With so little exposure, and so much prejudice out there, the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner as the first transgender woman to be launched into the mainstream American – hell, global – psyche was always going to be big news. Many rightly praised Jenner’s courage in transitioning in front of an often hostile public and media, territory that few had trodden before. While we certainly live in the least transphobic climate there has ever been, she has still had to march admirably on with dignity under a barrage of abuse from obnoxious bigots and ignorant media pundits and Twitter trolls. Undoubtedly, the impact Jenner has had on pushing forward the acceptance of transgender people, merely by being one so famous, is huge.
However, and this really is a big ‘however’, purely because nobody has really trodden this path before, Jenner has been positioned as a transgender activist. This is problematic, as merely being a transgender woman who had the courage to transition despite intense social pressure to remain closeted does not automatically qualify you to speak on behalf of an entire oppressed community. Imagine if every time a woman said something, or a black person, it was immediately assumed to be the only opinion worth listening to, or worse, the only opinion in that group at all. Jenner has certainly spoken passionately about ending transphobic prejudice, and for that she should be applauded. But some of her comments have been less helpful.
This week Jenner praised, then hastily unendorsed, Senator Ted Cruz to be American President. This was a strange choice, given Cruz’s glowing credentials as a repeated transphobic bigot. Cruz has previously tried to smear the Planned Parenthood terrorist Robert Lewis Dear by accusing him of being a “transgendered leftist activist”, despite zero evidence this was the case, all in order to distract from the terrorist’s right-wing pro-life militancy. He also described President Obama’s attempts to support transgender students as “lunacy”. Bizarrely, Jenner conceded that Cruz is “an evangelical Christian, and probably one of the worst ones when it comes to trans issues”, but this didn’t appear to stop her endorsing him as a “very conservative and a very articulate man”. In one particularly ‘articulate’ moment, Cruz said “inflicting” a transgender student “on the teachers is probably better than sticking him in the shower with the teenage girls”. Articulate, perhaps, but also downright horrible. This whole sorry episode left Joy Behar to surmise, “transgenders for Cruz is like Jews for Hitler”. Indeed.
The problem is that Jenner has arbitrarily become the sole voice for trans people in mainstream media discourse, scooping up more publicity that all other prominent trans people combined. So now every comment she makes is pored over, every public thought analysed for its potential for advocacy. No other oppressed groups’ fate appears to hang on the words of so few people. The danger is, if Jenner is the only transgender person most people will ever read the opinion of, they may feel like it is the transgender view that Ted Cruz is a worthy endorsement. The voices of the vast majority of transgender individuals are completely invisible in this debate.
Because while Jenner can certainly relate to the physical experience of being a transgender woman, her life is a million miles away from the lived experience of most transgender Americans. Unlike Caitlyn’s glamourous lifestyle, advertising endorsements and popular reality show, many transgender people live in conditions of crippling poverty, and are four times more like than non-trans people to have a yearly income of less than $10,000. Likewise, the shocking murder rate of transgender women of colour demonstrates the physical danger many trans people live throughout their everyday lives. 40% of trans people have attempted suicide. This is why Jenner’s opinions on Senator Cruz are so catastrophic. For her, transphobia comes in the form of snide comments from rappers and mean tweets, not the imminent threat of death. All the meanness Jenner faces is made infinitely more palatable by her eight-figure bank balance and large supportive fandom; support most transgender people could only dream of.
That she would rather vote for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton shows how little bigoted Republican policies that actively endorse and entrench transphobia have on her life. Her suggestion, built on Republican capitalist ideology, that a stronger economy will mean more jobs for transgender people, totally misses the reality that transgender people miss out on work because of institutional and entrenched discrimination. In fact, one study suggests that nearly half of employers in Washington DC would rather hire a less qualified candidate over someone they perceive to be transgender. 47% of respondents in a National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported knowing to have been fired, denied a promotion or rejected in a recruitment process because they were transgender. Cruz opposes The Equality Act, a law that would help prevent this employment discrimination. Let’s be clear: transgender unemployment is a problem of bigotry, not of liberal economic failure. But of course how could Jenner understand that, when she has never experienced any of this first hand?
So let’s celebrate Jenner’s achievements as a proud transgender woman, but perhaps stop hanging off her every word, as if she is the lone mouthpiece for trans rights. After all, there are many other amazing transgender individuals out there who have infinitely better things to say in helping their community achieve social justice, like the extremely likeable Laverne Cox, to name just one. We must not forget that beyond the intoxicating, inspirational glamour of Jenner’s immaculate appearance and public transformation, there are transgender people who face a daily struggle to go about their day to day lives, pummelled by daily discrimination and even the genuine threat of death. These are the people we should be focusing on, and condemning the politicians who seek to make their situation worse. Of course she is entitled to her opinion, but we must remember that Caitlyn Jenner is an activist by default, a megaphone where there was previously no-one. There are better advocates out there. We must bring more transgender people into public discourse, so a range of opinions can be heard, instead of just one deeply questionable one. We need transgender activists who stand up to bigoted politicians, not endorse them.