Caitlyn Jenner has a Vanity Fair cover and a reality show - other transgender women are unemployed, imprisoned, or dead

The transgender community is in a moment of great visibility, but this has to translate into substantial change

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Caitlyn Jenner’s arrival was a stunning and courageous debut. Coming out as transgender and living your authentic self is commendable and brave. But her experience should not mask the nuance and complexity of the transgender experience.

It’s likely that Jenner had the best team of doctors and therapists that money could buy. She has a supportive family and access to large mainstream media platforms that gave her the space to tell her story and tug at the heartstrings of millions. As a person who lived the majority of her life as a rich white person, along with a lifetime of economic empowerment emboldened by the social acceptance that fame and adoration affords, she is the exception but far from the standard (a circumstance which Caitlyn herself has rightfully acknowledged).

Transgender Americans are four times more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the population. A staggering number of transgender people are unemployed because workplace discrimination is rampant and heartbreaking. I personally know several brilliant and talented transgender people who either can’t find work or have left their careers because of severe harassment or threats of violence. 

There are still significant barriers to gender-affirming healthcare, and those who can’t access private insurance because of unemployment fair even worse. When trans people are denied the basic medical care we need to be our healthiest and most authentic selves, it implies that our humanity is of no value. This is just one of the struggles transgender and gender non-conforming people face worldwide.

The devaluing of transgender people’s humanity, or the attempt to deny our right to exist is the catalyst to excessive violence. Black and Latino Trans women in particular are being murdered at an alarming rate. Eight transgender women have been killed this year in the U.S. alone and, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, over 1700 transgender people in 62 countries have been murdered in the last seven years. But the real figure may well be higher, since this only counts those who were given the decency of being rightly identified as their lived gender at the time of their murder.

This statistic also doesn’t include the countless transgender people who have died due to complications from botched surgeries or under-the-counter hormones, or those who were forced to neglect their healthcare because of lack of access, humiliation and alienation. Transgender women also find themselves forced into sex work to survive, then are wrongfully locked away in men’s prisons to be brutally violated or isolated for months at a time. For these women, a Vanity Fair cover, Diane Sawyer, and hit reality shows are a fantasy at best. 

The transgender community has made significant strides in advancing our place in society. More and more trans folks are coming out of the shadows and the closet full of hope and without fear. Marsha P Johnson, Silvia Rivera and Miss Major — all transgender women of color — are the founding matriarchs of the modern transgender movements. They stood tall for trans and gender nonconforming people before most others had the courage to do so.

It’s because of these women that we have so many amazing advocates and “possibility models,” as Laverne Cox has said. The transgender community is in a moment of great visibility and momentum, but this visibility has to translate into substantial change. We also have to be very careful not to ignore the plurality of the transgender experience, misrepresenting it as something that is all privilege and glamour while denying the struggles and overlooking the efforts of all of those people who will never be on a magazine cover and whose names we may never know.

I applaud Caitlyn for her strength and willingness to share her journey with the world.  I only hope that her story will make us all pivot towards better awareness of the global transgender community, which allows us to pay homage to those who gave their life for us to celebrate these moments.