Last night I finally got to watch episode 1 of I Am Cait, the Caitlyn Jenner reality show. I figure I should probably say a few things.
First up, Jenner’s trans identity seems very genuine. All of the talk about having struggled with it for years, and family hoping that she could be “cured”, is very familiar to many other trans people. It also seems to me that Jenner is very genuine in her desire to help other trans people, using her celebrity to do so. How effective she can be is another matter.
On the one hand, Jenner is very famous. She has a platform that no other (out) trans person can match. Because of that she can reach segments of the population that would otherwise ignore trans issues. She may even gain their sympathy when others would not.
On the other hand, it was clear watching the show that it is being made at the worst possible time for the message it wants to convey. Obviously both Jenner and the network want to cash in on the story while it is still hot. But transition is a difficult time of life, both for trans people and for their families.
Jenner has done what she can physically by getting a lot of treatment in advance of the announcement. This is important because trans people do grow into themselves over the years. While it shouldn’t be necessary for trans people to look gender-normative, for a show like this it helps a lot that Jenner has been able to put a lot of effort into her appearance. For most people it takes time for the hormones to work their magic.
What you can’t do in advance is get your family used to the change. It is often the case that those who know you best, and who are most closely emotionally connected to you, find it hardest to adapt to your transition. It is particularly difficult for Jenner’s family because they know that they are in the public spotlight, and will be judged on how they behave on camera. In all probability they will get used to Caitlyn, will get the pronouns right, and will come to accept her for who she is. But it will take time, and they haven’t been given that time. Consequently the public are going to see some very uncomfortable family moments, and assume that transition is much worse for a family than it often is.
The other major problem with the series is that, no matter how committed Jenner is to doing it right, she probably can’t control how the shows are edited, and she certainly can’t control how they are reported. In episode two Jenner is seen meeting a number of high profile trans rights activists. One of them is Angelica Ross. Yesterday Ross tweeted this:
I'm hate how I'm being framed in the media as a sex worker, the @IAmCait show & my narrative have been edited to inaccurately portray me.
— Angelica Ross (@angelicaross) August 6, 2015
The media commentary that Ross is referring to is an LA Times review of the show. It is entirely true that Ross has done sex work to survive. She’s since built a career for herself and is now CEO of a non-profit organization, Trans Tech Social, which exists to help other trans people find work in IT. Calling Ross a “sex worker” is no more accurate than calling Roz Kaveney a “sex worker”. Roz, of course, is generally described as an author, a poet, a critic, and a political activist. She’s all of those things too. But Roz is white and has a degree from Oxford, while Angelica Ross is black. The media stereotype of black trans women is very hard to shake.
On balance I think Jenner will do good for the trans community. However, that doesn’t mean that she’ll be good for all of us, or be good all of the time. What she’s doing may not even be good for her. Working with the media is always a case of holding a snake by the tail. You never know when it is going to turn around and sink its poison fangs into you.