Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” was received with a mix of applause and criticism. She has become a symbol of transgender rights, joining others such as Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black,” reaching the mainstream as never before.
But critics charge that she would not be so celebrated were she not beautiful, rich and glamorous. It is, after all, difficult to emulate such a dramatically polished femininity without Jenner’s economic resources. The question remains whether Caitlyn’s coming out will further the interests of the transgender community and the LGBT movement overall.
The mainstream LGBT movement has focused most of its attention thus far on the acceptance of gays and lesbians. The success of the movement is due in large part to the politics of conformity and respectability.
The choice to pursue equality through gay and lesbian rights by challenging barriers to military service and marriage rights reinforces the value of conventional lifestyles. Pursuing these avenues to acceptance made gays and lesbians seem “normal” in the eyes of many heterosexuals.
As the nation waits to hear the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage later this month, many wonder what will come next for the mainstream LGBT movement. With the fight for same-sex marriage drawing to a close, is it possible that we are now witnessing a newly burgeoning “mainstream” transgender movement?
Having captured global attention first as an Olympic champion and more recently as a member of the Jenner/Kardashian reality television family, Caitlyn may be the one person in the U.S. today who has the potential to normalize transgender people and gain acceptance for transgender rights.
But there are costs to making Jenner the movement’s new poster child. She conforms to feminine beauty standards — in facts she excels at them, just as she excelled at masculine standards when she lived as a man. But what she does not do is challenge society’s stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Where does this leave the majority of transgender people who may not be able to, or may not want to, fit normative standards of masculinity or femininity?
We must not forget, as we celebrate Jenner’s “coming out,” that financial success has allowed her to transition into the beautiful woman she is, yet there are transgender people who cannot physically transition for financial or medical reasons. In fact, many transgender people of lower socioeconomic status continue to pay a heavy price for attempting to live as who they are.
The fight for transgender rights and acceptance should also focus on the many children who are thrown out of their homes or who run away because their genders do not match the norms. We must address the fact that many transgender women, especially women of color, meet daily with verbal and physical assault, even murder.
Caitlyn Jenner has helped bring visibility to the transgender community. But broadening the fight for transgender rights beyond the world of the rich and famous will require recognizing that our current definitions of gender are simply too narrow, and our social policing of gender boundaries is inhumane.
Thatcher Combs is a queer transgender person of color and a graduate student in sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
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