a relatable, humanizing champion
April 30, 2015
One of the things I’ve been talking about on twitter since the Caitlyn Jenner1 interview everyone is talking about, is some of the reactions I’m seeing from the trans community. Particularly, white trans women. On seeing my third story that essentially calls Jenner the relatable/human/champion the community needs, I feel like the time has come for a proper blog post about this. Because, well, white trans women are white women and white women have a really long history of silencing, exploiting, coopting, erasing, etc women of colour. White trans women are no different from this.
In another sense, this is going to be a post about celebrity, fame, and (hyper)visibility.
The first story I read was “Jenner Humanizes transgender cause”. This wasn’t written by a white trans woman, but one is attributed as saying “Jenner’s openness humanizes the issue” (the ‘issue’ being trans/gender).
Despite all the hype, [Caitlyn] Jenner has started the transgender community on the road to acceptance.
It has been going on for a considerable time with the stories of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Geena Rocero and so many others, but we have needed a ‘champion’.
Life isn’t as bad for all of us as it has been for Ms. Diamond2, but it’s bad enough, for enough of us, that to call Jenner brave is like praising my cat for all her hard work in curling up on a warm cushion and sleeping all day. It’s not right that we’re so taken with [her], so impressed, when so many others are forgotten or maligned or thrown away to die.
And yet, that’s exactly why [Caitlyn] matters so much. Yes, of course the public should care more about transgender people who aren’t white or famous or rich. But they don’t. That’s human nature. We sympathize better with others we perceive as being like us. For the white, middle-class majority, that’s someone like [Caitlyn] Jenner.
I hope that people are beginning to notice a pattern, here. During the same period as Jenner’s interview, Laverne Cox became the first trans woman to win an Emmy, for her documentary on trans youth. Big deal. Janet Mock also just got interviewed by Oprah. Again, a big deal. Ms. Cox was probably the most ‘famous’ trans woman before Jenner came out… but both her and Ms. Mock have been, as the second story notes, trailblazing for trans people for years now. Importantly, as I noted on twitter yesterday, they’ve done a great deal to educate the mainstream media on how to respectfully interview trans women.
In many ways, their work and selves create the ‘road to acceptance’ that Diane Sparks attributes to Jenner’s coming out.
All of this is deeply important for how the white trans community has been reacting to the interview. These three stories build a fairly clear picture that white trans people have been waiting for any given white trans person to overshadow Ms. Cox, especially.
Now, as I’ve also been saying, this isn’t about Jenner specifically. Part of the problem I have with how the (white) trans community is responding to this is that Jenner is being lauded as a hero, despite not have had the time or opportunity to actually shows us what kind of trans advocate/activist she is planning to be (or if she is planning to do any advocacy at all). We just don’t know. All we know is that she is a white, wealthy, republican trans woman who just came out. That’s it.
And, yet, it is Jenner who is the ‘champion’ who got ‘us’ started on the road to acceptance. She is the person who humanizes trans/gender. She is who the ‘public’ can relate to. This speaks to the general systemic issue that many Black women have to navigate. Jenner literally does nothing but be herself and already is more accomplished and praised than Ms. Mock and Ms. Cox. Their years of advocacy and work? Secondary to Jenner’s mere existence.
All of which is to say “Black trans women aren’t human” and/or “trans women of colour aren’t human”. This is what is fundamentally being communicated by this framing of Jenner’s interview. Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Geena Rocero are not champions, despite literally being the path Jenner (and these white woman) walk on. Janet Mock obviously cannot ‘humanize’ trans/gender despite having written a personal and beautifully written best-selling memoir. Laverne Cox also cannot humanize trans/gender despite how she talks about she isn’t reliably coded as a woman or her insecurity about her body and beauty. And these things can’t be related to by the ‘public’, so long as this ‘public’ is understood to represent the default cis, white, middle class human.
Part of the problem is ‘audience’ and/or ‘public’. Maybe trans people can relate to Ms. Cox and Ms. Mock, but cis people can’t.
But, of course, the notion that a wealthy, white, conservative is more humanizing, relatable, and a champion compared to (hyper)visible Black trans women isn’t something that a lot of people seem ready to explore. But also how these white trans women project onto the public how they perceive the interview. By their own framing, they are not the ‘public’ as trans women. And so, because they find Jenner more human, relatable, and champion-material, thus so must the cis, middle class, white ‘public’.
I also pointed out on twitter that the reason I care about this, is because of how history is currently being written. With Jenner’s interview being placed on the same level of historical significance as Elle’s coming out, we are currently in the middle of history being re/written. This is just the beginning. From this point on, regardless of Laverne Cox’s 2014 TIME magazine cover with the headline “The transgender tipping point” (already being appropriated to talk about Jenner’s interview), Jenner’s interview will be treated as the ‘tipping point’ for trans ‘rights’.
Within a week of the interview, we are already seeing how white trans women are working to diminish and erase the monumentally important role that Black trans women and/or trans women of colour have had in reshaping modern transgender discourse. This is exactly what white revisionism looks like. And, sadly, I know that this one blog post and my recent tweets won’t make much of a difference. White supremacy is a powerful thing and, regardless of Jenner’s own actions, it has an important investment in her and how the trans community perceives her.