At 8 p.m. ET Sunday night, trans pop culture arrived to the E! Network. “I don’t think I have ever been as excited about life as I am right now,” Caitlyn Jenner said during the premiere of her new reality series, I Am Cait. “It’s, like, 4:32 in the morning and I can’t sleep.” She then focused on what she hopes this show will do: bring attention to transgender issues. “I feel bad all these young people are going through such a difficult time … Am I going to say the right things? Project the right images? My mind is spinning with thoughts. I hope I get it right.”
And though we are just one episode into the docuseries, all signs are pointing to Caitlyn indeed getting it right. I Am Cait comes on the heels of the reality star and former Olympian's ground-breaking Diane Sawyer interview in April, her well-received Vanity Fair cover story last month, and her celebrated speech at the 2015 ESPY Awards just a few weeks ago. And Caitlyn's consistent message since her coming out has been focused on acceptance for the trans community, specifically the vulnerable trans youth. As CBS’s Bold and the Beautiful FTM actor Scott Turner Schofield tells Bustle, “I hope that by watching I Am Cait, non-trans people will find a way into asking the regular transgender people — who are everywhere in their worlds — about how we live, without starting at the genitals.”
One way I Am Cait helps forward that cause? By broadcasting the process of acceptance to millions watching. Though Caitlyn's children from her first marriages refused to participate in the series (a decision rumored to have been made for fear of I Am Cait turning into just another offshoot of The Kardashians media circus), family clearly hasn't taken a back seat during Caitlyn’s transition. We have seen her mother, Esther, proudly stand up for Cait even through the harshest tabloid attacks. Sister Pam has known about Caitlyn's struggle for more than 30 years, and Kim Kardashian showed her support for Caitlyn's journey even prior to the Sawyer interview. As the rest of the Kardashian crew comes to terms with a person they once knew as "dad," it's clear Caitlyn coming into her womanhood and grasping her authentic self will be a slow but rewarding transition for the entire family.
The scene was one all trans individuals hope to experience. During Sunday night's premiere, we watched Caitlyn's 89-year-old beautiful, focused, and fragile mother — who seems to be the anchor of the docuseries pilot — as her eyes watered seeing Cait for the first time since her transition. So many people who are transgender have seen that look on our mothers’ faces. As the tears slowly drip down my own cheeks, I’m reminded of the last time I saw my own mother, more than a year ago when I came out.
In June of 2014, after starting hormone replacement therapy, I was inadvertently outed on Facebook, forcing me to overnight a letter to my parents explaining that I was transgender, had known since I was six years old, and that I had begun my transition from male to female. Sadly, this news was not received very well. Much like the rest of the transgender community, I experienced a level of rejection and have only heard from my parents once since coming out. I’m not able to describe the feeling of not having a family that supports you during one of the most physically and emotionally painful periods of your life, but seeing that Caitlyn's family is coming to terms with her transition is both inspiring and encouraging.
It’s heartwarming to see that the show is centered on Caitlyn’s family, and we’re able to immediately see that the bond between mother and daughter is real. Esther already knew that Caitlyn had transitioned, but nothing could prepare Esther for the intense emotion of actually seeing the drastic physical transformation. Esther’s unscripted emotions cemented the fact that I Am Cait is poised to give us a true sense of just how real reality TV can get. “It’s going to take some getting used to,” Esther repeated throughout the episode, punctuating this fact by using incorrect pronouns.
As the Los Angeles Gender Center's Susan P. Landon said while appearing in Sunday night's episode, pronouns are important to a person who is transgender. Not only because they are a sign of respect and acceptance, but deliberate incorrect pronoun usage is considered an act of verbal violence against the trans community. Deliberate incorrect pronouns is a form of transphobia and sexism that if left unchecked — especially by the media — leads to the perpetuation of violence within our community.
Pronoun misuse, however, wasn't the only thing showcasing family members' difficulty with acceptance in I Am Cait's premiere. In practically the same breath that she beamed, “I hate to brag, but I’ve got some beautiful children,” Esther recited a passage of the Deuteronomy, 22:5: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.” The room filled with silence, proving the transition is not easy for Esther and her pain is real. “You have the same soul you were born with," she said. "I love Bruce, that will never change.”
