Call Me Caitlyn: Transgender visibility in Hollywood

As an gold medal Olympic athlete and a member of the extended Kardashian clan, is there any other way than to make a debut than with a Vanity Fair cover shot by Annie Leibovitz?

On June 1, Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, introduced her recently transitioned self as the cover star of Vanity Fair’s July 2015 issue, which will be able in print on June 9. In the editorial spread, Jenner evokes old Hollywood glamour. Many have noted the resemblance of Jenner to actress Jessica Lange, and the American Horror Story memes have commenced.

Like Laverne Cox’s TIME magazine feature, Jenner’s impending Vanity Fair feature marks a milestone for positive transgender representation and visibility. However, there are a few issues in society and media hailing Jenner as the new face of the transgender movement.

First, as stated by transgender model Hari Nef via Twitter, “Trans women are often praised via positive comparisons to cisgender women trans beauty and trans talent are rarely taken on their own terms.”

While Jenner’s beauty itself does not warrant attack, the way in which people treat Jenner and other transgender women according to their beauty is problematic.

For example, comments from cisgender women about transgender women, such as “Wow, she’s prettier than me!”, smack of transphobia. This statement indicates that a transgender woman has to be conventionally beautiful or wholeheartedly feminine to be afforded respect and be considered a valid woman. Ideologies such as this are exclusionary to transgender women who are not conventionally beautiful or cisgender-passing.

While Jenner emphasized her need to present herself as wholeheartedly feminine, it’s important to understand that many people struggle to pass as cisgender for one reason or another, and that many transgender people are OK without fitting into a binary gender presentation.

Second, an issue to be raised with Jenner’s visibility is that she is rich, from both her career as a high profile athlete and her role in Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Apart from having haute couture fashion designers and revered make up artists busting down the door to style her, Jenner’s wealth provides her with the pick of top-notch surgeons, whereas every day transgender people struggle to survive, let alone pay for surgery.

Discrimination in the job process and in the workplace leads to unemployment. If unemployment doesn’t lead to homelessness, then discrimination from family, friends and even homeless shelters will.

Third, casting Jenner as the sole savior for transgender rights is problematic because she is white. Obviously, oppression and discrimination of all kinds is an issue. Still, transgender people of color face transphobia in the LGBTQIA+ community as well as discrimination from cisgender people of all races, including their own.

Due to her work as an actress, it’s hard to find someone attuned to pop culture who doesn’t know about Cox by now. Still, there are many unsung heroes of the transgender community who happen to be people of color. There are older icons, such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and newer ones, such as Kye Allums, Amiyah Scott, Isis King, and Juliana Huxtable.

Apart from visibility issues for transgender people of color, there is the fact that transgender people of color are dying at disproportionate rates. As cited by Addison Rose Vincent for The Huffington Post, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence found in 2013 that 72 percent of LGBTQIA+ murders were those of transgender women and 89 percent of those murders were those of people of color. Earlier this year, the murder of black transgender woman Lamia Beard gained attention, among others.

In spite of media and society putting Jenner on a pedestal and silencing other transgender women who have marginalized identities, Jenner’s very public transition still can serve as a teaching moment for both the cisgender and non-cisgender communities.

For example, Jenner’s transition can inspire transgender people who want to transition, but have not yet due to fear or lack of resources. Further, Jenner’s transition can inspire transgender people by encouraging them to feel happy and confident in the face of criticism and discrimination. Lastly, Jenner’s transition has been covered so thoroughly already that it has brought exposure of trans rights and issues to people who would not normally consider them.

Celebrities don’t have an obligation to use their platform to bring about social change, but the best celebrities do just that.

In her open letter to Jenner, Laverne Cox wrote, “I hope, as I know Caitlyn does, that the love she is receiving can translate into changing hearts and minds about who all trans people are as well as shifting public policies to fully support the lives and well being of all of us. The struggle continues…”

While Jenner did understand that she was transgender long before she transitioned, as stated in her interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner has only just begun to publicly identify as transgender. There are issues that affect the LGBTQIA+ community to which she may be unaware, and to which she will only gain exposure by attending queer events, teaming up with queer celebrities, talking to more queer people, and doing more research once queer organizations approach her or cross her path.

With such visibility, openness, and private and public support, it is quite plausible that Jenner will become more of an activist and champion for the LGBTQIA+ community as time goes on.

For more insight…

Trans activist and writer Janet Mock’s thoughts are here.

Jon Stewart’s thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner coverage are here.

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