What’s in a Name: How Caitlyn Jenner’s Reveal Impacts Transgender Women Outside the Public Eye
Caitlyn Jenner, former Olympian and reality show star, announced her name via Twitter, and in four hours became the fastest person to ever get one million followers. The reaction was huge and in the time I’ve written this, late at night on the West Coast, there has been another 100+ tweets written about her. It’s been a roller coaster ride of a day for so many transgender people, trans women especially. For me it has been particularly hard.
I was stressed anyway, that morning I was going to see a new doctor that specialises in transgender care and wanted to look as good as possible. I live on an island, getting a permanent doctor here is tough, getting one that knows about trans care is near impossible. I get ready, look at myself, get hyper critical and felt pretty bad. I look at my phone and wham, the Jenner story is breaking. I go and look at the photos in Vanity Fair and burst out crying. A semi naked Caitlyn Jenner in professional makeup, world class photographer and photoshop, all designed to appeal to the male gaze. I left for my appointment feeling terrible.
I had unrealistic and unreasonable hopes that Jenner would somehow help push forward trans rights for both older trans people and those that don’t meet cisgender ideals; the majority of trans people that don’t pass. Instead I felt that Caitlyn Jenner had chosen to erase this struggle, one that I’ve had ever since I came out to myself and others as a transgender woman. When I got back from my appointment and settled in front of the laptop I was staring at the naivete of those hopes; Caitlyn Jenner right now is no Laverne Cox. This doesn’t mean that Jenner can’t or won’t do things for transgender people in the future; when I started writing this it’s only 14 hours after she announced her name after all. She has a long time to potentially do good.
How she went about announcing her name though was a huge problem. It was an ostentatious display of wealth that 99% of people will never have access to. As most trans women earn very little due to systemic-wide prejudice it’s a much more bitter pill for the trans community to swallow. This is one of the reasons that the reaction was fairly negative from transgender culture, I saw a lot of people, myself included, who were not happy with how Jenner had chosen to announce her name but were at the same time willing to defend her from any and all transphobia coming at her from social media.
There were a number of issues at play, it wasn’t just the privilege of wealth, it was also the transformation into a ‘cis ideal woman’ that annoyed transgender people. Trans people suffer a lot when they are not hidden, among cis society; if we cannot or will not pass we tend to get treated like walking garbage. In the Jenner interview there was someone that didn’t pass, someone who may help make it more acceptable for non-passing trans people to be in society
When the Vanity Fair pictures came out Trans women felt a mixture of betrayal, disappointment and jealousy, myself included. Betrayal for the hope that Jenner would finally bring non-passing trans women into the spotlight, disappointment that she chose to be undressed and appear cisgender, and jealousy that she could afford to do it when so few trans people have a job, adequate healthcare or even a roof over their heads. Trans people need help, not another message that the only way to be accepted is to appear cisgender.
The cisgender reactions were mixed, and you could cherry pick your responses depending on where you looked. From the positivity of many sites, like TMS, to the bile spewing from the right wing and, even worse, from the religious right in the USA. Many social media responses were positive; of course many were not. People were congratulatory, or deliberately and abusive misnaming, or telling hurtful jokes. I also saw many people saying something along the lines of “I’m shocked she looks so good!”
They meant this as a compliment of course but it’s an awful thing to say, it’s a mixture of ‘wow, they looked bad before when they didn’t pass’ and ‘I’m expressing shock that a trans person can look good’ with a dash of ‘hey now that they look cisgender I approve of them’. Be careful how you praise, it can be very painful. These reactions were mirrored in the news media’s response to Jenner too. A response different from any we’ve seen before, in part because of who Jenner once was, in part due to the reality show and in part because she is older, white and republican. Fox News of course ran with hateful insanity but many other sites dead-named Caitlyn Jenner, mostly I suspect through ignorance rather than malice.
It’s a term in trans culture that refers to someone using a trans person’s old name after they have picked a new name for themselves. To say it’s a social faux pas is an understatement, it shows a lack of caring about who the trans person is now. This was rampant across the media and included sites from the BBC to BoingBoing. Don’t ever do this, it’s even stated in many of the media guides that exist out there not to do this. Not that these always get followed.
Associated Press (AP) has a media guide on how to report about transgender topics but they broke their own guide to sensationalise the story of Caitlyn Jenner. GLAAD updated their media guide and explicitly includes in bold “Always use a transgender person’s chosen name.” In short much of the media response was either deliberately gross or accidentally/uncaringly unpleasant. A few news organisations got it right though and it was surprising who some of them were; who would have guessed that CNBC would have got things right. Other sites that got it right included Salon, Cosmopolitan, The Wrap and Buzzfeed. CNN broke it’s mould of no longer being a news organisation and wrote pieces on the complexity behind the story of Caitlyn’s name announcement.
The experience of Caitlyn Jenner announcing her name is not even remotely close to the experience of other trans people. Trans people are not paid to be on the front cover of a magazine to announce their chosen name, nor are they handed awards and a reality show with an ongoing six figure salary allowing them to buy a 3.5 million dollar Malibu house this week. I know, it’s shocking. Most trans people receive negative reaction when they come out; I was in an abusive relationship when I came out and it got worse fast. A lot of other trans people are rejected by their family and 15-20% of trans people end up homeless at some point.
It’s not fair of course for the very few famous trans people that exist to carry the weight of expectations of all of trans culture. Those few cannot represent the hopes, desires and needs of everyone, or push through the changes to society that are needed before all trans people get the same rights, benefits and chances that cisgender people take for granted. Laverne Cox wrote about it far more eloquently, and delightfully snarkily, than I over here.
Unfair or not, the few famous trans people do carry trans culture’s expectations and what they do about that is up to them. Janet Mock for example has been very supportive of other trans people. Caitlyn Jenner, well, I guess we’ll see over time, but don’t write-off her off yet and certainly don’t say she’s a ‘bad transgender person’. The latter is unfair and the former we don’t fully know yet; she’s only just announced her name.
Personally I’m not happy about how Jenner announced her name, but I will defend her against the bigots. I don’t think it was intrinsically wrong to get the surgery that she did, but it was crass to use it in the way she did. I think that Caitlyn Jenner lacks wider trans cultural awareness, something Laverne Cox was calling her out on too, but perhaps she can learn that over time. Yes it’s possible to disagree with how someone acted, while defending them in another area and pointing out issues like financial and race privilege along with lack of cultural awareness. I wish Caitlyn Jenner well, but hey, there’s a lot of us suffering out here, it’s time to use that massive audience in the heat of media attention to help with all the issues trans people are currently facing.
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.- Laverne Cox
Marcy (@marcyjcook) is an immigrant trans woman and writer. This includes Transcanuck.com, a website dedicated to informing and helping trans Canadians. She also has a nerd job, too many cats, is a part time volunteer sex educator and has an ongoing sordid love affair with Lego. Those last two are not related… probably.
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