It’s too easy to say she knows not what she does. Caitlyn Jenner has come to be known as much for a litany of missteps as her record of athletic heroism. She’s also terrified of them, as much a child of image as of privilege, evident in her confession that she worried terribly about tripping over her skirt at her first appearance as Caitlyn at the ESPY Awards in 2015. She worried about leaving a first impression of being a dumb klutz, resulting in a public perception of ineptitude as a qua-transgender trait.1
Many of us perceive Caitlyn as someone who has done much worse than falling onstage. Some have even issued some heated damnation like this one from Parker Marie Molloy:
“tl;dr Caitlyn Jenner is trash, an embarrassment. @JennyBoylan @Caitlyn_Jenner”2
It comes down to a common and growing sentiment from the trans community. None of us asked for Caitlyn Jenner as a “spokesperson” and many of us have felt keenly alienated by her. Many of us would prefer that she simply cease, desist, retire to her Malibu cloister, and shut up. But that isn’t going to happen. Caitlyn’s not going away and a closer look tells why this is so.
Caitlyn most recently faced transgender outrage this past month when Ashlee Marie Preston railed a profanity-laced rant of denunciation in her face with equal condemnation of Trans Chorus L.A. for “complicity” in accepting money from Caitlyn without criticism. She said, “It’s really (expletive) that you continue to support somebody… that does everything with the military, that’s erasing our (expletive) community. And you support it.” When Caitlyn said, “You don’t know me” Ashlee retorted, “Yes I do! You’re a (expletive) fraud and a fake!”3
Ashlee’s anathemas didn’t represent an accusation that Caitlyn isn’t a real transperson. Few have ever denied that. Instead she represented a growing belief that Caitlyn doesn’t really back the Trans community like she claims, despite her raising money for Trans causes including Trans Chorus L.A. It’s a belief rooted in politics, a predominantly Left-leaning community confronting the fact that Caitlyn has been a lifelong Republican and a Trump supporter in the 2016 election. Caitlyn’s not the only trans Republican, of course. The U.S. Transgender Survey sampled 4% of transpeople either being Republican or leaning toward the GOP.4 Using the 1.4 million figure The Williams Institute offered as an estimate of how many transpeople exist in the United States that would make 56,000 transpeople supporting the GOP either directly or indirectly.5
Every transgender supporter of the GOP has had to wrestle with what every transgender critic of the GOP has warned since before the election: execution of the anti-transgender 2016 Republican agenda. It’s an agenda codified in its own platform, backing anti-transgender legislation and opposing the guidelines for trans acceptance issued from the Obama Administration:
“We emphatically support the original, authentic meaning of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It affirmed that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” That language opened up for girls and women a world of opportunities that had too often been denied to them. That same provision of law is now being used by bureaucrats — and by the current President of the United States [Barack Obama] — to impose a social and cultural revolution upon the American people by wrongly redefining sex discrimination to include sexual orientation or other categories. Their [sic] agenda has nothing to do with individual rights; it has everything to do with power. They [sic] are determined to reshape our schools — and our entire society — to fit the mold of an ideology alien to America’s history and traditions. Their [sic] edict to the states concerning restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities is at once illegal, dangerous, and ignores privacy issues. We salute the several states which have filed suit against it.”6
Caitlyn did criticize Trump’s decision to exclude transpeople from the military. She tweeted on July 26:
“There are 15,000 patriotic transgender Americans in the US military fighting for all of us. What happened to your promise to fight for them?”7
Yvonne Juris quoted Caitlyn in People Magazine to say:
“Over the past two years I have met the most inspiring trans people, and I can testify to the trans community’s incredible resilience and perseverance in the face of enormous discrimination and hate… We are strong, we are beautiful, and we will win. The President must ask himself which side of history he will be on — and reverse his position immediately.”8
But after such vehement criticism of Trump, she was caught going out in public with that hat declaring support for Donald Trump; with the Trumpist slogan, “Make American Great Again,” emblazoned upon her brow like the Mark of the Beast. Many who still supported Caitlyn suffered jaw-dropping disbelief, even rage at such blatant insensitivity. Her actions even sparked condemnation even from the Kardashian clan, according to TMZ, saying she “betrayed the transgender community,” “flaunting her pro-Trump views in a ‘heartless’ way”, promoting transgender rights “selectively and only when useful to her,” and that the Kardashians “want nothing to do” with Caitlyn Jenner.9
That had to hurt. The same article featured an update in which it was claimed that Caitlyn said she “now hated Donald Trump and claims that her wearing the pro-Trump hat was a big stupid mistake.” But her actions have left her in a far worse position than ever, losing support from those closest to her. Ashlee’s tirade at that Trans Chorus L.A. concert was only the topping on a bitter pie thrust into her face a-la-Soupy Sales.
