Stop Blaming Caitlyn For Our Unwillingness to Organize

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By now you’ve probably heard the fallout from Caitlyn Jenner’s interview with Time magazine. She was taken to task by the transgender community for, among other remarks, saying that “if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.” I’m not going to address whether she should or shouldn’t have said that. Too much has been written about that elsewhere. Even Jenner herself has weighed in, apologizing on her website for having “still so much to learn.”

Instead, I want to zero in on the eagerness of transgender people to evaluate Jenner’s suitability as our spokesperson.

Sure, it would be amazing if she took on that role. Heaven knows, we need one, in the face of assaults on our rights, denial of our identities, refusal to provide us needed medical care, and the lies, hate, and misinformation spread about us.

Just as it would be wonderful if our doctor could also give us tax advice when we came for a check-up, if the guy who reads the gas meter would also mulch the garden when he comes by, and our mechanic would throw in a shampoo and cut with every oil change.

But those aren’t their jobs.

Just as being a spokesperson is not Caitlyn Jenner’s job, far from it. She is a reality television star. Her job is to get people to watch her TV show and to entertain those who do, so that they’ll keep watching. She gets paid handsomely. I don’t begrudge her that income. She is providing a valuable service for the TV channel that runs episodes of her show by bringing in viewers.

However, expecting her to do some other job, being a spokesperson for the trans community for example, is optimistic to the point of being unrealistic. The E! channel is not paying her to be a spokesperson, and neither is anyone else, so what makes us think we can not only demand she do that job but also expect her to do it to our specifications?

Perhaps the problem is that we don’t really have any spokespeople. The most successful rights movements in history had individuals they chose to speak for them. The civil rights movement had a host of leaders, the most prominent being Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Betty Friedan, first president of the National Organization of Women

Betty Friedan, first president of the National Organization of Women

The women’s movement had a similar abundance, including Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Even migrant farmworkers, a far more fragmented, more transient, and more economically disadvantaged community than ours, found Cesar Chavez to carry their banner and bring about reforms.

Mara-Keisling

Mara Keisling, head of the National Center for Transgender Equality

As I noted above, our community would strongly benefit from leadership to help bring about legal, medical, and cultural change. The level of leadership that can command national attention has been lacking. There is a National Center for Transgender Equality, headed by Mara Keisling, but Keisling doesn’t seek the limelight. On the NCTE’s website, staff is listed alphabetically, for example, so Keisling’s name and picture shows up among the K’s. Occasionally you’ll see her interviewed for some news article or as a guest on some informational show, but she could hardly be said to have the profile of a major civil rights leader.

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox

Instead, the faces of transgender, those on whom the task falls to educate the world about who we are and why change is needed, are typically entertainers. Jenner, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox, and teen star Jazz Jennings are among those who’ve made their voices heard. Their paid jobs in no way include being spokespeople for the trans community. They earn money if people watch their television shows, they are out of a job if they don’t. Their public appearances need to be geared in that direction. If they choose to represent us and our causes, that’s purely an extra thrown in on their own, out of the goodness of their hearts..

The root cause of the problem is that trans people have been remiss at establishing and supporting analogous organizations to the NAACP and the National Organization of Women. We contented ourselves in the past to allow medical practitioners who treat transgender people to speak for us, such as Harry Benjamin and John Money. This had the disastrous effect of accustoming the public and the media to relying on them and not us for accurate information. They were replaced by the likes of Paul McHugh and Ray Blanchard who did not have our best interests at heart and who had the arrogance to believe they could accurately speak our truth. Our trust in them ushered in a Dark Age for transgender people that took us all the way through the 1980s and 1990s. We are only now emerging from it and its shadow still hangs over some cultures and institutions. Those medical practitioners have finally been replaced by a new generations of surrogate spokespeople, transgender celebrities and entertainers. Don’t get me wrong, having our truth spoken by actual transgender people, however unrepresentative, is a marked improvement over the cisgender scientists and doctors whom we have allowed to do it for decades. But they in are in no way qualified to be our voice nor are they accountable to us.. They have not studied the length and breadth of the issues facing our community. They can’t claim to speak for anyone but themselves, unlike the civil rights icons of generations past who owed their prominence to support by organizations made up of the very people they represented.

Do we need such organizations? Should there be an institution that does for us what the National Organization of Women did for the women’s movement or the NAACP did for civil rights? One could argue their absence is itself an answer. If transgender people thought such an institution was important, one would have long since been created and the trans community would be lined up behind it. But because we haven’t done that, the media is on their own to choose which voices to amplify into authorities on being trans, and we lose our right to complain if the message or the messenger is not as we would have chosen.

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About Author

Suzi Chase writes about transgender issues through both fiction and non-fiction. She has had careers in teaching and software engineering and has raised two children.

14 Comments

  1. I don’t believe it is fair for people to keep attacking her. It’s her journey. I do believe that she should be careful with her words considering that she is a celebrity and has a strong platform from which to speak. She most certainly isn’t responsible for our communities unwillingness to stand united and be more organized. That having been said, I don’t feel that anyone should believe that she is the trans messiah. She’s in transition like the rest of us. I say that because I’m not sure the transition ever really ends. Some of the best things take a lifetime to achieve. I don’t know all the answers. I do like being a student, however. Happy Holidays!

  2. There is also a bit of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Some people are upset that Cait is a Republican.

