“Why Caitlyn Jenner is more than a name” was the video I did the day after the 65-year-old former Olympian Bruce Jenner revealed her true self as a transgender woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. It was all about the proper pronouns for Jenner and how important this is to transgender people. What I didn’t realize was that some folks were fine with the pronouns. They had a problem with the actual name.
“I just think she should have chosen an older, more dignified name than Caitlyn! :-} Elizabeth..Katherine…Barbara…,” e-mailed one unimpressed friend. “Something that doesn’t sound like a 20-year-old country western singer….” And my colleague Jo-Ann Armao said “Ann” should have been Jenner’s new name. “It’s one syllable. Bruce. Ann,” Armao reasoned. “Caitlyn sounds like a cheerleader, a teenybopper, a kitten.” After saying in the trailer for the reality show documenting her transition, “Put it this way, I’m the new normal,” perhaps she should have chosen “Eve.” That really would have made heads explode.
Another interesting issue has emerged about Jenner’s looks. She looks beautiful on the Vanity Fair cover. Armao agreed, but she didn’t like that Jenner is clad in a vintage corset. She felt the photo reinforced the idea that looks, not brains (or the athleticism of then-Bruce Jenner), are what it takes for women to get attention. “It was the blatant sex appeal that bothered me,” Armao told me.
According to TMZ, sources close to Jenner said this was by design. “We’re told Caitlyn chose an extremely sexy, revealing outfit because now that the public’s curiosity is satisfied, it will not be a shock when she goes out in normal streetwear,” the site reports. This actually makes a lot of strategic sense. By playing with the unfortunate and prurient fascination with transgender transition, Jenner at once demystifies her newfound womanhood and ensures that she can lead a relatively normal public life. Well, as normal as a Kardashian relation can lead.
TMZ also claims Jenner “didn’t want to look like a guy in a dress.” And this gets to the heart of a concern a friend brought up over instant message on Tuesday.
I’m happy for her, but my concern with celebrating how great she looks is that we are reinforcing a gender binary. We acknowledge movement from one gender to another is possible, but we are celebrating her because she looks like a ciswoman. Why don’t we celebrate trans people who don’t look like cismen or ciswomen?
A “ciswoman” or a “cisman” is a man or woman who is not transgender. As Time magazine reported in December, “Cisgender is a word that applies to the vast majority of people, describing a person who is not transgender….The word exists to serve as an equal to transgender.” Just like heterosexual and homosexual, opposite but equal.
My thoughtful friend has a point. We’re going gaga over Jenner because she’s beautiful. And the nation is having a more serious conversation about transgender issues than I ever expected because of it. Sadly, it takes Jenner looking like a ciswoman to bring folks around who would totally dismiss her if she “looked like a guy in a dress.”
Jenner isn’t the first famous person transgender person to publicly transition. Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, transitioned from female to male in 2009 after coming out as a lesbian more than 10 years earlier. But his transition wasn’t the national cultural watershed moment for transgender issues that Jenner’s transition is today. Such moments require fame and beauty. Jenner has both, plus vast wealth that has no parallel in the transgender community.
Citing data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a 2013 report from the Movement Advancement Project revealed that “transgender people are nearly four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 per year than the population as a whole (15 percent vs. 4 percent).” The data also showed that “the unemployment rate for transgender workers was twice the rate for the population as a whole (14 percent compared to 7 percent), with the rate for transgender people of color reaching as high as four times the national unemployment rate.”
Jenner has focused the nation’s attention on transgender issues like never before. Her beauty, fame and wealth guaranteed that. But we must never lose sight of the fact that most trans people don’t look like cismen and ciswomen. And we also must never forget that the vast majority of transgender people are nowhere near wealthy enough to afford all of the health care needed to ensure that they do. They are worthy of as much attention as Jenner, which her very public coming out makes possible.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj