Transmissions: Jenner doesn't speak for trans community
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On a recent episode of "Chelsea," an interview show on Netflix, host Chelsea Handler asked guest Janet Mock, an African-American trans woman, about another transgender celebrity, Caitlyn Jenner. Days before the show, Jenner had joked about the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) on a Virginia baseball field, to the College Republican National Committee.
"Liberals can't even shoot straight," said Jenner, referring to the shooter, seemingly disgruntled Democrat James Hodgkinson, who also injured two Capitol Police agents, one of them Crystal Griner, a married African-American lesbian. Hodgkinson was killed in a shootout with police.
Handler asked Mock if she feels a responsibility to defend Jenner as a representative of the trans community, and Mock was very clear in her response.
"I think my community has overwhelmingly said that we don't want that [representation]," said Mock.
"It's Caitlyn Jenner, who's a very specific person, with a specific set of experiences that are very moneyed, very white, and very privileged," Mock continued. "She can say that on behalf of herself, but I don't think on behalf of the community."
Jenner has made no secret that politically she's conservative.
This is one of the challenges, however, when it comes to the media. If they are looking for a transgender person, Jenner is – for now – one of the first people they will gravitate to. Further, they will seek her out for some of the very reasons Mock pointed out. She is a wealthy, white, privileged celebrity.
For that matter, reporters may choose Jenner before someone like Mock, who is far more well spoken, or others simply because she is likely to say something controversial and – in the eyes of the media – attention-getting. This is how outlets gain viewers, and how they sell everything from cars to laundry detergent to those same viewers.
Yet Mock, a former editor at People magazine and a successful author, is completely right when she noted the specifics around Jenner, and how her experience is vastly different from the majority of trans-identified people. I would even go so far as to state that Jenner's lived experience is dramatically different from even this Caucasian trans woman, due in large part to her privilege.
When Jenner is treated as a representative of the transgender community, she is only bringing her own understanding to the table. She is not speaking much of the experiences of non-binary trans folks, trans men, or trans people of color – or a wide variety of other identities or experiences. When the media treat her as a representative without considering her limitations, they are potentially harming any other trans person who isn't Jenner.
Yet, in pointing this out, I wonder if this sets up a larger issue. If Jenner does not – cannot – speak to the wider trans experience, then can any of us? Is my experience as a lower-to-middle class, Caucasian trans woman of any value outside of those who share a similar path and environment? Do the experiences of one specific trans person from any background help explain other specific experiences in the wider community outside of their own?
For that matter, does Mock, in speaking about Jenner, run the risk of speaking for a wider community from within her own very specific world view?
Think back to the start of this column. When Mock was asked about Jenner, she addressed this in a very specific fashion. She did not talk immediately of having to defend Jenner, but spoke of the community's views: "I think my community has overwhelmingly said that we don't want that [representation]."
Mock is wise. She lets the community speak. It is a community she embraces, and a community of which she is a part. She acknowledged being a part of a greater whole. This is something Jenner has, thus far, been incapable of doing.
What's more, Mock has done an astounding job of speaking on behalf of the community over the last several years, via two books and countless interviews and speeches. She has shown a maturity and wisdom that has earned her a place of respect community-wide. Again, Jenner has not done the same, in spite of her own book, her reality show, and her own public appearances.
Jenner – even though nearly 70 years old – lacks the experience of transgender people a third of her age. She's only publicly started her transition two years ago, and still has a lot of work to do to really understand life as a trans woman.
One other thing, however: even if it is Jenner, do speak to a trans person. Do not assume that you have to speak to a non-trans person to understand us, or get "the straight truth." You will find there are many non-transgender, self-identified experts who have their own agendas, some of which are very harmful to transgender people.
This is doubly true right now, as we see attempts to roll back transgender rights, as our foes try to paint transgender people as sexual deviants seeking to target vulnerable individuals. Never assume that just because a person isn't trans that they don't have an underlying motive for how they may paint transgender people.
No one person can truly speak for the whole of the transgender community. I, for one, can speak to a lot of the experiences of transgender people, some more specifically than others, but it would be simply wrong for me to claim to be able to speak on the lived experiences of many within the community in more than general terms.
All this said, I would hope that the media would opt to seek out the Mocks of the world. What's more, if you are focusing on non-binary trans issues, seek out a non-binary trans person. Talk to trans men about trans men's issue.
Indeed, a media outlet that is simply going to Jenner about trans issues is a lazy one, and needs to seek out real representation.
Gwen Smith is not suggesting she speak in place of Caitlyn Jenner. You can find her at www.gwensmith.com.