Caitlyn Jenner Is Finally Condemning Trump. What Took Her So Long?
Jenner says Trump is setting the trans community back ‘20 years.’ She is finally waking up to the damage many transgender people saw coming far, far earlier.
Caitlyn Jenner has changed her mind about Trump.
She has never made that clearer than she did during her diversity speech at the UK House of Commons this week when she said that the president she once supported has set the transgender community “back 20 years,” as Deadline and other outlets noted.
That speech comes on the heels of a March Newsweek interview in which the transgender advocate and former Olympian expressed a similar sentiment, acknowledging that the Trump administration “has been the worst ever” on “trans issues.”
“They’ve set our community back 20 years, easily,” she told Newsweek. “It’s going to be hard to change, but we’ve been through these types of things before and we’ll continue to fight it.”
But Jenner’s place within that fight remains a source of controversy for the transgender community. She may have changed her mind about Trump, but it may be years before the transgender community changes its mind about her—if that day ever comes.
That was made obvious by the controversy surrounding Jenner’s selection to address the House of Commons in the first place, following in the footsteps of British actors Idris Elba and Riz Ahmed, who delivered the first two lectures in the series.
A petition requesting that Channel 4, which sponsored the speech, replace Jenner with a transgender person from the UK gathered over 1,000 signatures.
British transgender advocates, who are in the midst of fighting against a press that wants to frame their very humanity as a subject of two-sided “debate,” warned that Jenner would be ill-suited to speak to their situation.
“Jenner’s life story is as far removed from what British politicians need to be hearing and considering on this ‘issue,” wrote British transgender writer Shon Faye on Twitter.
It’s a feeling that many transgender people in the United States, myself included, know well: The awkwardness, the frustration, even the anger, of watching the world view Caitlyn Jenner as a metonym for my entire community, most members of which could never dream of attaining even a fraction of her wealth and security.
That anger reached its peak in the run-up to the presidential election when Jenner seemed to be operating under the unfortunately common delusion that Trump was a pro-LGBT candidate.
“[Trump] seems very much behind the LGBT community because of what happened in North Carolina with the bathroom issue,” Jenner told Stat in June 2016, even though then-candidate Trump, by that point, had already reversed his laissez-faire stance on transgender restroom use to fall in line with the GOP base. “He backed the LGBT community.”
Jenner conceded that Trump came with “a lot more unknowns” on LGBT issues, but those were apparently chances that she was willing to take. Whether it was taking up Trump on his offer to use the women’s restroom in Trump Tower, attending the inauguration, or wearing a Trump hat last summer after the president’s pernicious tweets about transgender troops, Jenner has been slow to realize just how large of a threat the Trump administration posed to the rights of the very people she is often called upon to represent.
Like too many powerful political figures, she believed that Trump himself didn’t have a bigoted bone in his body, even if he was surrounding himself with a who’s who of anti-LGBT extremists—as if it mattered, at the end of the day, what was in Trump’s heart.
But besides being a Republican who shares many of Trump’s other positions, Jenner also seemed to be falling prey to a certain naïveté during the election and its aftermath, believing that she could change the minds of avowedly anti-transgender politicians.
She said in March 2016 that she wanted to be a “trans ambassador” for Ted Cruz. And after the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era restroom guidance protecting transgender students within its first few months, Jenner made a public plea to Trump “from one Republican to another,” imploring him, “Call me.”
I think it’s safe to presume that Trump didn’t call her—and if he did, he certainly wasn’t persuaded to stop attacking transgender people as the military ban proves.
For transgender people who have been out much longer than Jenner—who came out in a 2015 Diane Sawyer interview—it was endlessly vexing to watch her operate under the misguided notion that she could undo the evangelical stranglehold over the Trump administration’s position on LGBT issues.
It was like watching a character in a horror movie walk further down the stairs into the spooky basement instead of turning around and bolting. You know that she’s going to regret her choice, but there’s nothing you can do to stop her. You just sit there, helplessly shouting at the TV screen.
But Jenner’s gradual awakening is common for transgender people with certain forms of racial and class privilege: It takes time to realize that some people with whom you once felt a sense of belonging—whether within a family, a faith, or a political party—will despise you and cannot be persuaded otherwise.
