Can a trans woman in the process of becoming authentic advance trans equality while simultaneously setting back women's equality in the broader sense?
Eric Sasson, writing in The New Republic, put it well, with the headline mimicking Neil Armstrong from Tranquility Base, Luna -- "One step forward for Caitlyn Jenner, one step back for womankind." Six weeks after her coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer we now have the authentic Jenner for the world to see -- Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair. Her boudoir cover girl pose, recalling the starlets of the 30's and 40's. Introducing her new name, Caitlyn, disconcertingly more characteristic of millennials than Medicare recipients. The roll out set a new record for the Twitterverse, generating more new followers per unit time than anyone before her, including President Obama. Clearly she knows how to market herself well.
There's been a lot of chatter in the trans community about this coming-out event, with many vociferously defending her right to do it her way. I agree -- none of us gets a veto, and few have any input at all. Feminists who believe in full women's empowerment, as I do, cannot honestly deprive her of her agency in this matter. I also imagine many of us would kill to be shot by Annie Leibovitz, showing us our 30-year-old (photoshopped) selves that never were, and it's hard to begrudge an American icon that privilege.
Where we can weigh in, though, is on the potential consequences of her actions. She humbly stated in April that she is not a spokesperson for the trans community, and that she hopes she can make a positive contribution. Like it or not, however, she is now the world's most recognizable trans woman, with no one else close in second place. That stature brings with it a great responsibility.
My concern, and my disappointment with her coming-out profile, was her doing so in a boudoir, pin-up girl pose. Yes, she's gorgeous. Not bad for an old lady, and we should all look as good when we obtain our Medicare cards. But she could have, as the professional she is, presented herself in a manner that did not slide in so smoothly with the routine sexual objectification of the American woman, and that opens her, and by extension the rest of us, to the claim that she's playing out an erotic fantasy.
There are those, such as Drs. Michael Bailey and Ray Blanchard, about whom I've recently written, who believe just that. This presentation, even when it succeeds as a marketing bonanza, plays right into their hands. We saw the pre-transition Bruce Jenner back in April; now in June we're treated to a sex kitten.
We all know that Jenner, like most of us, were all once children who understood our transgender selves. That her struggle, as narrated to Diane Sawyer, began as a child in Tarrytown, New York, and was carried out in secret for nearly six decades. Facts like that get lost, however, when people who have never known anything about the transgender experience see Bruce one day in a shlumpy oversized polo shirt and then Caitlyn in a merry widow. Explaining the years it takes for a woman to fully transition gets lost in this rapid "now you see me, then you didn't" sleight of hand.
This is not to say that trans women aren't sexual beings with erotic feelings. Just as the gay community needed to bury their sexuality to present the full spectrum of the complexity of gay men and women, so have trans women needed to publicly subsume their sexuality to change the terms of the debate. Cisgender straight men and women don't have the same problem, though all women have to deal with oversexualization, commodification and objectification. Keeping in mind that not only is she a woman but a part of the greater community of women might bring sufficient understanding to her to consider the larger ramifications. Rhonda Garelick puts it well in today's New York Times:
The French writer Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that "one is not born a woman, one becomes one." She was referring to the innumerable embellishments, codes of behavior and self-censoring acts required by femininity, the turning of the self into a prestige commodity. In becoming a woman before our eyes, Caitlyn Jenner proves that little has changed since 1949, when de Beauvoir wrote those words. To be admired in the public eye, to be seen, a woman must still conform to an astonishingly long, often contradictory list of physical demands -- the most important being that she not visibly age.
Trans women, uniquely among all women, have had to fight for recognition as females from a culture averse to scientific reality. In that atmosphere it is all the more important that we navigate the cultural shoals of gender expression and the codes of femininity with greater awareness of the impact of our actions.
When trans persons were finally included in the consideration of sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I proudly stated that while I was no longer a 4th class citizen, I remained a 2nd class one with all my sisters. However important the battles against transmisogyny are, they are only a small part of the still overwhelming misogyny prevalent in American culture that impacts all women.
We've seen the same trans self-centeredness when a group of trans men demanded that women's reproductive rights groups amend their language to exclude "women" in order to be more inclusive, ignoring the far greater impact of right-wing hostility on the reproductive autonomy and health of women. Similarly we've seen a small number of trans men trying to change the language used by women's colleges, even though, arguably, as self-identified men, they shouldn't have been accepted in the first place. Such behavior is particularly egregious when many of those women's schools hadn't even been willing to accept trans women at that time.
People have been calling Jenner a hero, a champion, and a role model. I haven't heard anyone call her a leader, a title which she has wisely to date refused to embrace. But the reach of her public exposure, even before the Kardsashian machine goes into full gear, makes her a de facto leader, and that necessitates a strenuous effort on her part to put the community's needs over her personal ones. This is understandably not an easy thing to do during her second puberty, but she owes it to the community to temper her behavior with some mature self-awareness.
It has been said that Jenner, being white, privileged, Christian, Republican, wealthy and old, is disqualified for this role. Clearly she can't easily relate to those who don't have her blessings, but at the end of the day the best she can be is herself. Truly recognizing that her personal needs take priority only when she's out of the public eye is critical, and that the leadership that is being thrust upon her by her public persona necessitates full consideration for all those less fortunate whenever she speaks out or comes forward. The more beautiful she is, the more people pay attention, and the greater the responsibility. If this is too much of a burden she can do what she described as her future plans - spend her retirement with her children and grandchildren. While there will probably always be paparazzi around, such activities are worlds apart from an Annie Leibovitz spread in terms of their impact on the public. I can only hope that she has at least one confidant who can assist her as she ventures out into the full glare of the reality show universe. Much of our future progress towards equality may depend on it.