There’s Something About Caitlyn

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or on a social media fast these past couple of weeks, you’ve undoubtedly seen the pictures of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. No surprise that she appears in the June issue, the same month that celebrates lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride.

These are, of course, the first public photographs of Ms. Jenner since March 15, when she underwent facial-feminization surgery as part of her gender transition process. Olympic medalist and former Kardashian patriarch Bruce Jenner is now living her life as a woman.

The pictures, taken by famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, are stunning. Accompanying a 22-page interview that chronicles Ms. Jenner’s lifelong struggle with her gender identity, those images portray her in a way that no one expected: as a beautiful Hollywood starlet who looks not unlike actress Jessica Lange or former supermodel Janice Dickenson. Caitlyn is now the cover girl for many transgendered individuals, providing a very public face to an often ridiculed, stigmatized and maligned group.

Sadly but not unexpectedly, public reaction to the photos has been mixed. While many people have written, recorded, posted and tweeted messages of support, a few others have been less kind. Controversial pundit Bill O’Reilly and others who appear on the conservative Fox News network, for example, were quick to fire off all sorts of derisive comments and make numerous transphobic jokes. Similarly, former Arkansas governor and Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told a campaign crowd that he’d wished he’d found his transgender side in high school so that he “could have used the showers in the girls’ locker room.”

Despite dismissive, mocking and even hostile comments like these, this open and largely public discussion of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition is, mostly, a good thing. Until recently, the transgender community was largely relegated to the margins of American society.

The actual number of transgendered people living in the US is still largely unknown. This is in part because most surveys of LGBT individuals ask about sexual orientation rather than gender identity, and in part because many transgendered people still live their lives in the shadows because of the stigma and discrimination that they would otherwise face.

Only a few states have laws that protect the rights of transgendered men and women. Most live in areas of the country where they can be fired from their jobs or denied housing simply because of who they are, resulting rates of unemployment and poverty that are nearly four times the national average. They can also be denied access to the basic services that many of us take for granted, including medical care, dental care, service in shops and restaurants, and even the use of public restrooms.

Worse yet, as the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found, transgender men and women experience epidemic rates of violence and assault. All most transgendered people have been verbally assaulted, more that half have been physically beaten, and over a quarter have been raped. No surprise then that the transgendered community has some of the highest rates of alcoholism, substance use, depression and suicide.

Caitlyn could help change that. By joining other transgendered individuals in the public limelight — such as Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox and musician Chaz Bono — Ms. Jenner provides yet one more positive role model for closeted transgendered individuals. She may even inspire some of them to “come out.”

She may also encourage many Americans to reconsider their open hostility to the transgendered community. We need to start recognizing and respecting the rights and dignity of our transgendered brothers and sisters, rather than proposing and passing local and state ordinances that allow discrimination against members of the LGB and particularly T community under the banner of religious freedom and family values.

That said, I want to caution us all against thinking that Ms. Jenner’s experience is typical. It’s not. Her story is not representative of the challenges and barriers that most transgendered individuals face. As Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, recently commented, “Any time someone is able to live fully and safely as their authentic self, it is a beautiful thing that we should celebrate. We can celebrate, though, while recognizing that Caitlyn’s experience is dramatically different from that of most transgender people.”

Caitlyn’s (nee Bruce’s) celebrity — extending many decades into the past as an Olympian, actor, spokesman and most recently as a reality television star — gives her a level of cachet and prestige that most people (transgendered or not) lack. She lives a life of privilege. She will never experience, for example, the challenges in finding employment and housing that the majority of transgendered people face.

She similarly has the money to access medical treatments and resources that allow her to live as a woman while meeting socially-established stereotypes of femininity, as evidenced by the numerous comments on her newfound beauty. Thanks to her wealth and celebrity status, Ms. Jenner is largely insulated from the insidious discrimination and harassment that other transgendered men and women deal with on a daily basis.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t, as Mr. Hayashi of the Transgender Law Center suggests, “celebrate” Caitlyn’s transition. We should, and we should encourage others like her to live openly and without fear. But the way to do that is not to remark on Ms. Jenner’s beauty or to talk about our love of the hit TV show Transparent.

Rather, we need to have an honest and public dialogue about what it means to be transgendered in America, and take a long hard look at our preconceptions and our prejudices towards those who struggle with gender identity. Only then can we achieve the social and political change that will allow people like Caitlyn to flourish.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on June 4, 2015, and is available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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