Justice

'I Am Cait' Tackles a Major Part of Transitioning

Saying "we" can be incredibly difficult and frightening—especially when that "we" is a marginalized community that is often poorly understood, discriminated against, and at a far greater risk of an untimely, violent death than almost everyone else around them. Although Caitlyn Jenner has made a big splash as a trans celebrity in the news, by counting the number of trans women who have been mentioned in the media this year—Lamia Beard, India Clarke, and Yazmin Vash Payne are only a handful of those lost to violence—Jenner is an anomaly who beat the statistics and is instead celebrated.

The identification involved in "we" is a search for similarity beyond the difference. Who wants to be the same as someone who is more likely to be a victim of homicide, more likely to live in poverty and more likely to experience housing or job discrimination? This is the main question that Jenner confronts in Sunday's episode of "I Am Cait," the fifth installment in the E! docu-series. It's a big one, and it's not easy.

Pivotal moments for Cait

One of the trans posse's field trips in this installment is to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's (GLAAD) offices in Los Angeles. It's there that Jenner seizes on perhaps the two most important lines in Sunday's show, making dual proclamations about other transgender people:

"They're all just so damn normal."
"They're not freaks."

Glad you think so, Cait.

After the second statement, trans BFF Candis Cayne corrects Jenner, kindly saying, "We're not freaks," before an aside with the camera in which she wonders if Jenner is having trouble identifying with other transgender people "because she's been on the outside looking in" for so long. At other times, the implicit question seems to be whether Jenner's privilege is distancing her from the larger community. Cayne is searching for answers as to why Jenner is unable to identify verbally with the community, and it's not the first time this has been brought up on the show.

Although Cayne brings up a fair point, I think the reason that Jenner is having trouble verbally identifying with the community is that it's hard to knowingly place yourself in company that's so marginalized. Saying "we" in relation to those she's met on the show means that what's happened to them can happen to her, too. That's enough for anyone to pretend there's more distance. On top of that there's the layers of shame and stigma attached to being trans—it's called internalized transphobia—and just because someone has transitioned does not mean that they've moved beyond it's reach. It may be hard to understand, but each trans person faces their own struggles with words, actions, and even laws, including the recent spat of so-called bathroom bills, as we make transition a part of our personal story.

Even celebrities internalize transphobia

When Jenner made those two statements on her TV show on Sunday night, it could have been distancing. For me as a fellow transgender person, it was ironically the closest that I've felt to Jenner during the show.

Stories of our death or our struggle often outweigh features of our lives and our non-transition related triumphs in the media. It can have a very flattening effect. We're a two dimensional bunch most of the time, either interesting for our gender transition or pitied because of our treatment (or reviled as monsters). Whereas being as gay has become a facet of someone's identity and not enough to carry an entire character—just look at the criticism of HBO's "Looking" and why the network pulled the plug—being trans can be the whole of who we are.

I remember when I first started seriously considering transitioning. I was attending a women's college in Southern California. In my day-to-day public life, I was incredibly femme for perhaps the same reason that I chose to attend a women's college; I was trying hard to make my birth gender work. In fact, I was femme enough that when I shopped in the men's section of Macy's, the people who worked there came over and gently directed me to the "right part" of the store.

Despite that there are fewer social restrictions on women wearing male-gendered clothing, I was still cautious and fearful. I only went out at night dressed like a man, and I only went solo. I wasn't just afraid of the questions that might arise among friends; I was terrified of being labeled as transgender and what that would mean. It was okay for other people, but not something that I wanted to be seen as myself. I wasn't ready to challenge myself to look beyond the stigma for anything positive; I had absorbed too much shame.

So when Jenner spoke about "sneaking around," I empathized. When she responded to the idea of attending New York City Pride by saying, "I've never been that out and that exposed in my life," I understood.

 

The most. @caitlynjenner for @jaredneedle #pride

A photo posted by Mark Silver (@markmasonsilver) on


The uniqueness of Jenner's story shouldn't be lost on us. She has led one of the most exposed lives on television as a part of the Kardashian empire, but this is a different kind of exposure, one that can be a direct pipeline to a loss of privilege and a change in status in all aspects of a person's life. (Although some privilege can be gained, too. I'm seen in the world as a white male now that I've transitioned.) Once the trans door is opened, it's not possible to fully close it again.

But that's not the whole story

Jenner has a day-to-day experience of transphobia, both reflected back at her from the world and coming from within. But what's not discussed in this episode is perhaps just as important as what is.

Chandi Moore points to this while they enjoy a meal out at an undisclosed location on the coast midway through the episode. She asks Jenner if she's starting to "feel like part of the community" and if she thinks that her experience of being trans would be different without the handlers and the security running interference.

Yes, obviously it would.

What we see in "I Am Cait" so far is Jenner's personal experience of transphobia, including the internal struggle to find identification in something often seen as such a negative, which can continue long past medical or social gender transition. But what we miss greatly in "I Am Cait" is the systemic experience of discrimination—not the stories about what happens, which Jenner and camera crew are there to witness, but the actual events themselves. Jenner is with the community to hear the stories of others, but not within the community to experience the discrimination itself.

This could have been accomplished on the trip to New York City or to San Francisco. Flying on a plane? Let's talk about the experience of most transgender people as they go through airport security. Even purchasing plane tickets can be an ordeal, since TSA now requires a legal gender at the time of booking which may not match your gender presentation while you travel.

Instead, we get a sanitized slice of transgender life. They fly on a private jet, without any of the indignities usually suffered traveling while trans. We also don't see other moments of interaction with 'the system' on the show, for example, going to the DMV to get gender markers on a license updated, which often involve horrible displays of transphobia for transgender people.

We're in the bubble of celebrity with Jenner, riding around in the back of a black Escalade with tinted windows, even when it feels like the view that the show depicts is authentic.

Celebrity and industry media miss this frequently, too. Outside of the show, outlets are reporting that Jenner may be sent to jail for a year for manslaughter charges resulting from last year's auto accident fatality. But will she go to a women's jail, if sentenced—or more likely to a men's jail? No one is asking. The realities of trans experience on a systemic level remain undiscussed and unquestioned.

It's not that I'm unhappy that Jenner's experience has been largely positive or that I'm hoping that she will experience overt discrimination. But it's not a stretch to say that if "I Am Cait" took small steps to position Jenner out in the world, these bumps and scrapes would happen eventually. And I think the show would be better for it.

As actress Laverne Cox said in a 2011 piece about transphobia, both internal and external, "Sometimes I just want to take a break from being transgender." But once that door is open, it doesn't close and you don't get a break. Even for those that pass as cisgender out in the world, the knowledge of difference and what that difference could mean stays with you. That break will only come when we stop needing to hide in the first place.