REPRISE OF A DISABILITY
Clearly, Caitlyn Jenner needs to take a serious time out for some real self-assessment before she manages to alienate everyone she holds dear. She needs to re-address her own limitations. Caitlyn has often had to live up to heroic expectations due to her reputation as a sports hero. She knows those limitations are there. What she fails to do is take these limitations to their logical conclusion and act proactively so they don’t detract from her message.
Much of it originates with her dyslexia. She has publicly described her dyslexia in her book The Secrets of My Life and in online video.10 Dyslexia had rendered Caitlyn a poor student in school. It’s a learning disability which can be overcome with proper training. But her dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed till she reached junior high school and she had been stigmatized as “stupid” by her teachers.11 Her school experience left her short changed in reading skills and in fear of ridicule. It led her to crave friends and sometimes caused her “do desperate things.” Though she said she has improved, she admits that these traits remain.12 But athletics vindicated her. Athletic competition instilled in her another trait: to fight inferiority with superiority as an expression of her own ego.13
That trait, apart from her life of privilege, has shaped her life and thought. But such expressions of ego also have a downside. They have a way of getting into the way when least expected.
Caitlyn might rightly have called wearing that MAGA hat a “big stupid mistake.” But wearing it isn’t the first mistake she made in that fiasco. She should have gotten rid of that hat a long time ago and not just because of the GOP platform. She should have recognized that wearing it would anger many transpeople and harm her public image more certainly than tripping on stage at the ESPYs. She should have understood that she wouldn’t recognize what that hat says at first glance and would lead her into a trap of absentmindedness by continuing to wear it.
It’s difficult for those who haven’t worked with dyslexia to appreciate. The words “Make America Great Again” wouldn’t have registered in a flash like they would have for the rest of us who are native English speakers and think nothing about reading a slogan at a glance. She simply doesn’t have that same capability. Because of dyslexia she even hates reading from a teleprompter because her slow rate of reading forces her out of sync with the rhythm of speech expected on camera, triggering flashbacks of bad memories of being ridiculed in childhood when called upon to read in class.14
She would have been as oblivious to that slogan on her forehead like the quintessential old man who can’t see his glasses on the end of his nose. But if the fact of dyslexia and subsequent lacunae in her learning should translate into a need to eliminate ahead of time those items that would arouse widespread misunderstanding and embarrassment, what does that say for her sense of logic? It represents a failure to take premises essential to language and behavior to their full conclusion.
It isn’t that the rest of us don’t fail the same way. We do. But anyone in the limelight, as Caitlyn has been most of her life, has to act proactively to prevent repercussions resulting from public perceptions of inconsistency and her assistants need to bring this to her attention before she goes out in public. It’s part of the celebrity’s public relations tightrope.
THE MEAN ESTABLISHMENT
But another factor must have contributed to Caitlyn’s disconnect: her longstanding relationship with reality television. Reality television feeds from Hollywood hype. Ethics become skewed into a proposition that right action is what generates the most ratings and income for those who invest in the show, much in the same way that corporate ethics proposes that right action is that which generates optimal business. For reality people, that boils down to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad advertising so long as it grabs attention.
But Caitlyn Jenner no longer has a reality show. After bad ratings in the Season 2 of I Am Cait, her show slipped ker-plop into the dark and moldering grave of cancellation.15 The show violated a fundamental tenet about reality television: you must appeal to the viewer on a gut level because the typical viewer isn’t a big reader of anything more complicated than a gossip magazine. Season 1 milked the tawdry anticipation that Caitlyn might “get it on” with Candis Cayne just as much as the novelty of a sultry Caitlyn Jenner bursting upon the world. However, Season 2 consisted of a lot more philosophical discussion concerning transgender issues. Heavyweight ideologues like Jennifer Finney Boylan and Kate Bornstein didn’t help it because they’re too cerebral. With such philosophical loftiness in play, few apart from transpeople might be interested in tuning in at all. Season 2 might have offered real value in concepts, but reality television operates on the grist of brain rot.
Media appearances aren’t just the realm of agents and model managers, they’re also the realm of publicists and investors. Nobody makes it big in Hollywood without an entourage of professional star-makers who must also be star-keepers if they want to keep their jobs. That also extends into book deals. Caitlyn logically isn’t capable of pulling off a book like The Secrets of My Life by herself. She needed the help of Buzz Bissinger who’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. She also had a crew of editors and transcriptionists all of whom she acknowledges.16 Likewise she can’t pull off a reality show singlehandedly. Otherwise we wouldn’t see a list of people in the credits like we do.
