The GOP’s Awkward Courting of Caitlyn Jenner

Candidates want her star power. Activists and columnists say she’s not brave. What’s a conservative political party to do?

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty

What if you threw a culture war and nobody came? That may be how it feels to the few conservatives who have chosen to attack Caitlyn Jenner, who surprised many people less by announcing she was transgender than by pledging allegiance to the Republican Party.

Ten or fifteen years ago, her debut might have been an occasion for the religious right to scare swing voters into their sway. Today, only a handful of office-seekers have targeted her for direct insult or derision. Indeed, far from drawing a line, some GOP hopefuls have made positive entreaties.

Rick Santorum said he would accept an endorsement, saying, “My job as a human being is to treat everybody with dignity or respect—period, stop, full stop, no qualification to that.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, after asserting his support for “traditional marriage” (support does not equal participation!), said, “If Caitlyn Jenner wants to be a Republican, she is welcome in my party.”

George Pataki, perhaps struggling to stand out in the field was even more bold, calling out Mike Huckabee’s hamfisted frat-boy leering specifically. He Tweeted a link to CNN’s story about Huckabee’s joke with the note, “If someone chooses a path that’s different than mine, we should respect it as opposed to mockingwe should give people their dignity and let them make their own decisions.”

The primary mode of response among conservative activists and commenters to Jenner has been insolent passive-aggression. The complaint that they’ve been bullied into at least feigning compassion transcends mere irony into a form of self-delusion so strong that it really should make them sympathetic to the idea of someone born “in the wrong body.”

Their most visible form of objection attacks Jenner from the flank. They question not her right to exist, but rather the idea that to be an “out” transperson requires a level of bravery worth honoring. Hence the backlash against Jenner’s upcoming ESPY award, touting non-existent “runners-up” and the viral photo campaign by a guy on Facebook who compared Jenner’s dignity and grace unfavorably against that of soldiers.

The latter meme wound up carrying within it layers of irony and meaning that O. Henry would edit it down into something less on-the-nose: The image Terry Coffey posted that was supposed to stand in for “real” courage was not of actual soldiers, but photo of toy figurines, talismans of humanity’s ability to reshape itself. And the artist who made those fighting men, posed with limbs and lives intertwined? He’s a veteran himself; he creates military models as a form of therapy following near-fatal beating. Why was he beaten? The veteran is a cross-dresser. His story is told in the film Marwencol.

If such a storyline was to play out on a reality show it would be dismissed as too fantastic. If it confirmed religious bigots’ biases they would see it as a sign from God. I suspect that the story’s refutation of biases is the strongest proof of God’s presence. (There’s a happy ending; upon learning the artist’s story, Coffey wrote a humbling follow-up post on Facebook, saying: “I could have chosen one of hundreds of other photos. But I didn’t, I chose this one. Do I think it was an accident? I don’t. What happened to this man was wrong, cruel, and unforgivable.”)

We could also put candidates on the couch over this: Could there be an aesthetic basis for their nonchalance? To be blunt: Do they support Caitlyn because she’s hot? No doubt, Jenner’s superficial adherence to gender norms makes it easy to categorize her. You don’t get the idea that any of her new conservative friends are worried about which bathroom she’s going to use.

To the public eye, she also didn’t so much transition as switch. However difficult and messy her private evolution may have been, a casual observer would probably miss the uncomfortable “in-between” parts of her transition. In the words of the Vanity Fair cover story: “He says goodbye, she says hello.”

Jenner doesn’t obviously challenge cultural conservatives’ fundamental belief that gender is binary. They can continue to believe that being “born in the wrong body” means just trading your existing body in for another one off-the-rack (available in a variety of colors and shapes but only two styles). In real life, most trans people literally can’t afford to make their chosen selves so dramatic, immediate, public, and perfect. Their projects are, by necessity, more-or-less DIY.

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Blissful ignorance about the difficulties of transitioning, let alone the difficulties of living as a transperson could give these conservatives an absurd hope, as well: That maybe they can win that coveted transgender female vote. Who knows? Mass sexual reassignment surgery might be the GOP’s best hope for closing the gender gap. Certainly, they’re not doing much else about it.

Reluctance to actually change policy towards LGBT people is the hard and ugly truth behind the GOP’s welcoming smile. Only one potential GOP nominee, Lindsey Graham, actually supports the law that would end employment discrimination against transpeople—and he’s opposed to marriage equality. Pataki supports marriage equality, but aside from that supportive tweet, he thinks social issues are “a distraction.” Santorum is at least transparent about how limited his tolerance is: In a Facebook post responding to angry constituents he assured them, he only “meant to express empathy not a change in public policy.” Hashtag compassion! Retweets do not equal endorsement, in other words.

In the end, the best explanation for why Jenner is being wooed and not exiled is probably the simplest and most obvious: Jenner’s a celebrity. She’s a sympathetic part of the nation’s extended television family. She’s protected by the same invisible force field of empathy that allows candidates to allow that they’d support their own hypothetical gay children or pregnant daughters should policy and parenting collide. And, much like those hypothetical children, Jenner can be “supported” or accepted by GOP politicians because, in real terms, she hasn’t actually asked for anything yet. Her reality show, producers say, will touch on things like the needs of transgender youth and the horrifying rates of suicide in that community, but Jenner (perhaps wisely) has yet to make any kind of formal policy suggestion. If anything, Jenner’s nominal membership in the Republican party suggests that she hasn’t really given her politics a thorough think-through—an understandable delay, but one most transpeople don’t have the luxury of taking.