The One Problem With Caitlyn Jenner's High Profile Transition

July 15th 2015

We are days away from the premiere of E!'s new transgender reality show "I Am Cait," and Caitlyn Jenner has penned the first of six personal blogs for celebrity news site, WhoSay; tonight, Jenner will also receive the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYs. ATTN: last talked about the trans former athlete and reality star following her April interview with Diane Sawyer, where she opened up about her gender transition for the first time. Having transitioned myself, I find that I'm frequently asked if Jenner's public transition "has improved things for my community." People also often want to know if I'm excited about her forthcoming reality show.

My short-term answer to both? Not really. But before I'm accused of attacking Jenner or being cynical, let me explain.

Celebrity transgender experience does not equal normative trans experience.

This reality is a double-edged sword. Caitlyn Jenner, as well as Chaz Bono and a growing list of famous transgender people, had to come out in the eye of the media and the weight of expectation from a wide circle of fans. The idea of strangers feeling a deep investment in my life decisions - including the right to judge, recommend, condemn and express other public emotion about those choices - is daunting. Particularly for Jenner, who was known for her masculinity and strength as a semi-revered professional athlete, I cannot imagine the pressure of publicly coming out as a trans woman.

But there is another side to celebrity gender transition, too: Resources.

This applies acutely to Jenner, who is transitioning from someone seen in the world as a presumably wealthy, former star athlete, white man to a white woman. Her ability to transition and emerge on the cover of Vanity Fair, as if from a cocoon, is the privilege of celebrity, of whiteness and of patriarchy. (This says nothing about her interior struggles or the way she's seen herself all this time, because these are not relevant to the privilege of her starting point.)

Very few average people are able to step away from their lives to transition in this way. Speedily and seemingly outside of external obligation, the world has seen her go from Bruce to bombshell cover model Caitlyn Jenner in the span of less than a year. While I'm incredibly happy that she's in her own words "living my true self," I also feel the necessity of pointing out that this is not representative of all trans experiences. And I don't want that disparity to be lost as we explore her very public journey.

It was Jenner's Fourth of July post to Instagram in particular that got under my skin. In part, it read: "Proud to be an American... where at least I am free to be me."

But are transgender Americans free to be themselves?

Yes and no. As ATTN: and others have pointed out before, there are many countries that are way ahead of the U.S. on trans issues. And while the U.S. does not require sterilization for a transgender person to receive documents like a passport, unlike some European countries, there are still three U.S. states that refuse to even recognize gender transition and fail to update vital documents that trans people need, such as birth certificates.

While the situation is improving, transgender people are also frequently left to cover the costs of their medical transition out-of-pocket. These sums can total upward of $100,000, depending on the type of procedures chosen. (My own top surgery cost over $13,000 because my insurance would not cover it.)

When I see a trans man asking for donations on Facebook to help alleviate the cost of his chest surgery that he's been saving for years, it makes me wonder why necessary medical treatment can be excluded by health insurance providers. And when I simultaneously see Jenner emerge from what are many thousands of dollars of transition procedures in a relatively short span of time, it makes me ask: Do we all have the freedom to be ourselves?

Perhaps, if you have the resources, it feels like we do.

Also, remember: Visibility does not equal equality.

Visibility and equality are frequently equated with one another. Although they are related—visibility is a huge step toward future equality—they are not one in the same. And reaching one destination does not mean we have achieved the other.

The publicness of Jenner's transition, from her interview to her soon-to-be released reality TV show, have certainly increased the visibility of the transgender community. She's even been credited by BlackBook as a driving force behind Barnard College's decision to admit trans women as students. But is this true?

Sometimes, visibility leads to greater understanding and positive change. But sometimes it simply leads to new forms of harassment, like my cisgender female friend (someone who is not transgender) who was misidentified as a trans woman by a stranger last week. What is that stranger's new transphobic snub? Shouting "Hey! Bruce Jenner!" at her as she walked out of the market.

What makes a difference?

The daily work of living a life that is an honest reflection of who you are has a far more powerful effect on the community. For instance, Freddie who recently came out to two million teens via text message where he works at DoSomething.org. This is what Caitlyn Jenner is doing, and this is the work that everyone in the trans community often does day-to-day.

It's the elevation of celebrity to reality, and the equation of one person's story with many, that puts me on edge. It's this kind of visibility, which "I Am Cait" will bring, that makes me nervous. And so I'm anxious about what Jenner will say, how Jenner will represent the trans community - particularly when this celebrity is potentially a person's first introduction to what it means to be transgender.

Despite living in Los Angeles, my everyday life is nothing like the Jenner's or the Kardashians. And my life is also quite probably nothing like another trans person in the same city living down the street. We are all unique individuals. I only hope everyone can remember that once the show starts. We'll find out on July 26.

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