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.
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.
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.
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.