Caitlyn Jenner: A Litmus Test for Trans Acceptance

The summer of 1976 set the stage for a more progressive world. The issue was, however, that no one knew it yet. Jimmy Carter had just been nominated for U.S. President at the Democratic National Convention. North Vietnam and South Vietnam joined forces to create the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. And finally, an American named “Bruce Jenner” set a world record at the Olympics in Montreal, Canada by winning a gold medal in the decathlon. It would be this event that would cast the young athlete into the spotlight, but decades would pass before Jenner would decide to come out as a trans woman.

On April 24th, 2015, Jenner sat down for an interview with Diane Sawyer, and for the first time, publicly disclosed that she identified as a woman. The news spread like wildfire. Jenner’s interview on the show led to a record-breaking total 20.7 million viewers, standing as “television’s highest-ever rated newsmagazine telecast among adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.”

Jenner had slowly slipped from the public’s eye in the coming weeks; however, discussions of her transition remained a hot topic. This all changed when it was announced that she would be gracing the cover of Vanity Fair for their June issue. And as expected, a glowing woman was on the cover of the magazine’s June 1st issue, with the three words running across the page: “Call Me Caitlyn.”

With this simple request, Jenner had officially switched her preferred pronoun use and made yet another public appearance. But this one was different. For the first time in her life, she felt comfortable in her skin while being photographed. No longer did she “feel like a liar.” But was the publicized unveiling of Jenner’s gender a step forward for transgender normalization and equality or an exploitative stunt, one that didn’t accurately represent the trans experience?

What Caitlyn Jenner’s publicity did is shine a light on one trans narrative. The event, and the hullabaloo surrounding her announcement, can be used as a litmus test to determine the transphobic elements that might still permeate throughout our society. What Caitlyn’s open announcement did was reach out, inadvertently, to a demographic that is generally deemed to be distant from progressive social issues, by identifying with it herself. That demographic is the white, Christian conservative.

Given that Jenner identifies with a population that is often thought to be far-removed from trans issues, it is possible that her story might be able to reach those it may not have otherwise. Often considered to be the epitome of a white, Christian conservative, former Republican Senator Rick Santorum shocked many by siding with Jenner after her announcement of her identity. The other side of the coin, however, is that not all trans individuals are quite as privileged as Caitlyn Jenner may have been. While her public transition revealed a fading transphobic attitude in society, the spotlight still fails to shed light on larger demographic issues that disproportionally affect trans individuals more than cis individuals.

The first problem rests in the fact that Jenner is a part of one of America’s most infamous families. As one journalist appropriately writes, “Just as the transgender experience is beginning to be normalized in American culture, it will be swept up with the ultimate symbol of abnormality and dysfunction: The Kardashian family.” The last thing that the transgender community needs is to be associated with a group of individuals that are not taken seriously, are often seen as being superficial, and whose fame and celebrity status continues to baffle the general public. This is not the face of the trans experience we are looking for.

But while we’re on the topic, why not seize this opportunity to actually produce meaningful dialogue about trans issues? Something like the fact that a startling 41% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide according to one study, as opposed to the 1.6% of the general public. Or the fact that nearly 15% of transgender individuals make less than $10,000 per year. Or perhaps the fact that transgender individuals face discrimination in nearly every domain of life, ranging from work to schools to prisons.

There is very little doubt that much of the public’s “obsession” with Jenner’s story may be mere amusement or curiosity surrounding a topic that most Americans still are not familiar with. The sensation surrounding a transgender story may not necessarily reflect evolving and tolerant attitudes of the trans community, but may be, unfortunately, nothing more than a medicalized fascination, as was the case with Thomas Beatie back in 2008 when he was famously dubbed the world’s first pregnant man. The spectacle that has arisen out of trans narratives has become an invasive interrogation of genitalia and reproductive function as opposed to gaining insight into the life experience of trans individuals. This reminds us that perhaps society isn’t quite as progressive as we’d like to imagine. It is true that Caitlyn Jenner will dominate the airwaves and screens of America for the coming days, but we must try to approach her story with both a keen eye for sensationalized appeals and an open heart for a newly freed woman.

This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine. 

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