Since beginning my transition 9 years ago, I find myself thinking and writing about my gender less than I used to. However, with the word "transgender" on everyone's lips and transwomen appearing on two national magazines, I couldn't help but notice all the ways in which Caitlyn's journey look nothing like mine. In fact, our experiences couldn't be more different
That's not to say either of our experiences are wrong - there's no such thing. But when one person becomes synonymous with an entire group, it's easy to forget that her experiences are not the norm.
For example, most of us need to work to afford food, clothes, shelter, and expensive medical procedures. Caitlyn doesn't. As a "media personality", whose family is inexplicably watched by millions every week, she doesn't have to worry about coming out and transitioning at work. She doesn't have coworkers who complain about what bathroom she uses, and she has a financial safety net that makes it much easier to come out.
I've been deliberately outed by bosses on more than a few occasions. They didn't mean harm, but it wasn't an accident; they actually "warned" clients or colleagues that I was trans. I've had professors and supervisors who refused to call me "he" because it violated their religious beliefs. Coworkers were promoted over me because of it, and I'm stuck in a dead-end job because I don't pass enough to look "normal." In a conservative field in a socially-conservative city, that makes it impossible to advance. I am still in a better position than most; more than 15% of transgenders live in poverty and about 25-30% are un-/under-employed. We have to actively worry about being able to pay our bills. In 33 states, we have to worry about whether we'll be fired for coming out at work. These aren't things that celebrities have to concern themselves with, even openly-transgender ones.
Imagine, under those circumstances, having to pay for the majority of your medical care out-of-pocket because most insurance policies specifically exclude all treatment for transition. A few don't, but those policies are the exception rather than the rule. Most surgeons, knowing it's rarely covered, refuse to deal with insurance, leaving trans people to front the cost and maybe get reimbursed. Surgeries range from a few thousand for breast enhancement to over $30,000 for lower surgery. Hormones can be over $80/month.
Most of us don't have millions of dollars thanks to a long-running show. Nor do most of us get paid to film a series about our transition or to appear on the cover of a magazine. Caitlyn's transition is paid-for, and even if no one else will hire her, she's not in any danger of poverty.
I think that's why we're eager to celebrate her. She's the equivalent of the fluffy gay friend character: all the diversity without any of the issues. She doesn't make us talk about poverty or hate crimes (a trans person is murdered roughly every 12 days) or not being seen the way she wants.
Which goes to the second reason we're so excited for her: She fits the ideal of what a woman in our society "should" look like: white, slim, coquettish, glamourous, and doesn't "looking like a man.". As Laverne Cox pointed out this week, not all of us will ever look like that. Not all of us can, and not all of us want to. Sure, in my dream body I'd be 6' tall with a 6 pack and a great jawline, but no amount of hormones will ever let me look like that. I suspect many cisgender people have felt the same. It's a problem for everyone, but it's even worse for trans people because we not only have to justify our worth as people by our conventional attractiveness, but justify that we are worthy of being called the name and pronoun we choose based on antiquated standards.
So for transwomen who aren't "classically beautiful", or transmen who don't look like outdoorsmen, every "wrong" part of our presentation becomes an area to attack. "You're not really a woman, you like hunting." "We don't have to call you 'he' because you wear pink." The public feels the right to critique our gender presentation in a way that would be inappropriate for anyone else in the last 60 years. I cannot imagine telling my dad "You aren't a man if you like to cook." We recognize that there's more than one way to be a cisgender man or woman, but because transpeople are transgressing those boundaries, we're held to a much higher standard of gender conformity. In some parts of the trans community, this "gender policing" is actively enforced, trying to "help" newly-out transpeople by pushing them to conform to these standards. As a flamingly-gay transman, forced macho-ness felt even more like a prison than living as a woman ever did.
I don't say any of this to garner sympathy. My life is good: I'm employed; I have stable, safe housing; I wasn't disowned by family. That makes me more fortunate than plenty of transpeople who don't have those advantages. But, by virtue of her wealth and fame, Caitlyn is much more fortunate.
I think Caitlyn's openness and the attention it has garnered is fantastic. I'm pleasantly surprised by how many people have been respectful and supportive rather than making jokes. But as racism didn't end with Obama's election, and like there is still homophobia even though Neil Patrick Harris is as popular as ever, I'm concerned this public display is going to lead some people to believe that finding Caitlyn pretty is enough. We need to recognize that her beauty isn't the reason we should call her "she," and that, as scared as she must have been for taking this enormous step, there are millions out there who are more frightened because they're leaping without a net.
Maybe, with the newfound conversations about transition, we can improve things so that all transpeople don't need to worry about so much.