Caitlyn Jenner vs. “the Community”
Until this week, Caitlyn Jenner had enjoyed a relatively warm reception by the transgender and larger LGBTQ community. While many queer viewers raised an eyebrow at her affiliation with the Republican Party—a commitment she readily shared with Diane Sawyer back in April—and a chorus of trans advocates rightly cautioned that Jenner’s privileged position as a wealthy celebrity made her a poor representative of the larger trans experience, most of the community welcomed having such a high-profile and potentially influential figure join the fold.
That welcome is wearing thin this week in the wake of comments that demonstrate just how sharply Jenner’s politics differ from those of the LGBTQ mainstream. In an interview with Ellen DeGeneres that aired on Tuesday, Jenner revealed a general discomfort with same-sex marriage, admitting that because she is “a traditionalist,” she had only recently come to accept marriage equality and then only under the rather tepid logic that “I don’t ever want to stand in front of anybody’s happiness.” She then expressed resignation over use of the term marriage: “If that word—marriage—is really, really that important to you, I can go with it.” DeGeneres (no doubt voicing the thoughts of most queer viewers) expressed confusion at how Jenner, who for the last few months has been engaged in an intense campaign for public acceptance of her trans identity, could be so hesitant regarding the romantic dignity of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.
The confusion continued on Wednesday in a golf game/interview with the Today Show’s Matt Lauer, in which Jenner argued that, contrary to the protestations of practically everyone, a Halloween costume meant to resemble her Vanity Fair cover photo was not offensive. “I'm in on the joke. I don't think it's offensive at all,” Jenner said when Lauer asked about the costume. “I know the [trans] community does, and [the company has] gotten a lot of criticism for doing it. I think it's great.” The theme of Jenner being somehow separate from “the community” cropped up throughout the conversation. When questioned about criticisms of her privilege relative to most trans folks, Jenner took on a defensive tone: “I’ve worked very hard in my life, I have no excuses about my life and what I’ve done with my life. Yes, I’ve worked hard and been able to put a few bucks away. Good for me, that’s the American dream. OK?” To be fair, Jenner does add that she’s “devastated to see people dying over this issue.” But then calling it an “issue” for other “people” seems weirdly impersonal for a person who’s just transitioned herself.
Even more striking was Jenner’s reaction to Lauer when the journalist expressed nervousness about saying something offensive during the interview. “To be honest with you I’m the easiest on people,” Jenner assured Lauer. “Now, ‘the community’—you know, GLAAD, all the people in the community—are like ‘Oh my god, you have to get the pronouns right; you have to do this, you have to do that.’ I’m much more tolerant than that. I mean, I understand that it’s difficult for people to understand this.”
While it’s true that a certain strain of queer activism can occasionally become overzealous on issues of language and what counts as offensive, Jenner’s point here is not a focused critique of that sort of thing. Rather, it and the rest of these comments represent a clear attempt to distance herself from the mainstream LGBTQ family. Apparently, Jenner does not identify with the poltics of “the community,” and she wants to ensure that outsiders like Lauer know that she’s one of the good ones who won’t correct your pronoun mistake or call out your tacky Halloween costume. Moreover, as a conservative Christian, she’s not even so sure about this gay marriage thing! It took a few months, but I think we’ve reached the point—perhaps inevitable for a person of her station—where Caitlyn Jenner has become the Respectable Trans Person.
Of course, respectability posturing is nothing new for queer people. Since the beginning of the civil rights movement for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, there have been individuals who attempted to gain straight society’s approval by distancing themselves from—or stepping over the bodies of—more “radical” elements of the community. (These folks write op-eds against drag queens and go-go boys each Pride parade season like clockwork.) Respectability politics in the trans community, at least on the public stage, is a newer phenomenon, but it appears that Jenner is positioning herself to lead the way. How you feel about this shift in tone will obviously depend on your own politics, and it’s always good to remind ourselves that queer folks are a diverse group ideologically, even if certain of those ideological positions seem completely contrary to queer self-interest. I have a feeling, though, that many queer people will respond as gay writer and performer Justin Sayre did upon hearing the news of Jenner’s marriage equality musings. On Facebook, Sayre wrote flatly: “Here’s your hero.”