Opinion: Caitlyn Jenner’s Role in the Campaign for Trans Equality

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June 4, 2015
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June 8, 2015

Opinion: Caitlyn Jenner’s Role in the Campaign for Trans Equality

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Six weeks after her coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer we now have the authentic Jenner for the world to see – Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair. Her boudoir cover girl pose set a new record for the Twitterverse, generating more new followers per unit time than anyone before her, including President Obama. Clearly she knows how to market herself well.

Dr. Dana Beyer, Tagg Magazine

Dr. Dana Beyer

There’s been a lot of chatter in the trans community about this coming-out event, with many vociferously defending her right to do it her way. I agree – none of us gets a veto, and few have any input at all. I imagine many of us would kill to be shot by Annie Leibovitz, and it’s hard to begrudge an American icon that privilege.

Where we can weigh in, though, is on the potential consequences of her actions. She humbly stated in April that she is not a spokesperson for the trans community, and that she hopes she can make a positive contribution. Like it or not, however, she is now the world’s most recognizable trans woman, with no one else close in second place. That stature brings with it a great responsibility.

My concern, and my disappointment with her coming-out profile, was her doing so in a boudoir pose. Yes, she’s gorgeous. Not bad for an old lady, and we should all look as good, whatever our personal definition of beauty may be, when we obtain our Medicare cards. But she could have, as the professional she is, presented herself in a manner that not only slid in too smoothly with the sexual objectification of the American woman, but that opens her, and by extension the rest of us, to the claim that she’s playing out an erotic fantasy.

There are those, such as Drs. Michael Bailey and Ray Blanchard, about whom I’ve recently written in my Huffington Post column, who believe just that. This presentation, even when it succeeds as a marketing bonanza, plays right into their hands. We saw the pre-transition Bruce Jenner back in April; now in June we’re treated to a sex kitten.

This is not to say that trans women aren’t sexual beings with erotic feelings. Just as the gay community needed to bury their sexuality to present the full spectrum of the complexity of gay men and women, so have trans women needed to subsume our sexuality to change the terms of the debate. Cisgender straight men and women have never had the same problem, though as I pointed out all women have to deal with oversexualization and objectification. Keeping in mind that not only is Caitlyn a woman but she is a part of the greater community of women whom might bring sufficient understanding to her to consider the larger ramifications next time.

When trans persons were finally included in the consideration of sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I proudly stated that I was no longer a fourth class citizen, though I remained a second class one with all my sisters. However important the battles against transmisogyny are, they are only a small part of the still overwhelming misogyny prevalent in American culture.

We’ve seen the same self-centeredness when a group of trans men demanded that women’s reproductive rights groups amend their language to exclude “women” in order to be more inclusive, ignoring the far greater impact on the reproductive autonomy and health of women. Similarly we’ve had some trans men trying to change the language used by women’s colleges, even though they arguably, as self-identified men, shouldn’t have been accepted in the first place particularly when many of those women’s schools hadn’t even been willing to accept trans women at that time.

It has been said that Jenner is white, privileged, Christian, Republican, wealthy and old, which disqualifies her for this role. Clearly she can’t easily relate to those who don’t have her blessings, but at the end of the day the best she can be is herself. Truly recognizing that her needs take priority only when she’s out of the public eye is critical, and that the leadership that is being thrust upon her by her public persona necessitates full consideration for all those less fortunate whenever she speaks out. I can only hope that she has at least one confidant who can assist her as she ventures forward.

 

Dr. Dana Beyer is the Executive Director for Gender Rights Maryland, and writes a weekly column for the Huffington Post.

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