Monday, 6 July 2015

Some Thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner

I first heard about Caitlyn Jenner’s story while sitting in a graduate computer room grappling with my data, and trying to focus on writing something articulate for my Masters thesis. A fellow student was chatting endlessly about something to a friend while browsing Facebook. My ears perked up at the sound of the word “transgender”, and I turned around to observe where the conversation was going. This student was someone who is not typically involved in Feminist issues, and yet was talking excitedly about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition and how amazing it was that she was coming out to the world as who she really was. It surprised me at the time, that a trans* issue had made it this far into the mainstream media. After following the story, I understood that in fact there was a strong public relations process in Caitlyn’s coming out in the media, including her decision not to come out on the Kardashian show. Instead she used Twitter, quickly reaching 2 million followers, publicizing the Vanity Fair photoshoot and interview with Diane Sawyer (who is well-reputed for her interviews with trans* people). Some people in the trans* community responded by crafting DIY Vanity Fair covers on tumblr, combatting the lack of representation of people of color, and cis-centric beauty norms. 

As Rambleonamazon, the trans* woman who founded the group says

Not all of us adhere to those standards. Not all of us want to. Not all of us can. Some of us do, but only out of fear. Some of us do but we aren’t sure why. And whether we fit those standards or not, we’re beautiful, and we all deserve to feel beautiful, and be acknowledged by the world.”

Rambleonamazon shows that there is an inequity in the coming out process and an inequality in transitioning. Further, there is no ‘one way’ to come out because there is no ‘single’ trans* experience.

In our own work, we have highlighted the tensions in dialogue in Consciousness Raising (CR) groups.  In our CR group FemSex (short for Female Sexuality) we aimed to bring trans* and cis women and allies from diverse backgrounds together, to create solidarity through group discussion of our common (and uncommon) experiences. The differing perspectives and discomfort reflected in the response to Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, amongst trans* folks, and the rest of the feminist community, were also reflected in our group processes. The majority of the group (cis-gendered women), reverted to their own cis experiences and by virtue of numbers, representation of the trans* experience was somewhat lost. An allied and inclusive space took time, openness, and learning to sit in that discomfort. Anzaldu´a’s (1987) brilliant analysis of how ‘the new mestiza’ copes with living in ‘la frontera’ is the closest we have come to defining the approach FemSex attempts: by

“developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity [. . .] oper-at[ing] in a pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned.”

In order to draw attention to the disparities of transition we would like to discuss Aotearoa/New Zealand (where two of the authors live) as a case in point. Aotearoa’s healthcare system was created with cisgender people’s interests in mind, who are the majority of the population. In much the same way that healthcare developed by a dominant culture such as Pakeha (non-Māori) may not recognise and address the health needs of minority cultures such as Māori, healthcare developed by cisgender people may not recognise and address the health needs of trans* and other gender minority people.

Sex Reassignment Surgeries (SRS), hormone replacement therapy, laser hair removal for facial and other hair, breast removal surgery, and vocal cord surgeries to raise the pitch of the voice – these are just a few of the essential healthcare needs of transgender people who require them. These medical treatments are often cited as the most important priority for transgender people. The vast majority of trans people cannot afford the most basic SRS surgery – costing $20,000 for trans women and $30,000 for trans men.

‘[previously] Every two years the state pays for three male-to-female operations (at around $50,000) and one female-to-male (performed abroad for around $100,000).’
(Dudding, 2014)

However with Aotearoa's only SRS surgeon Dr Walker’s retirement in 2014, this list is now completely on hold – and those that can afford SRS, can only access it abroad.

So while the way in which Jenner was able to access healthcare and transition was widely circulated and touched many people in the process - it does not epitomize everyone who is trans*. As one trans* activist put it “Caitlyn Jenner has a whole lot of power. It’s what she does with it that matters,”. While she shouldn’t be pushed into activism only a month after coming out - Caitlyn could use her position to make the personal political- by campaigning for a basic need which she was able to receive - trans* healthcare.

Melissa Janson
Masters student
Department of Arts and Social Sciences
University of Waikato, Aotearoa

Julia Uyttewaal
Independent Researcher
Berkeley, United states

Ahi Wi-Hongi
Trans community worker
Wellington, Aotearoa

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