In which case, much of the public Caitlyn Jenner story has been orchestrated by forces above and beyond Cailtyn Jenner. It’s as if she had walked on the set of The Truman Show but signed her consent on the dotted line in advance with compensation consisting of diminishing returns. Does that mean Hollywood orchestrates every detail? Nope. Did these Hollywood forces orchestrate the incident with the “MAGA” hat? That’s highly unlikely. Caitlyn’s story has been a big, unfolding story of a transwoman who continues her own evolution and Hollywood has yet to really catch up with her. For that matter, Hollywood really hasn’t decided what to do with Caitlyn except thrust her into the dubious role in which everyone has been made to look upon her as a community spokesperson, a role she has addressed in repeated disclaimers.17
But expectations laid upon her are at least as imposing as the teacher who orders her to the front of the class to read a page of Shakespearean poetry. It’s an expectation with a crisis of its own: failure results in isolation, ridicule, and a deepening loneliness. After all, the star-making moguls can also become the meanest star-breakers.
In the years since Caitlyn first came out, something terrible has happened in the trans community and it isn’t the first time either. Caitlyn has had to do an immense amount of growing in a very short time because Hollywood demanded she do so. Transpeople have likewise echoed that demand, often noting her privilege of race, fame, and wealth as detractors in addition to her politics.18 Many of us have rejected her as our own because of those detractors. But like it or not, she is one of us and Hollywood knows it.
This transpires in a time in which we as transpeople have called upon Hollywood to cast more trans actors and to stop using typical males and typical females in trans roles. We have confronted “transface” like the “blackface” of the early 20th century that ridiculed Blacks with shoe polish instead of hiring real Black talent.19 Caitlyn’s the first transperson readily embraced by the Hollywood establishment who in turn put her, and consequently all transpeople, in its own screen test to determine the palatability of using transpeople at all. Rightly or wrongly, Hollywood confronts us in the person of Caitlyn Jenner and her success or failure will also be ours.
In which case, Caitlyn’s response to Ashlee at the Trans Chorus L.A. concert, “You don’t know me,” was the wrong response. A better response would have been rhetorical in itself, saying, “You’re absolutely right, Ashley. And I have withdrawn my support of the Trump civil rights agenda. I want to make amends. Will you help me?”
And if she did, what should be Ashlee’s response, or ours? Too many times when one of us suffers defeat or faces an inconsistency of our own, what do we do? We gloat. We ridicule. We condescend with anathemas. We reject. We even hate. This has been the unsavory character of the trans community displayed again and again, fueled with political ideologies that build walls instead of bridges much of the time. They’re the sort of politics that run on a far more basic level of local trans society than the butting heads of Democrat donkeys and GOP elephants.
But if your adversary prospers, be glad that prosperity is possible; and if your adversary falls, consider.
Let’s say that Caitlyn becomes as isolated and as lonely as many of her critics seem to want. Let’s say that Hollywood’s screen test of the trans community through Caitlyn Jenner fails and so lose their inclination to depict other transpeople in a favorable light. It could negatively impact other great trans performers and their agents. Hollywood might be more inclined to revert to its practice of transface in a reversal of trends alongside the reversal of civil rights in the Trump/Pence era.
It appears to this writer that the widespread practice of gloating, condescension, and ridicule is maliciously out of place. A more appropriate response should be one of compassion. When any of us transitions, that person seeks a new life. If that new life isn’t one in which the transitioning person realizes greater freedom to exercise compassion, the gains are far less than we think.
And if the star-making machine that Hollywood is becomes the star-breaker that holds Caitlyn Jenner whom they acclaimed the “spokesperson for the trans community” up to the world as a pathetic dope, why should we as transpeople accept such Hollywood’s manipulations as pawns in its circus of meanness? If we do, then we become pathetic dopes even more.
Because though we believe we don’t need Caitlyn, we do need one another and she is one of us. If Caitlyn falls should our reaction be, “good riddance”? Or “well deserved”? Are you kidding me? That would amount to tragedy, a closing of doors in isolation of one who tried the only way she understood and under circumstances most of us don’t comprehend any more than she comprehends ours. Loneliness is a terrible state.
