Caitlyn Jenner’s transition on the cover of Vanity Fair into the most famous trans woman in the world has earned her a massive global platform in under 24 hours.
More than two million people have followed her on Twitter and she has been showered with praise – from celebrated trans actress Laverne Cox, whowelcomed the news with the vernacular outburst “Yasss Gawd! Werk Caitlyn! Get it!” to President Barack Obama, who said: “It takes courage to share your story.”
But within the wider trans community, the response to the Caitlyn Jennerphenomenon has been more nuanced. Some people expressed delight at the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Vanity Fair’s photo shoot with the former Olympic gold medal winner in her new identity as a woman, while wishing she had done more to use her celebrity power to help the many thousands of embattled transgender people.
Others decried the length of time it took Jenner to cast out her past identity and use of male pronouns since the initial coming out to Diane Sawyer on ABC News in April. Janetta Johnson, a black trans woman who works with TGI Justice, an advocacy group for transgender prisoners and their families, said that the lack of recognition on Jenner’s part of the hard work that had gone into trying to end confusion over gender pronouns was regrettable. “For her to come out as a trans woman and say ‘Oh, please keep calling me “he”’ – I think she may have set us back.”
Johnson said she now wanted to see Jenner give back to the trans community some of what she had taken.
“Jenner’s a rich white bitch – she can pay for everything she needs. But I think she now needs to put some of that money back into the transgender community as she has taken a lot. All these years we have been abused and battered, yet she has used none of her power to help the community and bring about change.”
Yet other activists were more forgiving. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said that Jenner’s story was “100% valid. It’s not typical, because no story is typical. A lot of folks are frustrated because this isn’t the story they wanted to hear, but I think we should grab this chance to change public minds. There are people all over America who have seen the Vanity Fair photos and said to themselves: ‘You know, I am trans too and I am going to have the courage to come out.’”
Certainly, the vision of Jenner as a trans woman captured by Vanity Fair’s Annie Leibovitz – with the subject swathed in designer clothes against a backdrop of her multimillion-dollar Malibu home and $180,000 Porsche – sets up a stark contrast with the known experience of so many transgender people, particularly African Americans. That vast gulf is laid bare by just a few of the most telling statistics, such as the startling finding that almost one in six transgender people have annual incomes of below $10,000 – four times the rate of the general population.
Or the grim litany of statistics relating to black trans women: that almost halfare incarcerated at some point in their lives; 27% are HIV positive; 29% (or five times the national average) are unemployed; and almost half experience being turned away from housing and many end up homeless.
In its profile, Vanity Fair said Jenner was “aware of the appalling conditions in which many transgender women and men live”, adding that she would use some of her upcoming E! reality TV show that will track her life post transition to focus on ways to bring down the suicide rate. Indeed, 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide – about nine times the national average.
Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in trans issues, said that the key mark of success would be whether Jenner’s huge new platform could be used to highlight the “horrible discrimination and violence” trans people face. “So many people are dying because they cannot access the healthcare that Jenner as a wealthy white woman was able to get.”
Strangio added that it would be good to hear from Jenner an acknowledgement of the long history of campaigning and advocacy in the trans community that led up to this moment. “There has been incredible resilience and advocacy from people who came before Caitlyn and made her visibility possible.”
Tommy Luckett, a black trans woman from Little Rock, Arkansas, who is on the advisory board of the Transgender Law Center’s Positively Trans project, said she thought the Vanity Fair photos of Caitlyn Jenner were beautiful. But she said they were only beautiful “because of all the resources at her disposal. That’s not the experience of most trans women, especially of color.”
Luckett, who kept her first name in a successful attempt to sustain the love of her father through transition, said that “everyone who transitions is sitting on the shoulder of giants”. She name-dropped Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two prominent transgender activists.
“Caitlyn Jenner has a whole lot of power. It’s what she does with it that matters,” Luckett said. “A huge number of Americans are on her side. Now let’s really start opening up hearts and minds.”
- Guardian Live will hold a panel discussion, How to be happy and transgender, on Thursday 4 June at 7pm at Amnesty International UK in London.
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