Watching the premiere, one can only hope trans youth and trans individuals can relate to Caitlyn and her family dynamic, no matter how flawed it might be. Because the trans community needs that sense of kinship and support. This first episode was filmed right around the time of transgender teen Kyler Prescott's May 2015 suicide. Caitlyn takes the opportunity to try to explain to her sisters that suicide, depression, violence, and murder are out-of-control problems within the trans community, especially among trans youth. Said Caitlyn:
What I want to do is create an understanding so that the next person doesn’t have to be like me or have to talk about suicide as a permanent solution for a temporary problem. I know how these kids can feel. I’ve had some very dark moments in my life. I have been in my house with a gun and said, "Let’s just end it right here, no more pain, no more suffering."
It was a sentiment echoed during Caitlyn's Arthur Ashe Courage Award acceptance speech at the 2015 ESPY Awards speech, in which she told a rapt audience, “All across this country … there are young people coming to terms with being transgender. They’re learning that they are different … they’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered and they’re committing suicide.”
We knew about Caitlyn's quest to raise awareness about the rampant violence and suicide in the transgender community, particularly when it comes to trans teens, long before Sunday night's premiere. It has been part of Caitlyn's mission since her 20/20 interview with Dianne Sawyer and subsequent Vanity Fair cover shoot and article. The hope is that Caitlyn's story, and the exposure and education this show offers to the general public, will increase the visibility of the trans community in a positive way, and help demystify the transgender experience, eventually paving the way for ALL trans children — and adults — to live authentic lives without fear.
Of course, it's easier for Caitlyn, a wealthy individual, to have access to resources important to trans individuals looking for acceptance. Poverty in the trans community runs much higher than the national average, with 15 percent of transgender individuals earning less than $10,000 per year. Unable to find affordable health care and necessary surgeries that can total more than $100,000, people who are transgender can barely afford their hormones, much less a personal stylist, a full designer wardrobe, and glamour shots from Annie Leibovitz. But Caitlyn is well aware of her privilege and if the previews to upcoming episodes tell us anything, her ability to listen to the community is stronger than her want to direct the community. “Hardly any of us have lives like Ms. Jenner, but it’s the conversation that’s important, and I am glad she is using her fame to start it on a large scale," Schofield says.
Schofield is not alone in praising the series. Overall reaction to the docuseries' debut from the trans community has been overwhelmingly positive. As trans actress Michelle Hendley, star of the movie Boy Meets Girl and the NBC pilot series Endgames tells Bustle, “Jenner is no stranger to exposing her life on camera, and I hope giving viewers an inside look on the daily ups and downs of being trans will only further awareness and understanding of our lives.”
Tweets of overwhelming support lasted throughout the night, including tweets from teen trans activist Jazz Jennings, Access Hollywood, and The Hollywood Reporter.
Most importantly, the Twittersphere remained overwhelmingly positive.
And Rebecca Juro, host of the Rebecca Juro Show and freelance columnist for the South Florida Gay News and Windy City Times says Caitlyn is a role model that the trans community values. As she tells Bustle, “Caitlyn Jenner has conducted herself throughout her public coming out process with a level of class, grace, and positivity that does the entire Trans community proud. I’m looking forward to a show that lives up to that standard. In so many ways, Caitlyn is carrying the Trans community’s banner here. I hope she’ll continue to do it well.”
There is a lot riding on Caitlyn’s shoulders as she steps into the light of being a voice for the community. All eyes are on her to carry that banner high. I Am Cait came off a strong debut, and, from a community standpoint, all of the right things were said and the intentions seem wholesome and genuine. But Ms. Jenner's future actions will determine her place in the trans advocate community.
Trans actress Bianca Von Krieg may have said it best. “I empathize with her story," she tells Bustle. "Most of us all have a very limited set of universal reasons for being trans. Older trans people like Caitlyn Jenner have tried to resolve themselves in terms deemed acceptable to society, but in the end that was not enough. And like any of us, she will enjoy as much success as others are willing to heap upon us.”
Throughout the episode, we see introductions between Caitlyn and her family and though some had problems coming to terms with her transition, the warm sense of acceptance was everywhere. Esther struggled to understand while Kylie and Kim focused on fashion, but despite the non-stop parade of people that walked in and out of Jenner’s home over the first hour of I Am Cait, it's undeniable that that home was packed with heart and soul. The show delivers what it had promised: an edutainment program that commanded your attention from the first moment and wouldn’t let it go until the final scene.
“In the end, what Caitlyn is doing for people who are transgender is prompting mainstream America to ask, ‘what is transgender?’" Von Krieg says. "Which is an excellent start to a great question and in and of itself, fabulously awesome!”
Images: E! (2); Vanity Fair