Belgrade Lakes, Maine
August 14, 2015
I’ve avoided commenting on Caitlyn Jenner in a public way thus far, in part because I’m a consultant on her series I AM CAIT, not to mention an occasional member of the cast. More importantly, though, I see Caitlyn, like lots of trans-people in early transition, as a work in progress. What most trans people need, especially in the early days, is time to figure out how they want to live in the world. Caitlyn Jenner deserves the benefit of the doubt no less than anyone else.
That said, I suppose there are a few things I would like to share. So here are a few thoughts. They represent my own feelings, not that of the show’s producers; not that of GLAAD or Kinsey or any of the other institutions I’m involved with.
• I too was skeptical about the prospect of her show at first, and her clear plan for world media domination. The transgender community has had many people in it who have arrived on the scene determined to be famous, and it’s almost always been a mess, not least because so many of us don’t know the full community before we start talking into microphones. Many of us barely know how to talk about ourselves, let alone others. I can tell you that there are things I said in 2003, when I first published my memoir, “She’s Not There,” that I wish I had phrased differently. It takes a long time to understand the many, many ways of being trans–other than our own–and to recognize that other people’s take on being trans is as valid as our own. If you find yourself telling someone, “You’re doing it wrong,” you’re probably doing it wrong.
So from the beginning, I feared the worst. But in short order, to my surprise, Caitlyn Jenner won me over. There are a lot of things I can say about her, but I can say this above all: she is a good soul, with an earnest, heartfelt desire to help the world. She is doing this by using her own celebrity to shine a light on the experiences of transgender people, including plenty of people whose stories are very different from her own. So far in her show (as of mid-August), we’ve seen her visit the parents of a young trans boy who committed suicide; spent some time at HRC talking to a trans man and woman about that organization’s work; spent a couple of days hanging out with a diverse gang of trans women (including me) that includes a Latina woman, several women of color, other women who’ve done sex work; a woman who was stabbed in an all-too-typical case of violence for our community, and others as well.
She will visit other parts of our community in the future, I am sure.
To those who suggest that she is too privileged, or too white, or too wealthy, to be typical, I say, you are right. She has lived in a world that I can barely comprehend. But here’s the bargain: her family’s fame brings visibility to the lives of all our people, and CJ is dedicated to using that visibility for good. And by “fame,” I mean that, for instance, her daughter Kim has the largest number of Twitter followers in the world, period. You can argue all you like about whether this fame is deserved, or just plain weird, or what. But CJ’s transition was going to be world news, whether we like it or not. The Kardashian show is watched by people in 125 countries in 24 different languages. It’s ridiculous. And onto this stage walks Catilyn Jenner, whom I believe truly wants to use that fame to help educate people. I think it’s done immeasurable good so far. It’s amazing.
• Meanwhile: there are more important issues facing transgender men and women in the world than what happens on Caitlyn Jenner’s docu-series. We have had at least twelve or thirteen murders this year of trans women, almost all of them trans women of color and/or Latinas. It’s important to keep focus, and remember that the fight for trans equality takes place on many fronts: legal, social, and political. I know that the Jenner program has brought trans issues a visibility and a publicity they have never had before. But our success as a community will be measured by lives saved, and jobs created, and not by ratings. The same might be said of the other shows that have aired over the last few years, including I AM JAZZ, and BECOMING US, and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and TRANSPARENT, and all the other many shows that have highlighted transgender experience in many different ways. I am grateful for all these shows. But I am even more grateful if one person decides not to take his or her life; if one more law is passed guaranteeing freedom from violence, or homelessness, or any of the other indignities reserved for our people.
• There’s been some criticism of CJ for being too feminine, that she defines her womanhood in terms of hair and makeup, and look, let’s face it: she is a little glamorpuss. There was a particularly idiotic column in the New York Times early this summer by a TERFy writer who felt that Caitlyn Jenner isn’t “really” a woman because she’s too girly, because she hasn’t suffered enough, because she doesn’t have a woman’s history, and so on. To this I can only say, poppycock. The world is full of women a thousand times girlier than Caitlyn Jenner whose womanhood no one doubts; full of women like, for instance, my aunt Gertrude who never got a period and who never had a baby; full of women whose experience exists along a broad, broad spectrum. The world contains Janet Reno and Dolly Parton; Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga, and newborn baby girls who have been “women” less than a couple of hours. Surely, if there is room in this world for all these different ways of being female, there is room enough for Caitlyn; room enough for you, and room enough for me.
Anyway, anyone who feels that somehow Caitlyn Jenner–or any transgender person– doesn’t fit into their special “theory” of the world might want to spend a little less time working on their special theory and instead ask, How can I ease other people’s suffering? How can I make the world a little more of a loving place? If your special theory of gender–or anything for that matter– doesn’t reduce suffering or create a world more full of love, it might be worth asking whether what you really need is a new theory.
And if you’re still all angry about the fact that CJ likes to spend the morning wearing hot rollers, you also ought to also note that so far, in her show, we’ve seen her riding a motocross dirt bike, pumping her own gas, and flying a radio-controlled helicopter. Surely THAT’S feminine enough for you?
• I think there is a fair amount of exhaustion in the trans community about the attention paid to Caitlyn, and quite properly so: many of the things Cait is saying are things that the rest of us have been saying for decades now, and it is more than a little weird that it is only when a member of the Kardashian family says them that mainstream media pays any attention. But I also suspect that that trans community is really not the target audience for I AM CAIT. I think is a cis audience, especially of people who have never given our humanity a second thought, that is the primary audience. And I can tell you, based on what I have seen, that hearts are opening.
I do suspect that sometimes our community has more than a little amount of what the Irish call “begrudgement,” regarding trans people who wind up in the media spotlight. Many of us feel like, well god dammit, WE are the ones who deserve to have our own show; WE are the ones whose stories ought to be told; WE are the ones who ought to have purty pictures of ourselves taken by Annie Leibowitz. And of course, we are right. We do deserve all these things, and many of us might well be more articulate than Cait has been able to be so far– although I think she deserves a tremendous amount of credit for her speech at the ESPYs, which was generous, thoughtful, and humble.
Caitlyn Jenner has been able to reach people the rest of us might not have been able to reach. She is not the perfect “spokesperson,” assuming that such a person could ever exist– given the contentiousness of our community, and its vast diversity. I am not sure she wants to be a “spokesperson” at all. What she wants is to try to do good in the world, and I think she is succeeding. In the meantime, all the rest of us continue to do our own work, in whatever way we can. There is a lot to do.
This dress is big enough for all of us.