Being trans in the age of Caitlyn Jenner can feel an awful lot like being British on a visit to small-town America: you’re assumed to know a lot more than you do. Those same kinds of questions: “Hey, my cousin Gary, he lives in England now – do you know him?” turn into “Oh, you’re trans – like Caitlyn Jenner?” She’s become such a touchstone of trans reference, included as a lead-in or illustrative point in articles on everything from trans spouses to changes in gender-neutral language, that it’s hard to remember it’s only been a year since that Vanity Fair reveal.
I’ve heard her called a trans icon and a trans ambassador by cis people. People I’ve just met want to ask me about her: has she made things better? Is how she feels about herself how I feel about myself? Do I approve of her decisions? Do I find her inspirational? How would I tell my story, in light of hers?
I’ll confess: I barely knew who Caitlyn Jenner was before her coming-out moment. Initially, after that announcement, I didn’t see how that would change. But the constant media attention of the last year has made clearer so many of the questions I had before that moment, about what it means to be trans and in the public eye, and about which changes need to take place.
If I had to choose one word to describe the trans reaction to Caitlyn Jenner it would be "exhausted". I’m exhausted at the way in which one hyper-privileged celebrity is held up as representative of multiple and varied communities – it’s as ridiculous as if Kim Kardashian was used to represent all cis women. I’m exhausted at the ways in which trans women are tarred as frivolous and self-serving, because Caitlyn Jenner, a reality-TV show star, sometimes demonstrates those traits. I’m exhausted, as US activist Monica Roberts highlights, by the way that Caitlyn Jenner ignores the work of countless extraordinary trans people, particularly trans women of colour, in favour of collaborations with trans people who will reflect well on her.
But mostly I’m exhausted by the popular transition narrative and its concurrent message of "visibility", of which Caitlyn Jenner’s Annie Liebovitz photoshoot might be the shining example. Other activists have already critiqued the idea that increased visibility will translate into increased safety – Jos Truitt’s piece for The Nation is a must-read on the subject. That’s one, crucial part of the story. The other is that the story itself is getting tired – and that it’s failing to do justice to the complexity and nuance of trans people’s lives.
Come out, physically transition, physically transition as quickly as possible, as overtly as possible, relate the process with obvious "before" and "after" photographs, define your life in two sections: every trans person knows the script, and Caitlyn Jenner has turned it into an art form. But, for all the talk of the "transgender tipping point", the self-congratulatory ways in which we pride ourselves on our "unprecedented" moment of trans visibility, this way of presenting trans people is old news.
In the 1950s Christine Jorgensen, presented by publicists as the GI Joe-turned-blonde-Barbie, exploited this genre to the hilt, making her fame and fortune in the process. News of her transition garnered more press attention than coverage of the new polio vaccine, and a tell-all story was followed by an autobiography and a movie.
Long before that, Karl M Baer, a patient of pioneering doctor Magnus Hirschfield, turned the story of his transition into the 1907 book Man’s Memories of Maidenhood. That book was later turned into a 1919 silent movie, destroyed during the Second World War.
A description of the struggle of knowing, graphic descriptions of the process of physical transition, an account of how right it feels to be authentic: every trans person knows how this narrative goes. When done well, it can change lives for the better, but when done badly, or without consent, it can ruin them. But it has been the dominant narrative for more than a century – and we deserve something new, something better.
"Visibility" of this process of transition, seen from the outside, without journalism or art that investigates the daily lives of trans people, does very little to advance our human rights. Visibility is a tool to be wielded, not an end in itself.
Trans people are far more than just those points of coming out, of seeking medical treatment, of being accepted or rejected afterwards. Our lives contain so much more variety, greater sufferings, and more incredible insights. I don’t want another story of a celebrity realising that they’re trans – I want to hear about the people working for gender justice and freedom of expression across the world. I want to hear about the trans nurses, teachers, tube drivers, musicians – grandparents and parents and children – people of all genders, and all ways of being trans. And I want to know what it is that I can do to help them, and to help myself.
I want the media to take the training wheels off the way they cover trans stories. We are more interesting, and more necessary, than the Caitlyn Jenner narrative.Reuse content