what trans activists really think about bruce jenner
In the midst of largely positive media and public reactions to last week's Bruce Jenner interview, a number of young trans activists of color have raised concerns over Jenner's privilege. Some members of the trans community feel that Jenner does not represent their trials and needs, specifically because the reality TV star is white, rich and a celebrity, a situation that most trans people don't find themselves in.
The strongest of these criticisms came from black trans activist L'lerrét Jazelle Ailith. In a YouTube video, she specifically asks why Jenner's opinions carry so much weight when the voices of trans women of color are so often ignored. She discusses how, when trans women of color like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Carmen Carrera, were talking about the nuances of trans experience, "they were minimalized to genitalia or they were minimalized to the way that they dress" and how "people continued to act like they weren't hearing a thing that were coming out of their mouths."
Of course, there's no doubt that Jenner's position as a white "All-American" Olympic champion resulted in numerous opportunities for him, from product endorsements to public appearances. Yet reducing Jenner's privilege to race ignores the Olympic champion's real accomplishments and courage in coming out as transgender, as well as his working-class upbringing. More importantly, arguing that the voices of trans women of color have been completely ignored minimizes the accomplishments of many such women, and doesn't fully account for the strides forward that trans activism has made. It's too much of a stretch to say that people do not listen when women of color deliver insightful messages about trans womanhood, and they're only doing so now because of Jenner.
The Jenner interview was so respectful in part because of the lessons learned from the ways in which women like Cox, Mock, and Carrera were previously treated by the media. For example, Sawyer was careful to mention how the focus on genitalia is one that trans people are sensitive to, and did not put undue focus on Jenner's appearance, unless Jenner initiated such discussion. These improvements come directly out of the attention brought to such issues from previous interviews, and through the ways in which these women have stood up against individuals like Piers Morgan and Katie Couric, and the mainstream media at large.
Media, legislators, and the public may not have listened as urgently or as well, but as someone who transitioned over a decade ago, I've personally seen how the trans situation now is markedly better than it was then. As anti-discrimination legislation has steadily been put in place in many states, public attitudes as well as media representation have markedly improved. This is thanks largely to the efforts of trans women of color, not only those in the public eye but the activists working at the grassroots level like Monica Roberts and Lourdes Ashley Hunter, among others. A spectrum of perspectives can serve to amplify discourse on trans issues; minority and white voices need not be mutually exclusive. In the same way, having high profile celebrities come out as transgender can only help people who are struggling with the same issues.
Jenner's visibility may not be the solution to all the community's problems, but it's an important asset. The movement still has many urgent needs, especially in serving people of color, but it's important to clearly assess its progress and unpack its nuances, rather than engage in reductionist thinking that prevents us from making clear-eyed assessments of how far we've come and how far we still have to go.
Of course, there is a real danger that Jenner's celebrity could obscure problems that are endemic to poor trans people of color. It's vital to guard against this danger by continuing to insist on tackling these issues. But presenting voices of color as not being heard at all runs counter to this goal, because it feeds into a fatalistic logic. As a trans woman of color from a poor immigrant background, I work to affect the discourse surrounding trans lives, and doing so requires a belief that people will listen even if I'm not white, if I'm able to present persuasive and vital arguments.
Jenner's voice is unquestionably amplified by celebrity, just as the voices of trans women of color are muted, but they're not entirely silenced, by our race. Are our identities strictly reducible to the color of our skin? To engage in such a reduction minimizes our efforts, and the efforts of the trans women of color who have come before us.
[Author's note: GLAAD media guidelines recommend maintaining male pronouns according to Jenner's preference, but continual references to publicly disclosed trans women as he or him is disturbing to many members of the trans community. Therefore, this article uses as few pronouns as possible to refer to Jenner.]
Text Meredith Talusan