The Olympic champion, who found a second wind of fame as patriarch on reality show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians, is now in the national spotlight after coming out in a Diane Sawyer interview on ABC’s “20/20” that aired in April, a Vanity Fair cover story and huge fashion spread in its July edition and a new reality show. She’s halfway through the eight-episode initial run of her own show “I Am Cait,” which airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on E!
For Jenner, who has publicly admitted to shortcomings as a parent to the four children she had with her first two wives — Burt, Cassandra, Brandon and Brody, all of whom have declined to participate on “I Am Cait” — there is early evidence that she hopes to be a worthy unofficial spokesperson for the transgender community. On the two-part Aug. 2 and Aug. 9 episodes, Jenner takes a road trip with newfound LGBT allies and discusses whether she’s a suitable person for the cause considering her new fame as a transgender icon.
Some transgender activists have approached the situation with a raised eyebrow. Posing in high-end fashion gowns and corsets in Vanity Fair, for some, highlights the huge gulf that exists between Jenner and the kinds of homeless transgender women of color Washington-based activists such as Earline Budd at HIPS (a resource agency for sex workers) and Ruby Corado (of Casa Rudy, a local LGBT resource center) have worked with for years, as well as everyday transgender people who struggle with health disparities, income inequality, access to health care for various gender-related procedures and a wide spate of other well-documented issues. Many agree Jenner’s prominence is a good thing but could it send the message to the straight, middle-America heartland that Jenner is anything close to representative of the trans experience?
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says it’s important to remember two major factors: both the unsung heroes of transgender rights who’ve been working on these issues for decades — she mentions names such as attorney Shannon Minter, activist Marsha C. Botzer, author/artist Kate Bornstein and several others — as well as recent transgender celebrities such as writer/activist Janet Mock and actress Laverne Cox (Sophia on “Orange is the New Black”).
While nobody’s calling it a contest, Keisling says it’s important to keep Jenner in perspective.
“I think Laverne and to a much lesser extent Caitlyn has done us all a really big favor by coming out,” Keisling, a trans woman, says. “I’m probably not in a majority position on that, but I think what Laverne and even Janet Mock have done is in a lot of ways bigger than the Jenner thing, which is burning really brightly right now, whereas Laverne has had this really fiery glow for a couple years now and it doesn’t show any signs of subsiding. I just cannot say enough about what Laverne has done. Being a model of possibility for trans women of color at a time when we really needed that and in a way that could really change some things, she’s done that really smartly and graciously and amazingly.”
Dr. Marci Bowers, a California-based trans gynecologist who performs gender reassignment surgeries and has been an outspoken advocate for trans rights for many years, says she “has a tremendous amount of respect” for Jenner, but says she also has concerns.
“Stepping on the stage and kind of self anointing as the spokesperson for the trans community — and I really don’t think she does this intentionally — but it smacks of being a little bit arrogant and a little naive to the community,” Bowers says. “She must not forget the real pioneers, people like (tennis player) Renee Richards who came out in the 1970s — now that was difficult. … I’ve done hundreds of series and documentaries and these are things that have paved the way for Caitlyn Jenner. … She is literally standing on our shoulders and it would be nice if that was acknowledged. It seems painfully obvious to me. I haven’t watched all of her programming but from what I’ve seen, she doesn’t seem to get it.”
Bowers agrees, though, that Jenner deserves a grace period for being new to LGBT matters.
“I hope acknowledgement will come in time,” Bowers says.
Long-time activist Dana Beyer of Gender Rights Maryland, a trans woman and former eye surgeon who has blogged extensively on Jenner for the Huffington Post, says, “I don’t think there’s any question” that Jenner is now “the most prominent trans person in the world and in history,” an occurrence she calls “a good thing.”
“I just hope the point is made that she is not everyone and we all have different stories,” Beyer says. “That is true of any movement but given the fact that there are so few trans people in the public eye, it becomes even more potent. I have no problem with it. I just hope she speaks properly and gets her facts right and learns a little history, a little about the law and medicine and biology and activism and legislation and all of that stuff. I hope she gets that right. She’s really obligated to do it and I think she will. She seems very humble.”
Possibly further securing Jenner’s spot in an ivory tower, Beyer says, may be her status as an “older, white-collar, Christian Republican.”
“Even if this is mired in identity politics, I think (she) could make a positive difference as long as she knows what she’s talking about.”
Is there a chance Jenner could blow it and set the transgender movement back? Beyer and Bowers both point to Zoey Tur, an Emmy-winning reporter noted for her use of helicopters for live news reporting, who drew heat in March for statements on “Dr. Drew On Call” about trans women in locker rooms, the legitimacy of trans men and more (Tur is trans herself).