    This from a community that preaches about diversity and inclusion.

    Yes, there are MANY forces in the Republican party who are against us, but there are many who support us as well, sometimes silently, sometimes not so silently.

    Our cause needs to be one of medical science and the human condition, not a cheap way to score political points with any political party.

    Democrats once supported slavery. They were for segregation. They were even against same sex marriage. They came around. Trust me, if we get numbers we can get the GOP to come around too. And it’s beneficial because the pendulum will never stay in one party’s corner forever.

    This is why we need people like Caitlyn. Yes, she puts her foot in her mouth a lot of times, but we need to support her and show her the way, not condemn her for being bigoted when she is simply ignorant.

  3. *

    Yes. I respect Caitlyn Jenner’s right to speak her peace and I eagerly read her story as well as any others’ stories such as you who post here at ‘Susan’s’. We all travel our own journey as individuals.

    No, not now do I consider Jenner a representative of any community. If she chooses to work for such a moniker, that is her right. If she earns it in my eyes, then I can accept it.

    For now, Jenner has quite a long way to go.

    Certainly she is not the cash machine for every group that comes along, but I consider it something of a continued learning experience she will require when she comes upon an organisation whose $10.000 budget means everything in the world to them yet pocket change to her.

    There are many people out here in the real world who can’t afford medicine, counselling, or medical services; I’d like to know what Jenner can do to resolve such inequities. If she persists her position as a loyal Republican whose own Party opposes transsexual civil rights, universal medical, and other such programs, then she drops a notch or two on my list.

    *

    • Why do people have to mention Jenners wealth and that some people are not so lucky. She worked her butt off to be where she is in terms of her employment. Her wealth was not handed to her and she had lean years during her lifetime as many people do.
      People with loads of money are not obliged to raise up those who have less.
      How is Jenner going to be the person who resolves these things? Is she a law maker?
      She is an entertainer and always has been, including when she was an olympian.
      She’s a Republican…so what. Don’t blame her political leanings for other people being denied anything at all.
      She isn’t a spokes person either, she is just someone the news media is paying attention to but it wont last much longer. Just wait and see. Her show will eventually drop in ratings as so many reality shows before have.
      In my life as a trans person, Caitlyn Jenner is irrelevant

  4. Let Caitlyn speak for “herself” and not others! Plus her ” private” journey is her own and the whole world may not want to hear about it! She has the option to set up her ” paid lectures, discussions, or whatever she wants to call her “teaching” moments while she gathers her paycheck at the door for speaking! How is she supporting our our youth with positive words ? Photo shoots, interview after interview, I have not seen the positive transgender message from Caitlyn yet ? All I see is wealthy woman flaunting her body and money! So much that will do for GENDA and HUMAN RIGHTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. I have maintained for years that transgender people need to speak for themselves. We’ve been thrown under the bus too many times by organizations who are supposedly representing us. I understand why some trans people are stealth but that’s not an option for me. We need to organize, find a few things that we all agree on and work on the goals.

  6. If anyone is wondering where this ends, just look to Magic Johnson’s foray into being a spokesperson for AIDS just because he was famous and had it. He was terribly unqualified and did much more damage than good. The hopes and expectations were high and he failed to meet them in spectacular fashion.

  7. Thank you Suzi. I appreciate your clear thinking and distinction regarding what someone’s role or job is. I also regard your essay as laying down a challenge to our community. How important is the truth and visibility for us in being part of a desperately needed sea change for our civil rights???

    While a national effort is needed, I am still in the “think globally and act locally” place. Having recently run for and lost a national collegiate political office the rewards and dumps of national affairs is daunting. And then new heroes come along every day.

    If not now, when? If not you and I then who?

  8. Stephanie Hallberg on

    USA should look at England and Sweden.
    In Sweden, the trans programme consist of steps.
    first of evaluation by psychiatrist and remiss written to approve of further checkups.
    Thereby follow meetings with social worker, psychiatrist and doctor, like tests, Blood samples and mental stability.
    if you finish all this your doctor writes a comfirmation letter that you’re transsexual and medical treatment starts,
    You visit hospital that gives you voice training (looped), hair removal (laser, Ipl) and hormones for a year, and you also suppose to live outside like yourself. Wearing the right clothes. When this year finishes you are given a new person number , so no one can find out about your past . you also start the last part – surgical – if you wish to – like breast augment ion, remove Adam’s apple and the Operation.

    almost all is covered by Swedish Goverment, you pay none for the surgical procedures . And they are committed by professionals, real professionals in transsexual area. Similar to dr. chettawut and dr. Supron.

    and all hormonal drugs is covered by receipts at drugstore.

    • Not really sure what you’re getting at, Stephanie. I’m not seeing how this pertains to expecting KJ to be a spokesperson for our community.

      While it sounds like you’re looking at Sweden’s process favorably, I don’t see it as a positive that cisgender people who have no clue what it is like to be trans are dictating what hoops we have to jump through in order for them to deem us worthy of care. Patronizing and paternalistic.

      Or maybe that’s what you’re trying to say. If we had spokespeople and organizations to make our voices heard, the system would stop treating us like children?

  9. I guess I thought it was NTCE’s job to organize us. I love what Mara has done. Things are so much better now in Washington then the were just a few years ago. Maybe we need to get after them to get out there and organize us. LOL

    Vickie

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