At 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