Reality Check

Caitlyn Jenner’s Beauty Should Not Obscure the Reality of Trans Lives

Yes, she’s gorgeous. Yes, it’s a great Vanity Fair cover image. But Jenner’s less privileged transgender peers all too often endure unemployment, homelessness, poverty, suicide, and violence.

via Vanity Fair

The most striking thing about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover isn’t her beauty, although she has that in spades. It’s her serenity.

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, holds the gaze of Annie Leibovitz’s lens with an intriguing mixture of confidence and coyness, her right eye open wide, her left almost winking. An almost wind-blown hairstyle suggests a certain effortlessness, too, as if she had just stepped off a boat where she was lounging in her pristine white lingerie.

Call me Caitlyn,” the headline reads—simple, casual, easy.

It’s a serenity made all the more poignant by the fact that too few transgender people feel it.

The Vanity Fair cover is important, to be sure. In hindsight, it may even prove to be epochal. With Jenner undoubtedly becoming the world’s most well-known transgender woman overnight, conversations about transgender people are on more lips than ever before. The cover is a huge leap forward for LGBT media representation and a landmark in Jenner’s compelling personal odyssey of secrecy, denial, and ultimately freedom. She deserves this.

But Jenner’s cover is also a painful reminder that all transgender people need the safety and support she has only managed to find at age 65 with the help of tremendous financial resources, an encouraging family, and access to excellent surgical care.

The Twitter response to Jenner’s beauty is wonderful, but Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox cautioned in a brilliant Tumblr post that “in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards.”

Cox, herself the cover star of Time magazine’s “Transgender Tipping Point” issue of last year, adds: “Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class.”

There is peace in Leibovitz’s portrait but it also contains a certain melancholy—the sadness of a transphobic culture that compelled a champion to remain silent for decades, the same culture that continues to condemn Jenner’s less privileged transgender peers to unemployment, homelessness, poverty, suicide, and violence. It’s the melancholy of who is not on the cover of Vanity Fair and who could never be there.

The reality of contemporary transgender life in the United States is far from easy.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people experience twice the rate of unemployment as the general population with 15 percent living on $10,000 per year or less―just a fraction of the cost of facial feminization surgery (FFS) to which Jenner had access before her shoot.

Nearly 20 percent of transgender Americans have been homeless while Jenner lives in a palatial Malibu estate. And transgender women of color continue to be murdered with tragic frequency and too little media coverage in the same country where the spelling of Jenner’s new first name gets its own headline.

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It’s not Jenner’s fault that she lives in the transgender stratosphere—she has notably used her media spotlight to draw attention to the discrimination that others face, telling Diane Sawyer about the murders of black transgender women—but it it is our fault that her success remains so unobtainable.

This drastic contrast between the glossy Vanity Fair cover and the gritty reality of transgender life is neither the product of circumstance nor is it some sort of tragedy inherent to trans experience.

Rather, it’s the expected outcome of a country in which transgender people can be denied life-saving healthcare by many insurers and fired based on their identity in 32 states.

That contrast is what happens when many states still require transgender people to undergo prohibitively expensive surgeries in order to receive appropriate government identification.

Jenner escaped a less fortunate fate with a javelin throw and a victory lap. But even Olympic gold couldn’t buy her a way out of the considerable emotional pain she described in her Diane Sawyer interview, a pain that now seems lifted from her bare shoulders in the photo shoot.

That Jenner seems happy now―that she has finally graduated from the cover of tabloids to the cover of Vanity Fair―is both a cause for celebration and for reflection.

What gets lost in the sometimes hollow celebration of transgender beauty is our complicity in its suppression. If every follower Jenner suddenly acquired on Twitter were a letter to a representative, if every “like” on Instagram were a sign held in front of a statehouse, we might be living in a world where a woman like Caitlyn Jenner is not so singular.

If anything, the virality of Jenner’s cover is proof that it’s easier to engage with transgender issues on a strictly aesthetic level than a political one.

When married to substance, style can be a powerful political tool. In its absence, it can be a superficial way of portraying marginalized people. Whether transgender or not, we all wear gender on our skin and that unavoidable bodily fact makes it too tempting to keep the discussions surrounding Jenner skin-deep.

The talking points become “she’s so pretty,” not “she’s so courageous.”

“Her hair is amazing” and not “her resolve is incredible.”

In the worst case, the line between appreciation and fetishization wears thin and Jenner’s image becomes a sort of zoo exhibit in a world that actively endangers people like her. Yes, her cover is stunning and that’s worthy of comment but the photo only has broader social utility to the extent that it inspires the changes that allow other transgender people to flourish. As MSNBC anchor and transgender author Janet Mock put it on Twitter last night:

Style and substance can indeed go hand in hand. But until now, popular culture seems to have been more fixated on the former than the latter. Laverne Cox’s magazine covers—on Time and Bust—have received considerably more attention than her advocacy, like her moving address at last year’s Creating Change conference. Transgender models like Carmen Carrera and Andreja Pejic turn heads but less conventionally attractive transgender people almost never receive the same sort of attention.

In fact, this inordinate focus on transgender people’s appearance is almost as old as Jenner herself. In 1952, when Jenner was just 3 years old, an ex-GI with the chosen name of Christine Jorgensen also went through a high-profile transition that quickly became a media circus. With Jenner, that history seems poised to repeat itself, if yesterday’s Internet-fueled obsession with her appearance is any indication.

But we could interrupt this disappointing cycle. When we pick our jaws up off the floor, we could remember that being transgender is more than just a visual phenomenon—it’s a lived experience that requires social acceptance and legal support. Transgender people are indeed glamorous but that’s not all they are, nor are photo shoots the entirety of what they need. Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover can only become an iconic image if we make it one, if we invest it with the sort of power that is has the potential to bear.

In her Diane Sawyer interview, Jenner famously promised, “What I’m doing is going to do some good. And we’re going to change the world.”

She was telling the truth. But we have to do more than stare at her. We have to change the world, too, until Jenner’s look of perfect ease is no longer so rare.

As Cox says, brilliantly, at the end of her Tumblr post: "I love working a photo shoot and creating inspiring images for my fans, for the world and above all for myself. But I also hope that it is my talent, my intelligence, my heart and spirit that most captivate, inspire, move and encourage folks to think more critically about the world around them."