“Who says that fictions only and false hair become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty? Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines pass, except they do their duty to a true, but painted chair?” – George Herbert (1593-1633)
Somehow, I can’t applaud Caitlyn Jenner like everyone else seems compelled to do. Don’t get me wrong. I am a full-throated supporter of the LGBT community and I for one see transgender issues as one of the next great challenges of civil rights. But to be honest, I’m not buying whatever is being sold here and make no mistake, something is unquestionably being sold. My wife noted how much of this is truly smoke-and-mirrors and she’s right. This isn’t about someone finally becoming the person they have always been inside. This is a movie premiere. Another reality TV moment. It concerns me that there is another debate that may wind up being glossed over with this reveal and that is how we as a society look at gender roles and what constitutes real “change” for individuals in the transgender community. Should we simply be impressed by the dress and makeup and then cheer? Or is this revelation in no small way a genuine disservice to transgender people who don’t have the money and fame to insulate themselves from prejudice and hate?
I’m beginning to wonder how many of her most vocal supporters are merely enthusiasts; thrilled about Caitlyn’s reveal only because it is galling to political conservatives that a transgendered person is garnering so much media attention, or because it is the correct and enlightened viewpoint to take if one is a social progressive or simply to avoid the appearance of being thought of as transphobic. One cannot look at this production (there’s a polished behind-the-scenes video and an upcoming 8 part miniseries for crying out loud…don’t say this isn’t a production) only to smile and state in a very blasé fashion that if nothing else “it sparks discussion and debate on transgender issues.” That’s a cop-out. To accept that posit on its face is a refusal to confront the real issues that face those in the transgender community that aren’t radiant or glamorous. There is bigotry out there that must be dealt with and real discrimination that needs to be fought and I’m more than a little troubled that nobody is acknowledging the many hurdles that remain for the transgender community. A new idol, even a hero, and a reveal to be celebrated? Sure. Why not? But let’s see if people can get refocused on the bigger picture once Vanity Fair needs a new cover model.
In the final analysis, there is little doubt that we’d all probably love to have an airbrushed photo taken of us by Annie Leibovitz and wind up on the cover of some high-profile magazine. On the other hand, I remember when Caitlyn was a man back in 1980 trying to recapture some shred of the glory reaped from past athletic triumphs and doing it by appearing in every cheesy and ridiculous movie or TV show that presented a willing camera lens. 35 years later, the “Please Look At Me” tour bus continues to roll unabated. Given who she was, and still is to a large degree, one can’t help but think that many in the transgender community must be wondering if all Caitlyn Jenner is doing is marketing a persona carefully crafted by the same infernal machine that spat out her Kardashian counterparts. One individual I know personally who is about to begin the transition from male to female has gone so far as to say that until there is some kind of sex reassignment procedure, what has been captured for all the world to marvel at is, and I quote, “Bruce Jenner in drag. He’s making me feel like a circus freak.” The use of the pronoun “he” is especially noteworthy if for no other reason that it came from someone who is also struggling to be accepted for who she is by a society that insists on seeing her as an aberration to be despised. The difference is that she won’t be getting fat checks for a miniseries about her story and when all is said and done, plenty if people will still move to the other side of the street when she goes to the store to pick up some groceries.
Is Caitlyn Jenner’s transition really just a planned media stunt? Extremely unlikely. But is the public, even the most well-intentioned of us, perhaps getting the wrong message from this new symbol of the transgender community? Almost assuredly. The great transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox is right: “Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have…it is those trans folks we must continue to lift up.” I don’t think Caitlyn Jenner is helping. There is too much marketing, too much smoke-and-mirrors, surrounding this issue. Celebrities have often drawn our attention to the issues that we otherwise may overlook or just ignore. The PR leviathan driving our fascination with this story, however, needs to start finding the others who need to be lifted up, the ones who face bile from ignorant people every day because right now, it just feels like rich and famous people becoming more rich and famous than they already are.