It's Time To Talk About Caitlyn's Privilege

by s.e. smith

The teaser preview of Vanity Fair's Caitlyn Jenner profile went viral on Monday, thanks to a combination of the public's fascination with celebrity gossip and its curiosity about the transgender community. The cover features an absolutely stunning woman in a bustier and scant panties staring boldly at the camera, almost daring the reader to say something. "Call me Caitlyn," Jenner says, putting an end to months of speculation about which name she'd chose post-transition.

Reading the feature — which is accompanied by stellar Annie Leibovitz photos — provides a glimpse into Jenner's life, but one thing it doesn't offer is an exploration of the realities of transition for many trans women. While the public often insensitively judges trans women on how well they pass, as though there's a defined way to be a woman, it's usually only wealthy women like Jenner who can afford extensive transition services.

And that's a huge problem in a country that proclaims itself at the transgender tipping point. Privilege plays an enormous role in how trans women are treated, and whether they end up living lives as Laverne Coxes or Cece Mcdonalds.

To be a trans woman in the United States is to live under the constant threat of transmisogyny, which is a unique brew of sexism, transphobia, and hatred of all things non-normative. Transmisogyny manifests in a multitude of pernicious ways, but one of the most persistent is in attitudes about "passing," regrettably shared by some trans people themselves. To "pass" is to be seamlessly read as a woman without comment, question, or scrutiny — in other words, to be a "successful" transgender woman.

Jenner's transition is wrapped up in a complex narrative of intersecting privileges as a white transgender woman with considerable funds and power: She knew what transition looked like for her, and she could afford to pay whatever it took. Along the way, she happened to access considerable passing privilege.

Trans people who cannot pass — or refuse to buy into the notion of passing as a transition goal — are more exposed to the persistent risk of hate crimes, including assault, rape, and other violent crimes. Those who can, like Jenner, are subject to passing privilege, the ability to move through the world with barely a ripple. In conversations about prominent trans women, passing privilege plays a looming but silent role.

Often, those with passing privilege have had the ability to access (and pay for) a wide range of transition services. This can include not just hormones but surgeries, including "feminization" surgeries (like the painful facial reconstruction Jenner endured) and tracheal shaving. Some trans women even pursue voice and gait training to adhere to normative definitions of femininity. The less money you have, the fewer services you can obtain, putting some trans people in an awful doublebind.

Eric Thayer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In response to Jenner's Vanity Fair Cover Tuesday, Laverne Cox herself makes just that point.

“A year ago, when my Time Magazine cover came out, I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am ‘drop dead gorgeous,’ and that that doesn’t represent most trans people… But what I think they meant is 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. More importantly, many trans folks don’t want to embody them, and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.”

Indeed, society, and some members of the trans community, define transition very rigidly — in fact, in some regions of the world, trans people still need to provide evidence of gender confirmation surgery and sometimes even sterilization to change their genders on government ID. Meanwhile, Jenny Kutner at Salon notes that the U.S. State Department doesn't acknowledge the existence of nonbinary people, though a growing number of countries are changing their policies on the subject. Under this framework, transition includes hormones along with top and bottom surgery at a minimum; if someone doesn't look feminine enough, she's supposed to pursue more surgeries and treatments. Those who fail to adhere aren't "trans enough," a rhetoric that creates a dangerous hierarchy of transness.

Everyone's transition is different, something Jenner herself stressed in her 20/20 interview, when she discussed bottom surgery and whether it was something she wanted to pursue. Surgery doesn't define her femininity, but some think it does, and the heavy reliance on a one-size-fits all narrative of transition is troubling, as it forces trans people who don't want that kind of transition into awkward positions.

It also reminds low-income and disadvantaged trans people that they won't be viewed as "trans enough" if they can't afford what can be extremely costly procedures. Without insurance, or in an insurance plan without transgender care (something that is changing under Obamacare), these treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, on top of lifelong maintenance medications like anti-androgens and estrogen.

Jenner's transition is wrapped up in a complex narrative of intersecting privileges as a white transgender woman with considerable funds and power: She knew what transition looked like for her, and she could afford to pay whatever it took. Along the way, she happened to access considerable passing privilege.

Admirably, Jenner has been extremely vocal about reminding the public that it doesn't get to define transition, and about the basic humanity of trans women. But we need to do more. Writing at the Daily Dot, Samantha Allen articulates the problem with the way we talk about trans women and transition: "It’s especially important to avoid a sensationalistic race to the bottom when writing about transgender people — because they’re already at the bottom of the social ladder."

Jenner's willingness to be a high profile transgender woman who's open to highly invasive questions is unfortunately necessary in a world where the transgender experience is heavily marginalized. Hopefully we won't need that in the future, but for now we need the Carmen Carreras, Janet Mocks, Laverne Coxes, and Caitlyn Jenners of the world to talk to the Vanity Fairs and the Diane Sawyers, along with, yes, the Katie Courics; because maybe some day we won't put such an obsessive focus on passing privilege, and we can focus instead of the everyday lives of trans women from all walks of life.

Images: Getty Images (2).