As Caitlyn Jenner Reemerges, So Should Talk of Privilege

14511581936_d9e0115d38_zAt 65 years old, Olympic gold medalist, self-affirmed Republican and reality-show star Caitlyn Jenner has opened up about her gender identity. She chose to “reemerge” as her femme self earlier this week on the cover of Vanity Fair, with a request for people to “Call Me Caitlyn.”

While we at Ms. applaud her courage in sharing her story, we cannot apply her mostly positive coming-out experiences to the lives transgender women who aren’t getting talked about—and the shameful oppression they face.

“When we talk about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, she is someone who is white, Republican, affluent and wealthy,” says Lourdes Ashley Hunter, national director for the Trans Women of Color Collective. “She will never have to experience the trauma environments trans people of color face.”

In fact, transgender women of color face some of the highest rates of violence in this country. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, they are nearly three times more likely to suffer from police violence than white, cisgender people. Killings of black and Latina women are disgustingly high as well. Already this year, at least 10 trans women of color have been murdered, and 10 trans teens of color have died by suicide.

The oppression extends far beyond physical violence, too. More than a third of black transgender women live in extreme poverty—less than $10,000 a year per household. Compare that to 4 percent of the general population. Furthermore, most states don’t protect trans people from getting fired or discriminated against because of their gender identity. Perhaps relatedly, as many as one in five transgender people live in an unstable housing situation.

“When we hear Caitlyn Jenner’s story, we’re not compelled to now go help out poor, homeless trans youth because that’s not the story that’s being told,” Hunter explains. “When we hear Caitlyn Jenner’s story about how she went to her surgeon, and her surgeon gave her facial feminization and breast implants, we’re not talking about how that costs tens of thousands of dollars.”

Hunter adds, “Granted, I celebrate Caitlyn Jenner’s ability to be able to go to a surgeon and pay for the procedures that she wants. Every trans person should have access to comprehensive care. That’s just not the case.”

While surgeries are an important step for some trans folks to align their bodies with how they view themselves, only 33 percent of transgender Americans have sex reassignment surgery. Of course, the decision to do so is complicated, but for many, the hefty pricetag can be a deterrant: typically around $30,000, Vice reports. The Affordable Care Act does allow for insurance companies to cover such procedures, but a large number refuse to and many trans people are uninsured anyway.

To be fair, we cannot fault Jenner for being more fortunate than most of the transgender population. She does have substantially more financial means, fan following and family support than most, but she still faces the ignorant “man-in-a-dress” ridicule that targets far too many trans women. That kind of ostracization is an indicator of the deeply held prejudices that keep society stacked against them, and at its extreme such transphobia can be used to justify murder and drive trans people to suicide. Even Jenner touched on the violence other trans women, especially those of color, face during her well-watched 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer.

“I don’t mean to be calling [Jenner] out for her privilege,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “She seems to understand very well that she has privilege and is willing to use it for good.”

Celebrity got Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. In addition to satisfying the (cisgender) public’s lust to see trans bodies post-physical-transition, the shoot also reaffirmed so-called traditional beauty standards held to all women.

“Part of the reason that Caitlyn has any attention at all is because of what she looks like,” argues Toronto-based activist Kylie Brooks, “something that is not always realistic or desirable for many trans folks.”

Activist, producer and actor powerhouse Laverne Cox probably says it best:

A year ago when my Time magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am ‘drop dead gorgeous’ and that that doesn’t represent most trans people. … But what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards.

Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.

From unrealistic appearance ideals to deeper structural violence, trans women bear a heavy burden in society. But celebrities like Jenner offer a valuable public education moment. Says Keisling, “Something that I don’t think everybody’s realized is that Jenner has caused media outlets to ask hundreds of other trans people to tell their stories too.”

We hope for a time when more of them can have happy endings.

Photo of transgender flag courtesy of Flickr user torbakhopper licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

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Emily Zak is a Santa Fe-based freelance writer and a former editorial intern for Ms.


  1. I was wondering when someone was gonna talk about this subject. Way to go Emily!
    Also, Laverne Cox’s statement about embodying cisgender beauty standards is sooo powerful. Thanks for sharing

  2. Sfigato says:

    The same was true when she was Bruce Jenner – Bruce was more wealthy and privileged than 99% of the population, and nearly 100% of cisgendered men of color. I agree that we should use her coming out to call attention to the fact that most trans people don’t have access to the same level of medical care as Jenner, or that many trans people aren’t able or do not want to pass as well as her. However, this post strikes me as poo-pooing her for being privileged, which isn’t helpful. She is getting attention because of her privilege and her peculiar place in the media, and she is doing a pretty good job of using that position of privilege to educate the general public about transgender issues. We don’t need to throw her under the bus for being a rich white lady.

  3. This is such an important article, and I’m in total agreement. I wonder, however, if Ms. would consider using the phrase “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide”. As a suicide survivor, the word “committed” reinforces the concept of suicide-as-crime; attempts are still punishable by imprisonment in some countries. It’s not a crime, just a tragedy. Please help us fight the stigma and increase understanding.

    • andie brymer says:

      Thank you Stacy. I’m a survivor too and cringe when I hear otherwise enlightened people use the phrase.

    • Stephanie Hallett says:

      We’ve made the change—thanks for bringing the issue to our attention!

      • Anna Walker says:

        Really nice to see how quickly this change was made after it was pointed out as an issue. Thank you from friends and family members of people who attempted or died by suicide.

  4. Rockerbabe says:

    All of the Jenner stuff is much to do about nothing. Her/his choice of how to display themselves in public is a private matter. Jenner having wealth, fame and noterity just makes the transition “easier” for her. The effect on family, friend and collegues is another matter.

  5. Any one remember Christine Jorgenson?

  6. marcia4856 says:

    That’s what I was thinking all along. It’s no wonder Caitlyn Jenner looks great. She’s a millionaire who could afford the best of the best. Your average trans-gender person doesn’t have that privilege.

  7. Ileana Fuentes says:

    I am less concerned about “the ignorant ‘man-in-a-dress’ ridicule than I am about the question: is woman merely a physical image that any [good] female impersonator can pull off? Or that top-of-the-line plastic surgery can sculpt into reality? This comment is not intended to undermine the intolerable and unacceptable violence visited upon transgender individuals, for any of the myriad prejudices that such violence happens. But Caitlyn-white Barbie ain’t helping anybody, least of all women, whether straight, gay, trans, or anything, and least of all women of color, and even least-ly fat women, handicapped women, ugly women … just plain Women. Celebrating “looking like woman” is not the same as celebrating “looking like Barbie”. Another Victoria’s Secret model look-alike by another name -Caitlyn’s Secret- being raised as ideal, with the lily-white skin, and the curvy body, and the better-than-Revlon make-up and hair, and the sexy Playboy-Bunny-like outfit. Jenner’s personal struggle and triumph is being exploited by the male-gaze of the media… I fear that the big hoopla is about Barbie Jenner, and not about Bruce or Caitlyn, or the prospects of transgender advancement.

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