Why I don’t want to talk about Caitlyn Jenner
The irony of this piece of writing isn’t lost on me. But as possibly the most visible and discussed transgender person ever, it’s practically impossible to be engaged with transgender scholarship and activism without acknowledging that she has influenced the conversations that are being had.
When I wrote about Caitlyn’s coming out last year, there were two points about the future I was keen to see pan out. The first was that her reality TV foothold gave her a valuable platform despite not becoming a well-informed activist overnight. The second was hoping that she inspired more and better quality allyship. The latter point is unquantifiable, and I remain hopeful that this is the case (although this is the direct the world is slowly moving in anyway). The former… well, it’s time to review.
It’s timely, as the premier of the second season of I am Cait, and it’s fair to say that Jenner is clearly willing to engage with members of the trans community beyond her political position as a conservative Republican. The inclusion of Kate Bornstein is a delight for many, as her books Gender Outlaw and Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation among others have embraced and supported a diverse cross-section of the trans community.
As Jenny Boylan put it “The Ingenious, Subversive thing is, @IAmCait is not actually about her”. Productive dialogue between left and right wing people is incredibly hard to foster, because no-one wants to change their mind. Everyone holds their views because they feel they are right, or better, or most useful. Stepping out of the echo chamber is hard. I can definitely imagine commenting more on this show, because there seems to be an emphasis on growth through conversation.
Jenner’s own position however – she’s quite recently declared extremist right wing presidential candidate Ted Cruz as “very nice”, and wants to be his ‘trans ambassador’. This is despite the fact that Ted Cruz views the support of trans students as “lunacy”, and that a trans student using a space “inflicts” them on others using that space. Cruz also has associations with Kevin Swanson, an extremist pastor advocating that gay people be put to death, and has associated himself with the support of extremist anti-abortionists who are associated with murder and attempted bombing.
Brynne Tannehill has given an excellent reasoning for Jenner’s seeming ability to doublethink away Cruz’s bigotry. She articulates how conservative trans people such as Jenner:
don’t have skin in the game. They were ultra-conservative before transition, and remained so after transition because a Cruz presidency doesn’t endanger them personally. They live in safe places, with a safe income.
escape cognitive dissonance in a lot of ways. They don’t believe that Ted Cruz would do all the horrible things he and the FRC have promised to do. They believe that the most important thing to transgender people is “a good economy” that gives us more job opportunities. They claim to be “looking at the bigger picture,” or say that “I’m not a single issue voter,” with an implication of moral and intellectual superiority.
Tannehill explains how polemical anti-left understandings of Democrat policy lead them to the conclusion that they would be better off under Cruz. For those who are literal millionaires, in terms of taxation, they may well be right. But even if we ignore the tired discussion that illustrates how right wing economic policies favour businesses and the wealthy, Jenner fails to recognise how:
Ted Cruz has promised to force the world’s largest employer of transgender people (the DoD) to hunt down and fire all of its transgender employees. Never mind that if the FRC’s plan is implemented, transgender people would not have access to correct government ID. Nor would they have legal recourse when discriminated against in employment. Nor when refused service, nor when tormented by religiously motivated co-workers, nor when school administrators can legally refuse to provide an education to transgender students.
This would obviously hit poorer trans people, trans people of colour, disabled trans people the hardest. Caitlyn has wealth, glamour, and a platform – but her lived experience doesn’t bring much to the table. She doesn’t have experiences of marginalisation that have sharpened her consideration of social issues, nor is she a scholar. She has said how she would have “all my girls to advise him” – she might be able to wield the social capital to protect those near and dear to her, but what about everyone else? In my article last year, I quoted S. Bear Bergman postulating “wondering who else should get 2 hrs on prime time TV?” Innumerable trans people with a spectacular range of stories and expertise to share come to mind, some have appeared on TV, some have not. I would find it alarming if anyone with the platform of Jenner were to normalise a radical, hateful extremist such as Cruz, despite the potential laudability of what she might be trying to do through her show.
To be clear, I applaud attempts by Jenner to engage outside of a conservative echo chamber. So why don’t I want to talk about her anymore? Because she’s not who we should be listening to. Some of her friends, and her critics, and the community she wants to represent, are.