The Internet has been abuzz since Vanity Fair did an extensive photo shoot and interview with Caitlyn Jenner, who is now officially out as a trans woman. Though the issue will not hit newsstands until June 9, comentary about it has been all over social media since the cover was released this past Monday.
As much as everyone is trying to be supportive of Caitlyn, her visibility in the media is also raising some important questions about gender politics and trans visibility in the US.
Some are critical of the fact that Jenner asked to be called Bruce and for he/him pronouns to be used right up until the Vanity Fair glamour shoot reveal. Peggy Drexler noted in an op-ed onCNN.com,
“That I am pointing out the carefully stage-managed reveal of Caitlyn does not detract from the courage and import of Jenner's decision to transition, nor even the manner in which she chose to make it known. It is, however, an acknowledgment of a transition that is likely only marginally representative of those experienced by most in the transgender community. It's also a transition that has centered very heavily on her looks, making her story of transition nearly impossible to separate from its physical manifestation.”
And in a Tumblr post, Laverne Cox said,
“A year ago when my Time magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am 'drop dead gorgeous' and...what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves. It is important to note that these standards are also informed by race, class and ability among other intersections.”
Not all trans individuals are able to medically transition, nor do they all desire to do so. Even those trans individuals able to have top and/or bottom surgery covered by insurance or a crowdfunding campaign would likely not be able to add facial feminization (or masculinization) surgery to the list. Jenner's coming out narrative is tied to her celebrity and class status. More than that, transition is a process. A trans woman doesn't “become” a woman only when surgery and hormone therapy are complete; she has already been a woman the entire time, regardless of her choice to use hormones or undergo any surgery at all.
When I was in graduate school, I listened to an interesting presentation about LGBT identity and the media. The thesis of the project was that the unmeetable beauty standards foisted upon women by airbrushed fashion and beauty magazines were now being applied to – and having the same negative mental health effects on – gay men. I worry that trans visibility, if relegated solely to the covers of magazines, might have much the same effect on trans individuals and their sense of what kinds of bodies are acceptable and desirable.
Cox continued, “Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class.”
Trans visibility shouldn't only be about celebrating the physical beauty of celebrity trans women. We need to ensure that ALL trans individuals have the resources necessary to live full and productive lives regardless of how well their experiences fit into our preconceived notions of cultural beauty norms. This Advocate article explores the ways in which Twitter might be a better venue for such discussions when compared to sites like Facebook, where articles are often shared and liked without much commentary. How can we make sure trans individuals of all races and classes have equal access to employment, affordable healthcare and housing, and mental health resources? How can we reduce hate crimes and violence against trans individuals – and especially trans people of color?
This website for an immigration lawyer firm is drawing attention to the plight of immigration detention for trans women like Nicoll and Marichuy, who are often placed in cells with men while they await asylum. Even Chelsea Manning had to sue the US military to be allowed to begin hormone therapy while incarcerated for whistleblowing. Add to this the fact that majority of incarcerated trans individuals are jailed according to the gender they were assigned at birth, meaning trans women are forced to serve time in men's prisons, where the likelihood of harassment, violence, and sexual assault is much higher.
In this NSFW video, Tammy Peay has some words to say to those who would celebrate Caitlyn Jenner while kicking their own LGBTQ children out on the street, or shunning a trans woman of color in their neighborhood. It's important that we celebrate the triumphs of increased trans visibility, but that we also don't let ourselves be fooled into thinking the battle is over. Let's acknowledge Caitlyn, and then move on to the hard work of making sure all trans individuals can live their lives with the dignity and acceptance all human beings deserve.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 06/04/2015.