“What a responsibility I have towards this community. I just hope I get it right.”
The words are spoken by Caitlyn Jenner in a particularly vulnerable and poignant moment at the start of I Am Cait, her eight-part reality TV series. The gold medal-winning Olympian is shown sitting up in bed, dressed in a robe with no make-up, looking anxious and preoccupied.
“I feel bad that especially young people are going through such a difficult time in their life,” says Jenner, 65. “We don’t want people dying for this. We don’t want people murdered for this stuff.”
She goes on: “Am I going to do everything right? Am I going to say the right things? Do I project the right image? My mind’s just spinning with thoughts.”
Americans had the chance to reach their own conclusions about these questions with the launch of the E! docu-series on Sunday night. Billed as one of the most talked-about reality TV launches in years, I Am Cait has also faced its detractors.
Jenner’s carefully choreographed public rollout as a trans woman – in a Diane Sawyer ABC News interview, then on the cover of Vanity Fair, followed by her first public appearance at the ESPY awards – was denounced by some as a publicity campaign to keep her star in the ascendant.
Jenner’s four children from her first marriage refused to participate in the show, with the oldest, Brandon, dismissing all E! reality series with a memorable putdown: “Every one of them is a circus.”
But the first hour-long episode of I Am Cait established the series as a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece of filmmaking. Jenner projected herself as someone profoundly aware that amid the splendor of her $3.5m Malibu home – with guests like Kanye West casually popping round – she bears a huge responsibility towards other trans people less fortunate than herself.
“I feel tremendous responsibility here because I have a voice and there are so many trans people out there who do not have a voice,” she said in words that will resonate with her new-found community.
Certainly, Jenner has had it easy compared to many transgender women and men who struggle with extraordinary levels of attempted suicide andviolence. With no worries over money or access to medical treatment, her experience is far from that of so many individuals suffering from gender dysphoria – the sensation that identity and physical form are out of sync.
But with every step in the unveiling of her new identity as Caitlyn, Jenner has become more outspoken about the plight of so many others with whom she is now associated within the transgender community. The growing strength of her opinions reflect the learning curve she has been on, exposed as she has been to a steady stream of letters from trans women sharing with her their struggles and hardships.
Her strong responses also reflect her own familiarity with despair. On Sunday night Jenner revealed that she has had suicidal thoughts. “I’ve had some very dark moments in my life. I’ve been in my house with a gun and said let’s just end it right there. No more pain, no more suffering. That struggle is real and I’ve been there.”
The camera followed Jenner as she dodged paparazzi seeking to grab pictures of Caitlyn worth $250,000 a shot as the star made a visit to the family of Kyler Prescott, a trans boy who killed himself at the age of 14 on 18 May. Even though Prescott’s family was supportive of his desire to transition, the pressure still overwhelmed him.
Kyler’s mother Katharine told Jenner that reports that he had been bullied by other kids his age were misleading. The real problem, she said, had been the lack of understanding of adults. “He needed them to use the male pronoun”, but they didn’t. Kyler’s new birth certificate, with the gender changed, arrived just a day after he died, she said.
Caitlyn Jenner’s family also came across as deeply supportive, even as they wrestle with their own demons. Esther Jenner emerged as the true star of the premier of I Am Cait. She stole the show with her honesty, her palpable discomfort at her child’s new identity clashing powerfully with her determination to remain a loyal and loving mother.
“It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” she said during a poignant moment alone with Caitlyn, her eyes welling.
“In what aspect is it not easy,” Jenner asked, “losing a son?”
“I love Bruce, that will never change. It’s going to take some getting used to but I want to do what he wants.”
Jenner looks at her silently, without correcting her use of pronoun.
Later in the program Esther recalled when her then son stood on the podium at the 1976 Montreal Olympics to receive his gold medal. “The American flag was going up and I thought I could never be more proud of him, and do you know, I was wrong. Because I am proud of him for the courage that he has shown.”
Then she added: “I loved him with all my heart, and I certainly love her with all my heart.”
It was the first time she had uttered the female pronoun.
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