As a transgender woman of a certain age, I have been having a hard time dealing with the whole "Brand Jenner" circus, the whole Kardashian-inspired ego trip. Get the "brand" out there, milk it for all its worth. That's what those "What do they actually do?" "celebrities" are all about — you know, Paris, Robert Jr., Lindsey, Kim, Kris.
I have a well-honed sense of knowing when I'm being used and, for that reason alone, the Vanity Fair cover sticks in my craw, as does the media reaction and that of too many of my transgender friends. The former fawn on Ms. Jenner as the face of the transgender community. The latter latch on to her as an icon.
Forgive me, but an air-brushed 65-year-old woman in a corset is not my idea of an icon. As a transgender person, I have other icons — people I respect, people who have made recognized positive contributions to society, people who are respected in their fields of endeavor — people like Anglo-Welsh historian Jan Morris, Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden, University of Chicago economist Deidre McCloskey, novelist and English professor Jennifer Boylan, Pacific School of Religion theologian Justin Tanis, and the Rev. Cam Partridge and other trans clergy in the Episcopal Church. These are people worth looking up to and worth emulating, whether one is straight, gay, or trans. That's what icons are all about.
Clergy friends of mine are familiar with the term "rent a collar." I've marched in demonstrations and been arrested in mine to lend the cachet of the church to one or another worthy cause of social justice. But I've often wondered "Who's using whom?" and am always wary of not besmirching the reputation of the organization represented by the collar. In the case at hand of "Brand Jenner," I have to ask again ""Who's using whom?"
And to Caitlyn I would say "Welcome to our community. We welcome you and wish you well." But I would — and do — add "Don't besmirch the still fragile reputation of your new community."
Unfortunately, that, in many ways, is the effect of what she is doing, as the media portrays her privileged, pampered experience and her publicity-driven rollout as the norm for an economically burdened transgender community, a bleeding community that silently endures more than 150 murders a year and still more suicides. As it focuses on her "reality" show, the media, by and large, ignore the reality of the transgender community. People who have to work for a living. People who, having no work, must live on the street. People who can't afford her cash-on-the-barrelhead surgeries, and certainly not her team of publicists, photographers, and image consultants. People now shunned by their families and friends. Ours is a community she does not know and for which she cannot speak. Maybe later, but not now, not this way.
That said, this episode still has in it the seeds of a teachable moment. But only if the media moves beyond the stereotyping and sensationalism and explores the day-in-day-out experiences of transgender people, talking not about them, but with them. A phrase I learned in Mayan Chiapas apropos Mexico's federal government is "No more about us without us." Unfortunately, in the media circus around Jenner, there is far too much "expert" opinion being spewed about the trans community, too much of it without us. Denied full-throated agency, we are relegated to the status of exotic objects to be dissected.
Speaking of objects, there is, finally, the issue of misogyny — the misogyny that sours a needed conversation between cisgender and transgender women who should be allies, the misogyny that drips from every crevice of this affair, much of it generated by the Kardashians and, yes, Caitlyn who — wittingly or unwittingly — has allowed herself to be peddled as a sensationalized, stereotypical sex object.
Particularly offensive in this regard is the glib and superficial way in which Ms. Jenner's handlers have chosen to define womanhood. As a feminist recently said, "Nail polish does not a woman make." Nor, would I add, does a corseted body on a magazine cover a lady make. What makes a lady, a person of consequence, are the learned internalities that might be hard to learn from the Kardashians.
Misogyny remains pervasive in our society. It is a wrong that must be eradicated. Until it is, I would no more buy a Vanity Fair magazine than I would a Carl's Jr. hamburger.
This originally appeared in the Vallejo Times Herald June 13, 2015.