Earlier this month, the world met Caitlyn Jenner. I thought her Vanity Fair photo shoot was beautifully done, not only because she looked quite stunning, but also because it makes me so happy to see that she’s finally able to be true to who she is. However, I anticipated going on social media and seeing many people who felt differently about the situation than myself. After all, we’ve never seen such a high profile celebrity transition. People might be posting problematic things without even knowing that it was bad. Our society has had such a history of brushing trans folks under the rug. I was pleasantly surprised to see that within the circles I follow and connect with on social media, there was an outpouring of support for Caitlyn. It made me so happy!
The thing is, I’m not part of the trans community, though I am a supporter. I realized that I could be a bit more educated on things like intersectionality, privilege, and things like that in relation to Caitlyn’s transition since I’m certainly no expert on what those in the trans community are experiencing as this narrative unfolds. As it turns out, plenty of articles were written on the topic, as well as a number of blog posts I’ve found around the internet, and it turns out that I myself was talking about Caitlyn’s transition in a somewhat problematic way simply because I was uneducated. I didn’t realize that while yes, Caitlyn indeed looks beautiful, we need to take into account that we’re looking at her appearance based on the normative feminine beauty standards we’ve created. Additionally, we do have to acknowledge her privilege so that we don’t become blind to the problems that the trans community still faces. It’s great to see support for one trans woman, but that doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly solved all of the aforementioned problems and that transphobia is a thing of the past. We all know that isn’t true.
Cisnormative Beauty Standards
Normative beauty standards create problems for the trans community because when we see the trans community gain visibility, we almost expect that they will try to align themselves with the traits associated with privileged members of a society. For example, if an individual is transitioning from female to male, we may assume that they will do what they can to conform to the binary norms associated with cisgender males. It helps if they’re also able-bodied, white, and wealthy. Society will be more supportive of those individuals, while trans people who don’t fit this profile do not receive the same amount of support as Caitlyn Jenner. As pointed out in Everyday Feminism’s article on the problems with normativity, if we see these few stories of transgender people who conform to the status quo, we are further enforcing gender stereotypes and policing, not to mention classism and racism. When the author, Kel Kray, facilitates workshops on subjects like those in the article, someone in each workshop mentions Caitlyn Jenner. While the author’s gender story (and many others’) does not align with Caitlyn’s, Caitlyn has provided a single trans story to many Americans.
Another problem with putting Caitlyn’s story on a pedestal causes people, especially those who are just now having their first look in the transgender community, to think that gender must always be binary; that people must either be male or female. The thing is, people can certainly be non-binary, or even agender, and choose not to adhere to society’s gender norms. If that’s how someone is happy and how they feel they best identify, that’s wonderful! However, when we see someone like Caitlyn Jenner receive tons of press for transitioning into a very normative and “passable” woman, it will further the idea that transgender people’s transitions are only valid if they choose to be binary. Again, white transgender individuals will also be better received than those of color. While Laverne Cox may have worked her butt of to become a celebrated transgender woman of color, she is only one person. If you want to know more about the black trans community, here’s a list of black trans leaders to check out on Twitter. I really enjoyed checking out these Twitter accounts because, as a white cis woman, I don’t truly understand the problems they face or how major stories similar to Caitlyn’s impact those who experience different challenges because of intersectinality of race, gender, etc.
This leads to the next major thing we need to consider when looking at the narrative of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition and privilege once again plays a role. We need to remember that she is high-profile celebrity with the wealth and access to do whatever she needed to transition how she chose. Most transgender individuals are not in this position and do not have the same resources. Perhaps an individual does not have the means to transition into a cisnormative individual, even if that is what would make them happy. This means that there are many people out there who are going to face struggles that we will never hear about from Caitlyn Jenner’s narrative.
Finally, we need to address that, yes; Caitlyn Jenner is a brave individual with an inspiring story to share. It is great to see that trans people are becoming more accepted, even if it is a well-known individual who has privilege in society. We can appreciate the baby steps, but we can’t overlook the fact life is not suddenly easy for trans folks. Here’s a few statistics that show that while steps are being made, we have a ways to go before our society truly accepts transgender people:
- A staggering 41% of people who identify as transgender have attempted suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population.
- These numbers increase when people are younger, non-white, do not have high levels of educational attainment, or who make less than $100,000/year.
- The number also increases when everyone in the person’s life knows that they are transgender
- Poverty is a problem in the trans community; they are four times more likely than the general population to make less than $10,000/year and they face twice the unemployment of the general public. Additionally, many say that they have been homeless for at least some part of their lives.
- Work place discrimination is a major problem. 90% of transgender people have reported experiencing some discrimination and 40% are currently unemployed. Finally, only 32% of states have laws that protect against discrimination based on gender identity. (Source)
- This article includes the shocking and quite honestly, upsetting statistics about violence against transgender individuals.
I’m going to wrap this post by saying that I’m in no way trying to make Caitlyn Jenner’s experience and story invalid. She is indeed an inspiring and courageous woman, something that is not to be overlooked. However, we can’t let the narrative the media is creating around her blind us to all that hurdles our society has to overcome. As I said, I wanted to think that I was being supportive of the transgender community praising Caitlyn’s journey and absolutely loving her Vanity Fair shoot. Of course I realized that things were not going to magically improve for this community of people, but I didn’t realize that while yeah, it seemed like some of my commentary on the situation was supportive, it actually reinforced ideas that we should be trying to eradicate, such as gender policing. I definitely don’t want to discredit that progress is being made though!
Once again, I’m no expert on the transgender community and I certainly don’t claim to be. If there was something in this article that I perhaps didn’t get quite right, please let me know in the comments!