“Here you have somebody who was a bit of a celebrity 20 years ago get on CNN and talking about stuff of which she knew nothing,” Beyer says. “The law, legislation — she was wrong about virtually everything she said. Somebody like that is dangerous. … She’s a good example of a recently transitioned person who is not a good spokesperson. … We tend to put the recently transitioned in the spotlight, and that’s not always good.”
Shannon Minter, a trans man and legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says so far he’s been impressed with Jenner’s poise.
“Of course no one person can represent the diversity of any community, but Caitlin’s visibility has been hugely positive and has helped millions of people become more aware and supportive of transgender people,” Minter wrote in an e-mail to the Blade. “I know from my own experience as an advocate that she has helped many parents be more accepting of their transgender children. Her experience is different in some ways than that of trans people who are not as wealthy, but she seems to be keenly aware of that and to take her responsibility as a spokesperson and role model very seriously. I have been impressed by her thoughtfulness and especially by her concern for transgender children.”
Transgender author and teacher Alex Myers says it’s been amazing how much dialogue Jenner has generated among his trans friends and colleagues.
“My perspective on it is that she’s giving the movement and the identity better publicity than we’ve gotten in a long time, not even just coming from her and her own presentation but from the questions people are having,” Myers says. “We don’t want her to be the only voice, but I think she’s been well received and I think it’s a much more positive representation than anything else I can think of in recent history.”
Aside from Jenner’s reality show fame and status as an Olympic icon, Myers says stories of trans women tend to play well to middle America.
“I think the media in general is much more fascinated by trans women,” he says. “It’s much more perplexing for a guy who has all this privilege and status — why would they want to give that up? It makes for a much more sensational tale. When trans women transition, they often present in this very glamorous, very cisgender and dramatic way and that’s just not the case with trans men. We look like these short, dumpy guys and we don’t make such a sensational story for Joe Q. Public.”
Earline Budd says there’s a big difference between Jenner and many of the trans women she’s worked with over many years on Washington’s streets.
“I strongly support her but at the end of the day, I do feel it would serve her best if she did reach out to individuals such as myself who are leaders in the African-American transgender community who understand the struggles and the hardship and to engage folks,” Budd says. “She will never be the model for the African-American transgender experience. She doesn’t come from the same plight as many of us. Even my own personal experience of being openly HIV-positive, having been homeless before, having been an addict, having been incarcerated. I understand she is doing some work with some African-American trans women, helping one woman go through nursing school and that is really great, but … at the end of the day, we can’t put all our hopes and needs on one person. … We need to come together and figure out how we can put revenue behind where the real needs are.”
Further adding diversity to the wide umbrella that encompasses the trans experience, author and academic Genny Beemyn, who identifies as gender nonconforming, says Jenner is “an anachronism in a lot of ways.”
“It’s amazing how much visibility this has brought,” Beemyn says. “I have gotten more media inquiries in the last few months than I’ve gotten in the last few years combined. It’s unreal the number of people who are doing stories, not necessarily on Caitlyn going public, but trans issues. … I think there is some danger in her becoming the face of transgender people. Even with some of the other narratives that are out there, such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, they are all conventional, very feminine, trans women so we’re still seeing some erasure for people who don’t have the ability to look so glamorous or like cis women.”
Even with the concerns, Beyer says the visibility Jenner brings to the national dialogue far outweighs any concerns. She, too, has been barraged with requests for comment.
“A lot of these newspapers really never gave a damn about transgender people until a few months ago,” Beyer says. “This is a huge deal. People are calling to be educated. Nobody cared enough before Caitlyn to want to be educated. We are going to look back at this as being a post-Jenner moment and we’ll talk about things pre-Jenner and post-Jenner. Everything has changed as a result of this because all of a sudden now when these issues come up, people will have somebody to relate all this to. They don’t really know her, but it will be a lot easier to make the sale. ‘Oh really, you’re going to tell Caitlyn Jenner she can’t use the women’s restroom?’”
Beyer says it’s a new era of visibility and progress.
“Who were our options before? (Convicted murderer) Michelle Kosilek? Chelsea Manning? Somebody whom half the population thinks is a traitor? It’s a big difference to go from, ‘Hi, I’m a trans woman,’ ‘Oh, like Chelsea Manning,’ to ‘Oh, like Caitlyn Jenner.’ That changes everything. She’s a great athlete and an American hero and we’re basking in the reflections of that hero status. In today’s America, that’s about as good as it gets.”