Update: I’ve written a followup here and turned off the comments on this post after an inbox full of attacks. If you still wish to comment, feel free to do so on the followup post.
Tonight, it’s expected that Bruce Jenner will reveal they’re transgender in a two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer. For most of us trans folk, especially the ladies, this is something we’ve been dreading for quite some time.
It may be tempting to see this as a great bit of visibility for the trans community and another chance for us to talk about trans issues. It may appear we are gaining an advocate and spokesperson in the mainstream media. None of this is true, however. There is nothing positive to come from this interview tomorrow. Most of us are actually quite afraid of the world we will be living in after this evening.
(Please note that I am using the singular “they” as Jenner’s pronoun. Jenner has not yet asked us to use a different pronoun and doing so before being told what to use would be inappropriate.)
What is important to consider is where Bruce Jenner is coming from. They are a privileged white person who exists in the heart of celebritydom. They are already a household name in mainstream media…and rich. Yes, this is going to make their personal experience difficult in a way most of us could not imagine, however, this is where the problem lies. Jenner’s experience does not and will never line up with the experience of 99.99% of trans people. Everything about Jenner will be about them and not about trans people.
Jenner will never understand the fear of being fired from their job simply because they are transgender. Jenner will not have to fear violence at every turn. They will not struggle to afford treatment (hormones, surgery, etc) while fighting with insurance companies to get anything at all covered. They will not experience housing discrimination.
Jenner will literally be able to buy their way out of any experience even remotely typical for those of us in the transgender community. Jenner will be able to snap their fingers for a new wardrobe, a body guard, medical treatment, and anything else they need.
This is not the person who should be the face of our community. The face of our community should not be our most privileged and least marginalized. It should be exactly the opposite. The face of our community should be our most marginalized. Our focus should not be trickle-down in nature. We need to be lifting up from the bottom. No one should be left behind. Our focus and the face of our community should be transgender women of color.
Jenner is not equipped for these conversations, nor should they even be expected to. Even for me, it took a couple years of listening to others in my community before I felt confident enough to be having important discussions around trans issues. I needed to learn the limits of my experience and to not speak over or for those less privileged than me. I needed to learn when to elevate the voices of others and speak in ways and about things with the nuance necessary to not over-step my boundaries. This does not come automatically.
This will not be how things go with Jenner. They will immediately be treated as an expert on transgender issues by the media. Their experience will be put front and center as The Transgender Experience™ instead of just one of many ways to be transgender and experiences to have. We saw this happen recently with Zoey Tur.
Jenner is not an expert on trans issues. I don’t even consider myself to be an expert and I am involved in the community and with activism. In reality, no one can truly be an expert on trans issues because trans experiences are varied and individualistic. Being a vocal part of the trans community and speaking for trans people means having a deep understanding of this fact. It is impossible for Jenner to possess this understanding.
Going even beyond Jenner’s ability to speak for trans people, we’ve already had a glimpse of the nastiness to come from the media. It’s not pretty. Simply look at TMZ and other tabloid publications. Jenner comes with too much baggage. People are too eager to use them being transgender as another way to attack him in pursuit of a quick buck.
Much of the bullying and attacks on Jenner feel like a flashback to the 90s for me. I still have mental scars from the imagery and treatment of trans people in the 90s. Media depictions like those on Jerry Springer set me back almost two decades in figuring out who I was and how to navigate being transgender. I fear a repeat of this for transgender youth of today.
Bruce Jenner’s stardom comes with immense visibility, but visibility isn’t always positive. Each insult hurled at Jenner isn’t just an insult of Jenner, it’s an attack on all trans people. These “jokes” are at the expense of all trans people. We are the punchline. Jenner will be a magnet for transphobia and transmisogyny and while they may be able to endure it and shelter themself from it thanks to decades of experience being in the spotlight, the vast majority of the trans community cannot.
Jenner’s “journey” and this interview won’t be about transgender people and the trans community, it will be about them and all of us will be the innocent victims handed over in exchange for media profits.
Regardless of all of this, Jenner still deserves our respect. They deserve to be properly gendered however they ask us to do. But I beg for the world to not look to Jenner to speak for us.
Update: Based on a lot comments I’ve received in various places, it seems as though I completely failed to make one of my main points clear enough. I 100% support Bruce Jenner and all trans people. My issue isn’t with Bruce Jenner themself at all. It is with a society and a media that will no doubt center around their experience and their story as THE transgender story and experience. We all have different stories and experiences and they are all worth being heard. I don’t want to, in any way, imply that I don’t believe that. Bruce’s experience is just one of an infinite number of them. What I fear is what will be thrust upon Bruce and the elevation of THEIR story over all others. This will only serve to bury the stories of our most marginalized.