The last few years have seen an enormous increase in public awareness of transgender issues. From the emergence of Janet Mock and Chaz Bono as powerful voices for the transgender community, to the emergence of television programs about or featuring transgender actresses like Laverne Cox to the discussion of issues like transgender access to bathrooms and discrimination and violence against transgender people, the media have latched onto the transgender cause like never before. The single biggest transgender media sensation, however, has been the public coming out of Caitlin Jenner, formerly Olympic star Bruce Jenner. Her emergence as the most recognizable face of the transgender cause is not at all surprising. She provides what the media and the public with a narrative that is convenient and safe: an attractive male sports icon identifies as a woman, undergoes extensive plastic surgery that enables her to pass as a woman and presents herself to the public as a photogenic media darling. Unfortunately, the reality many other transgender people face is utterly contrary to Caitlyn Jenner’s experience. We are unable to afford any sort of cosmetic procedures, much of the public considers our appearance to be awkward or freakish and it is unlikely that we will ever pass as the gender with which we identify. Jenner’s manner of coming out suggests that one is legitimately a man or a woman only if he or she can pass as that gender and instills that expectation in the public. Unfortunately, this emphasis on physical characteristics diverts attention from the pressing issues that many transgender people face: poverty, unemployment, stigma, discrimination, violence and depression.
When Caitlyn, then Bruce, gave her interview to Diane Sawyer, there were a number of issues that were very confusing for many transgender people. First, she stated that she was, for all intents and purposes, a female. This was a remarkably equivocal statement, particularly from a person who had been undergoing transition intermittently for over twenty years. Most of us do not sort of feel like whichever gender we identify with. We are either women or men. Our affirmation of that gender is a major catharsis. After years of trying to play a gender role that was alien to us, we are liberated by embracing our gender identity. Of course, there are people who have an ambiguous gender identity and that is valid. But it is not common for somebody remain on the fence if they are embracing a binary gender identity different from that which they were assigned at birth. Secondly, it was very odd that Caitlyn, instructed us to continue to refer to her as Bruce and continue using masculine pronouns. Once again, most transgender people, once they have decided to come out, flee from the pronouns that have for so long invalidated their true gender identity. Most of use actively do whatever is possible to eradicate all traces of the incorrect gender. We ask people to use correct pronouns and change our names and our documents to reflect our true gender identity. Hearing our former names and being referred to by incorrect pronouns is as unpleasant as chalk screeching on a blackboard. Thirdly, Caitlyn’s mindset was surprising when she was asked about her sexual orientation. She emphatically stated that she was not gay, that she had never been attracted to men and that she was exclusively attracted to women. Of course, a woman who is attracted exclusively to women and has never been attracted to men is by definition gay. Lastly, Caitlyn repeatedly talked about her “female persona” as if it was some sort of separate identity. This is precisely what one would expect a genderqueer person to say, but it is not something that most transgender people would say. We do not feel as if we have two people inside of us. We are women or we are men, irrespective of which body we might have. We are not at all ambiguous about our gender; it is an integral part of our being.
Once Jenner publicly unveiled herself as Caitlyn (without any comment as to whether there was a Bruce persona still lurking inside her somewhere), it began to appear as though her previous ambiguous statements were calculated to generate suspense and interest in her reality TV show. If that was actually the case, it was a crass and cynical ploy by somebody who was already fantastically rich and famous to garner yet more eyeballs for the Kardashian-Jenner franchise and perpetuate their penchant for portraying a plastic and shallow reality to their audience. More disturbing however, was how this unveiling took place. After asking the public to treat her as a man, Caitlyn underwent extensive surgery to feminize herself, recruited an army of stylists, hairdressers and makeup artists to dress her up and then called in a world renown fashion photographer to take some flattering photos of her. Only then did she ask us to call her Caitlyn and treat her as a woman. The message was clear: you can only ask the public to call you a woman (or a man) when you can conform to the public’s perception of what that gender should look like.
This statement invalidates many transgender people who are unable, and unlikely ever to be able, to meet these high expectations. The fact is that it is exceedingly difficult for anybody who began transition after the age of thirty to pass in society. Unless we have extensive financial resources like Caitlyn Jenner, most of us will never be able to afford electrolysis, plastic surgery, and other procedures that would enable us to meet these standards of appearance. Instead, our appearance will continue to make many people uncomfortable and earn us stares, scorn and hurtful comments. In reality, transgender people are more likely to be poor and unemployed than society at large. We are more likely to experience discrimination, scorn and violence. We are more likely to suffer from depression and are significantly more likely to attempt suicide. Yet our gender identity is every bit as valid as that of Caitlyn Jenner, or the transgender people who were fortunate enough to transition in their youth or early adulthood. We do the best that we can with our appearance even as many of use long to look different. We may be marginalized, but we are proud. We might be depressed, but we are determined. Society may not see us as the gender with which we identify, but we know within ourselves who and what we are. We do not need divas like Caitlyn Jenner to turn transition into a beauty contest. We resent her trivialization of transgender experience and stridently insist that we are transgender men or women, regardless of how we look. For many of us, her antics have done more damage than good. We already inhabited these shores long before she sailed here from afar. She is the newcomer, not us. Columbus, go back to Spain.