One of the reoccurring questions I am asked when I’m talking about my book, Tea and Transition, is what effect Caitlyn Jenner has had on transgender awareness — or what do I think about Caitlyn’s transition.
I always preface my answer with support — support for anyone transgender, famous or otherwise, who is dealing with gender confusion or acting upon some sort of transition. None of us asked for this when we were dealt the hand of life, and so to reach a point of self-acceptance followed by any sort of transition is a big deal. Some of us accept it with grace and fortitude, while others are not able to make any outward change because of family, society, religion, or any one of countless other restrictive factors that prevent people from being their true selves. So yes, of course I support Caitlyn Jenner, and am glad that she is finding a deeper level of happiness that had previously eluded her.
Yet I am also trying to figure out why support for Caitlyn from within the transgender community seems more muted than from without. Just because other trans people have been through more hardships than Jenner to get to where they are doesn’t make them — or her — any less trans. Still, I don’t feel close to her at all when watching “I Am Cait” as she explains her own personal difficulties while conversing with either of her two personal stylists or when dithering between wearing one $2,000 dress in her closet or another. Yes, her hardship is to deal with paparazzi-dodging while the rest of us do not, but still that doesn’t lead me to a closer position of empathy.
Reality TV is — by definition — not real. I should not be offended by the appearance of more champagne toasts on the program than discussion of issues of substance — but I am. So far (after four episodes) the series has been shallower than Jenner’s first pool party and if it is to really stimulate dialog then it has to provoke a far edgier conversation than her visiting a trans outreach clinic in her black-windowed SUV. The public is not so foolish to assume that every trans person looks or behaves like Caitlyn, but nor should they assume that she is my spokesperson. She is not. Most worryingly, this seems to be a position that Jenner herself is seeking to adopt, or she has presumed to have taken on already. I think it’s terrific that she has met other trans people from all walks of life and she needs to meet a whole bunch more before she can even hope to understand the situations of others. One relevant point from the most recent show was her tendency to refer to trans people as “them” and not “us”. This organic change will happen in time, but only if she wants it to.
I’ve also been considering the term “community” when it refers to trans people like me. I have met countless trans people over the years and one of the pleasures of my day job is that I get to meet trans folk at all stages of their individual transitions. I thoroughly enjoy that but it doesn’t mean that I want to have tea with them all at every opportunity. Personally, I don’t feel the need to be around other trans people to validate my own position. I choose my friends (trans, cis, and everyone else) because of who they are, not what their history is. To do otherwise would be like hanging with other blondes for the reason of shared hair color. Thus for me personally, the term “trans community” is more a loose fellowship rather than a bonded group.
Returning to the Caitlyn factor, I see some new chatter about whether a Caitlyn Jenner Halloween outfit is appropriate or not (CNN). My initial reaction was that it is totally inappropriate, but then the more I considered it, the more it seemed fair. The costume is not mocking being transgender in itself (though if you added a phallus then it probably would be), nor are countless other costumes that play with role reversal at Halloween (sexy nuns, stripper nurses, etc) seriously irreverent to those lives or professions. It’s a day of silliness and should be accepted as just that. Once Jenner was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, it was unavoidable that parody would follow, even if it didn’t happen immediately. That is the price of fame, and as such, comes with no refund.