Trans Lives Matter: Caitlyn Jenner & Representation in Media

Ever since the announcement of their womanhood, there has been speculation as to when “Bruce” Jenner would change their pronoun and name to feminine ones. We all knew it was coming, but we had no way of predicting when.

Well! It finally happened. On June 1st, Caitlyn Jenner tweeted for the first time. And then Jenner set a world record for the fastest time to 1 million followers in just 4 hours.

Caitlyn’s announcement was accompanied by photos of her on the cover of Vanity Fair. Fittingly, the announcement coincided with the year anniversary of Laverne Cox’s featured position on the cover of TIME magazine alongside the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.”

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More than anything else, I am thrilled to see Caitlyn living her life as her genuine, authentic self. There is nothing more freeing than living your life without shame. I am also delighted to see yet another glamorous woman kicking ass and taking names in her 60s. I cannot get enough of gorgeous older ladies being fabulous. Between Jessica Lange, Caitlyn, and shows like Grace & Frankie, I really hope this is getting to be a trend.

In the brief time since revealing herself in her new identity, Caitlyn has caught some serious criticism as a trans person for a couple of reasons. The first has been her position as a fairly prominent and wealthy person undergoing transition. She is in a very privileged spot in that she has access to stylists, personal trainers, and medical treatments that have undoubtedly made her movement into the sphere of womanhood comparatively easier than the journeys taken by many other trans people.

On the issue of her privilege I am not prepared to judge Caitlyn. Yet. And I say “yet” because I am waiting to see what she decides to do with her new position as a visible and wealthy trans woman. There is so much work that needs to be done in the trans community. In her open letter to Caitlyn Jenner, Kai Cheng Thom says:

I want to know how you feel about all of these things: the ties that bind and the differences between us. And most of all, I want to know what you plan to do about them. You’ve said that you want to hear the stories of other trans women and use your platform to “make things better.” I want so badly for this to mean more than just “raising awareness” through glamour photos and reality television – it’s true that trans people have been experiencing unprecedented visibility in recent years, but visibility alone will not save us. My community organizer’s mind goes wild just imagining all of the social programs I could run with a fraction of the money at your disposal.

With that said, if Caitlyn takes her considerable money and influence and applies it to working in communities and making a difference in trans lives, I will applaud her unreservedly. If, however, Caitlyn takes her new, privileged self out into the world of tawdry reality television and thinks that the mere presence of her in the public eye is going to stop the considerable violence and hardship that trans women (and particularly trans women of color) face every day? That will be a different story altogether. And I admit to being unsure as to which way she will go.

Aside from being privileged in the means by which she has transitioned, Jenner has also been criticized for her connection to the dreaded Kardashians and their publicity stunt mentality. Let me say two things on that score. First of all, you have to be seriously out of touch with reality if you even thought for a second that Caitlyn’s transition was some kind of publicity stunt. And secondly, I think that her use of the letter “C” in a name that could easily be spelled with a “K” was rather telling, don’t you?

It is true that what is surrounding Jenner at this point could not be called anything less than a media circus. But I don’t think that is a bad thing at all. I think that her transition as a person living a prominent and public life was going to generate a lot of buzz to begin with. And I think that having someone so prominently transition is going to make a difference in the lives of trans youth, because representation matters.

On that note I want to get a little personal. I lived a large portion of my life confused and uncomfortable with who I was as a person. I thought I was straight… Or maybe bisexual? I had no one in my life upon whose example I could model myself as a gay woman. I cannot begin to express how valuable it would have been for me to see alternative sexualities and genders represented in the media. Caitlyn would have been a huge deal to me. Just seeing that there were other ways to live your life might have meant that I found my way to myself far earlier and spared myself a lot of pain.

More than just allowing young people to see that there are other ways to live than as cisgendered heterosexuals, I believe the prominent representation of LGBTQ people can save lives. Suicide rates among LGBTQ youth are notably higher than those of the general population. According to The Trevor Project, “nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.” Having people like Jenner out there in the world for trans youth to look up to means a lot. And I think that, as the years roll on and we as a community gain more and more trans role models, The Trevor Project and groups like them will have better and better news for us.

Despite the jury being out on whether Caitlyn will utilize her privileged position as a trans person in a positive way, having her transition in the public eye is, as Rachel Maddow put it, “absolutely history in the finest, living sense.” I think considering Caitlyn’s journey as “living history” is an important distinction. Because this is not the end of the story of trans rights. This isn’t the beginning, either, it is just a very important moment. A chapter that will stand out when we look back at it. But there is still so much work to be done.

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