It’s true, Caitlin Jenner is doing a lot for Trans* visibility. However…it’s just extremely disheartening to see that the face of LGBTQIA+ movements is still upper- and upper-middle-class, thin, white, non-disabled, usually monosexual individuals. This is in large part due to the mainstream media, and its large and active role in systemic oppression and perpetuation or reinforcement of systemic oppression—popular media also adheres to/reflects the dominant discourse in society, hegemony, and exclusion displayed by individuals that make up a society and a society itself en masse. The mass media has the ability to continuously and heavily pick and choose which narratives to report and praise, and which narratives to report and condemn.
Of course, her narrative and her visibility are awesome–the way that people have been reacting about/reporting on it is frightening. (Unfortunately, these reactions have not been limited to cisgender, heterosexual reactionaries; I’ve encountered several incidents in which Queer individuals have had the same or very similar reactions.) Everyone needs to hear Jenner’s narrative–but everyone also needs to hear narratives that aren’t the ‘public face’ of our movements; to hear all Trans* narratives lifted up, especially the ones that are uncomfortable, and don’t adhere to dominant culture’s ‘ideal’ of a ‘good’ Trans person.
What is meant by the ‘public face’ of our movements is adherence to and expression of cis-heteronormativity. White, thin, upper- and upper-middle-class, monosexual, non-disabled Queer people do not, in fact, make up the majority of Queer communities; the ‘public face’ of our movements is not a comprehensive representation of us. However, systemic oppression and an ingrained ‘default’ idea of a ‘normal,’ homogenized LGBTQIA+ identified person results in this being the ‘public face’ of our movements. And this is what people are not saying about Caitlin Jenner.
Lavern Cox and Janet Mock–to name only two, as they seem to be currently the most visible in pop culture–both open, wonderful, driven, Trans Women of Color have been doing activism for years upon years, yet up until fairly recently have received little to no recognition or acknowledgment. (Cox now does due to her role on Orange is the New Black, which is awesome, and Mock also does now–though neither receive nearly enough credit for their activism specifically versus other roles they play in the public eye.) Thing is, though, people are listening to Caitlin Jenner more so because of the fact that she is the public’s ‘ideal’ LGBTQIA+ identified/Trans feminine individual. Those people are forgetting the huge social privileges she possesses that has allowed her to be not only heard but to be listened to, and to be visible to the masses.
Jenner is both appropriated and homogenized through and by popular media this way and in that, well, she’s beautiful. That is, conventionally beautiful. Although they shouldn’t, beauty standards contribute to the erasure of Trans* individuals that are not ‘up to par’ with culturally dominant beauty standards. These culturally dominant, often oppressive, beauty standards also contribute to macro- and micro-aggressive violence towards Trans* individuals that do not fit neatly within the set parameters; in this way, too, Jenner gains another kind of homogenous social privilege.
Now, having privilege isn’t inherently a bad thing–that is, as long as one is using the social privileges they possess to create or sustain a dialogue about issues that severely marginalized groups face but may not be able to create or sustain a dialogue about because of that marginalization; to then use that privilege to raise up the voices of marginalized people and groups, not speak over them or for them. And Jenner is, for the most part, using hers to increase Trans* visibility (though she could be doing more).
What most people following Jenner’s transition through the lens of mass media don’t understand when looking at these ‘ideal’ Trans* narratives is that transitioning is wildly expensive. It is wildly difficult emotionally, mentally, and physically. It is something that is rarely able to happen all at once (as appears in Jenner’s case). Some people never transition—some people don’t want to. Not talking about this is creating, perpetuating and spreading misinformation about Trans* individuals and the process of transitioning (which is not always physical), the struggles they face, the representation they lack. Not everyone transitions in the same way: there is no homogenous transition, and Gender Confirmation Surgery is absolutely not the defining factor in transitioning as it is currently being made out to be–nor is adherence to culturally dominant beauty standards any form of defining factor. Jenner’s wealth and establishment in the public eye prior to her transition allowed her to “fully” transition, transition openly, and transition openly without the same dangers many Trans* individuals–especially Trans feminine individuals–face before, during, and after social transitions. (Though she continues to be misgendered by media outlets, condemned, and spoken violently about on the internet, and though she faces myriad other issues that come with being a public figure openly and unabashedly doing anything that deviates from an expected normativity, she does not face the same danger of becoming another statistic.)
Jenner’s established social privilege has allowed her access to an exorbitant amount of things otherwise extremely difficult or fully unavailable to marginalized groups: Trans* individuals of color, Trans* individuals living in poverty, fat Trans* individuals, physically disabled Trans* individuals, neurodivergent Trans* individuals, polysexual Trans* individuals, Trans* individuals that do not fit neatly into cisnormative beauty standards, and Trans* individuals encompassing any combination or all of these traits that are factors of systemic oppression–and more. Jenner’s economic position allowed and allows easy access to Hormone Replacement, body modification surgeries, and emotional therapy that many if not most Queer individuals need but cannot necessarily obtain.
None of these intersections are being discussed, and tokenism seems to be the dominant discourse on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter: comments like “Caitlin Jenner is beautiful!” Which she absolutely is–but that is not, by any means, all she is; she is an Olympian, she is more than what is being reported. All LGBTQIA+ individuals are. However, the traits that make up a person who is marginalized that are beyond the traits that create their marginalization are hardly discussed or even recognized. What is discussed and recognized is the ways in which a given person, such as Caitlin Jenner, fits with dominant culture–not the ways in which a given person deviates from it. Links to articles about Jenner on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are shared rapid-fire with vague positive-leaning comments such as “wow, beautiful,” or worse “way classier than the rest of the Kardashian women,” while still using incorrect pronouns and still referring to her by her dead name. Discussions about Trans* issues or Jenner herself are not sustained or initiated. Underneath the token ‘like’ or ‘share’ or comment, erasure, invisibility, marginalization, discredit, denial, ignorance and skirting of complex issues as a whole remain present and intact–if not strengthened by the tokenism.
Caitlin Jenner is doing a lot for Trans* visibility. Her narrative needs to, and deserves to be heard–but so do the rest of ours. What needs to be seen are Queer narratives that are atypical to the dominant concept of what ‘acceptable LGBTQIA+ people’ (that is, homogenized) are in order to expand visibility beyond that false image and strive to eradicate it completely, since LGBTQIA+ identities transcend class, body type, racialization, economic position, dis/ability, and they won’t ever be limited to or confined by an en mass conception. Representation matters; tokenism contributes to oppression. Dominant society needs to cease treating Caitlin Jenner as a token. Dominant society needs to cease acting as if she speaks for all of us. We need to lift up all the rest of us, too.