For the trans community the stakes behind our actions are higher and more personal than we think. Ashlee’s actions are forgivable and understandable. I hope Caitlyn can forgive her. And I hope Caitlyn comes to terms with her political inconsistencies. I, for one, believe Caitlyn really does want to benefit the trans community and Trump’s civil rights policies have been forcing her into a reassessment that she still hasn’t taken to its conclusion. She hasn’t because her own disability and subsequent educational failings have prevented her from easily recognizing it. One day I think she will. It may come sooner. It may come later. But like when she realized that she’s a woman and chided herself as to why it took her so long, 20 her partisan epiphany may come just as slowly. And when it happens, I hope we haven’t become too jaded to embrace her as a sister.
But Caitlyn’s not going away precisely because Hollywood will make sure of it, whether for better or for worse. It’s not up to any of us to determine what Hollywood does with her. It isn’t even up to Caitlyn anymore. The Hollywood machine and the ensuing circus parades like the manipulative “bull” that goes on forever even after cash cows come and go. It takes a lot to withdraw from the “bull” and embrace the real. It takes even more for those who have never even been to a Hollywood model’s go-see or actor’s audition to confront our own reality in a milieu of fantasy and hype: the need to reach out, even if nobody else will.
Featured image: A pixilated mirror of a public domain image of Caitlyn Jenner (Wikimedia). One might not distinguish the real from the imaginary, or even whether either is real at all.
- Jenner, Caitlyn with Bissinger, Buzz. “The Secrets of My Life” (April 2017) Grand Central Publishing, Hachete Book Group, New York City. ISBN: 978-1-4555-9675-1, p. 60.
- Parker Molloy. Tweet (February 11, 2017) https://twitter.com/parkermolloy/status/830553253020594176.
- Daniel Reynolds. “Activist Calls Caitlyn Jenner a ‘Fraud and a Fake’ at Trans Fundraiser” (August 27, 2017, accessed August 31, 2017) https://www.advocate.com/transgender/2017/8/27/activist-calls-caitlyn-jenner-fraud-and-fake-trans-fundraiser-video
- James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” (2016) National Center for Transgender Equality, Washington D.C., p. 237 Web version: http://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS%20Full%20Report%20-%20FINAL%201.6.17.pdf.
- Flores, A.R., Herman, J.L., Gases, G.J. & Brown, T.N.T “How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States?” (2016, The Williams Institute, accessed August 30, 2017) p. 2. Web version: https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/How-Many-Adults-Identify-as-Transgender-in-the-United-States.pdf
- Republican National Platform Committee. “Republican Platform, 2016” (presented to the delegates of the GOP National Convention August 2016).
- Caitlyn Jenner. Tweet (July 26, 2017) https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/742771576039460864.
- Yvonne Juris. “Caitlyn Jenner Says She Accidentally Wore Pro-Trump Hat After Trans Ban – and Promises to ‘Get Rid’ of It” People (August 5, 2017, accessed August 30, 2017) http://people.com/politics/caitlyn-jenner-apologizes-to-trans-community-for-wearing-maga-hat/.
- a.) “Kardashian Family: Caitlyn’s a Transgender Traitor” TMZ (August 4, 2017, accessed August 30, 2017) http://www.tmz.com/2017/08/04/kardashian-family-calls-caitlyn-transgender-traitor/.
- Jenner, “The Secrets of My Life”, p. 32. For the video, see Ilyashov, Alexandra. Caitlyn Jenner Tells Her OWN Story For H&M (July 20, 2016) Web: com: http://www.refinery29.com/2016/07/117375/caitlyn-jenner-video-hm-olympics-collection-2016 . Retrieved June 8, 2017.
- Ibid, p. 32.
- Ibid, pp. 30, 31.
- Ibid, pp. 49, 50.
- Ibid, p. 70.
- Elizabeth Wagmeister. “Caitlyn Jenner’s ‘I Am Cait’ Cancelled After 2 Seasons at E!” Variety (August 16, 2016, accessed August 20, 2017) http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/i-am-cait-cancelled-caitlyn-jenner-season-3-e-1201838490/.
- Op cit, pp. 316-318.
- Steinmetz, Katy with D’Addario, Daniel. “Person of the Year: Short List No. 7: Catilyn Jenner” Time (2015, accessed June 11, 2017) http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2015-runner-up-caitlyn-jenner/.
- Op cit, p. 192.
- Kwame Opam. Casting cis actors in trans roles has reached its breaking point” The Verge (September 20, 2016, accessed August 30, 2017) https://www.theverge.com/2016/9/20/12983104/trans-actors-hollywood-representation-jeffrey-tambor-emmys-speech.
- Op cit. p. 290.