When I first started writing about transgender issues, I thought that facts, or appeals to basic decency, would convince anti-transgender dogmatists. They don’t. Hatred is based on fear, not reason.
Indeed, when you’re not used to the visceral feeling of prejudice, it is hard to disabuse yourself of the individualistic notion that you can singlehandedly change the minds of people who have invested huge amounts of time and money into destroying you.
Caitlyn Jenner, I think, still believes that to an extent. Before delivering her diversity speech at the House of Commons this week, she agreed to participate in Channel 4’s televised Genderquake debate—an awful, heckling-laden spectacle in which transgender advocates like Jenner were pitted against some of the most cruel and outspoken British opponents of transgender equality in a program that came across more like a brawl than a discussion.
Many British transgender advocates, who were savvy to the way in which the program was likely to be framed and who were more accustomed to hostility from their country’s press, denied Channel 4’s invitation. Jenner did not.
That decision gave Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, “the willies.”
“I understand that trans people participate in these public whippings in hopes of opening the hearts of strangers,” Boylan wrote. “But I’ve begun to wonder whether this work sometimes is self-defeating.”
Jenner doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, even when the better choice might be to eschew it. That has been a running theme in her messy, often problematic history as a de facto transgender spokeswoman.
But what has changed for Jenner are her views on Trump. She apologized for wearing the Trump hat after the transgender troop ban tweets, telling TMZ, “What he’s doing to our community is absolutely fucking awful” and directly apologizing to the community.
Her comments about Trump setting the community back “20 years”—which she has now repeated twice in large forums—show that she is finally waking up to the damage that many transgender people saw coming a mile away.
For some, Jenner’s previous Trump support—or the fact of her simply being a transgender Republican—will remain unforgivable offenses. And after watching Jenner get callously positioned by Trump supporters as proof, alongside that damned upside-down rainbow flag, that the candidate posed no threat to the LGBT community, that is understandable.
Queer and transgender people have been especially hurt by the Trump administration and everyone who played into the narrative that Trump “backed the LGBT community” shoulders responsibility for the results.
From an extremely generous perspective, this is an issue of cosmically bad timing: Most privileged transgender people go through the disillusionment that Caitlyn Jenner is going through without having access to an enormous public pulpit.
Jenner went through that process as the most famous transgender person in the world during the most consequential presidential election for her community in U.S. history.
But it did take her an especially and regrettably long time to wake up to the Trump threat, even as others in the community persistently explained it to her. And Jenner has not been shy about grabbing microphones that get offered to her—and slow to understand what lies at the root of complaints about her privilege.
During her House of Commons address, she said that she “didn’t start off being privileged,” adding that she is “not going to apologize for working hard and being successful.”
She acknowledged that her money does “give [her] a sense of privilege—but it also gives me a platform.” But just because a platform is available, doesn’t mean it always has to be used. What critics of Jenner’s privilege have been after is not to silence her altogether, but for her to recognize when it’s better to lift up the voices of others.
Because the truth is that Jenner does have a place. To so many people around the world, she was their gateway, however imperfect, into a better understanding of transgender issues.
Unless someone with a Seinfeld-level of fame surprises us all by coming out as their authentic self, she will remain the most recognizable transgender figure on the planet world. And Jenner has proved herself to be a strong voice.
She handled herself well during the Channel 4 debate, even if she shouldn’t have given herself over to the format, and she criticized the transgender troop ban in her House of Commons speech, even if she should have deferred the invite to a UK speaker.
It’s hard to want to recommend, as some fellow transgender people have, that Jenner simply step aside from public life for a while, as comic Amanda Kerri understandably did in an Advocate op-ed last October. I wish Jenner had seen the light on Trump much earlier than she did, but a large platform used wisely is better than one gathering dust.
Every time I wince at some comment Jenner has made, I think about conversations I have had with LGBT allies on the right and transgender Republicans like Jennifer Williams who talk about the “behind the scenes” work she does that “no one ever sees.”
If Jenner continues to speak out against Trump in her transgender advocacy, she will almost certainly hear that she is doing too little, too late. But sometimes the only solution to that problem is to keep doing more, but to do it more shrewdly.
Will that work undo the damage she did by supporting Trump? Can she convince the left-leaning transgender community to change its mind about her? Maybe in time, but certainly not as quickly as she changed her mind about Trump.