Caitlyn Jenner has made a public appearance, and the mainstream media runs amok!
The entire media machinery, especially the giant U.S.-owned concerns, are putting Jenner’s case on the headline. This not only gives her maximum publicity, but also puts her case at the forefront of Transgender issues. All of a sudden, it is as if being ‘Transgender’ is a somewhat ‘cool’ trend, like stylish folks running after the latest high-street fashion trends.
Sometime back, a Transwoman of colour [‘of colour’ is used here deliberately because of the rampant double standards and discriminatory perceptions against Transgender people of colour] Janet Mock wrote an engaging and well-written book, Redefining readiness. When Mock was interviewed – at a much low-profile level than Jenner – some journalists tried hard to near-misgender the author, narrowing down the book, its content, Mock’s persona and lived experience to mere genitalia. When talented actress and ardent Trans-rights advocate Laverne Cox appeared on talk shows, interviewers would, more often than not, try to drift the conversation towards Cox’s gender assigned at birth, with comments not very thoughtful. Fortunately for the Trans-community and for Mock and Cox, they are both extremely articulate, and are capable of summarily dismissing such comments directed towards them.
When a privileged, wealthy and most certainly white person emerges a Transgender female, it takes a celebratory turn, with the media embracing a new-found interest in Trans issues. This, if anything, is an outright display of hypocrisy. Mainstream media pursuing an approach to news coverage based on blatant double standards, however, is nothing new, and can be observed in every walk of life, especially in the political sphere. At the recently concluded 2015 British general election, for example, the tabloid newspapers owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch encouraged his English readers to vote for David Cameron (while hammering Labour, Cameron’s principle opponent in England and Wales). Meanwhile, the Scottish edition of the same paper encouraged readers to vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP), this time hammering the Labour Party, the SNP’s primary rival in Scotland. The ultimate objective was that of ensuring a Conservative victory, and the continuity of Murdoch’s pal Cameron as British prime minister for another five years.
Coming back to the Jenner case, a large number of Trans writers and activists have expressed their distaste of the media’s take on Jenner. Revisiting a couple of core ideas is worthwhile, for the sake of dissemination. Transwomen are among the most vulnerable communities throughout the world. This especially applies to Transwomen of colour, as the series of murders of Transwomen (especially African American Transwomen) in the the USA in early 2015 demonstrated. When the issue is explored from a children and young people’s perspective, let’s take the issue up-front: in both Western and non-Western societies, a majority of parents seem to find it extremely hard to accommodate a child assigned ‘male’ at birth, who comes out as Transgender female, genderqueer and/or non-binary/non-conformist. This was at the heart of the late Leelah Alcorn’s story. As Laverne Cox once cogently explained in a televised interview, the legacy of slavery and the struggle of African Americans for equality have left lasting scars on definitions and images of ‘pride’ and ‘masculinity’ in the African-American community. Violence against African Americans such as lynching especially included torture inflicted upon male genitalia, and the memories of such rough times remain, with [cisgender and arch-traditional] male pride being perceived as something to strive for, and protect using all possible means. In such a context, African-American gender-queer people, especially Transgender women, are often perceived as an insult to the prized African-American manhood. This may, albeit parsimoniously, help explain violence against African-American Transgender females perpetrated by African American cisgender males.
Gender non-conformism is also inextricably linked to the legacy of colonialism. In many societies in the global South that Western powers colonised, non-binary and ‘fluid’ gender identities happened to be part and parcel of local social and cultural life, with gender-non-conformist people even being accorded a status of respect in some societies and religious faiths. The violent and repressive imposition of Victorian values across the British Empire and Catholic prudishness across Portuguese, French and Spanish colonies, scores of people continue to deny rich traditions of gender non-conformity in their respective societies. In immigrant communities, people often respond to discrimination, social pressure and widespread prejudices through cis-normativity and heteronormativity. This makes life doubly difficult for Transgender-genderqueer and non-binary people from migrant backgrounds.
Amidst an array of social, financial and psychological challenges, Transgeder activists – including, most significantly, Transgender activists of colour, such as the Audre Lorde Project – work tirelessly to address the stigmatisation, discrimination and violence that Trans people face.
The Jenner story is one that the media and publicity powerhouses embraces with open arms, as it is a celebrity (and by implication, comparatively ‘happy’) story. The problem of zooming in on such a story as a ‘Transgender’ issue lies in the monumental, shocking and simply unacceptable discrepancy between the plight of ordinary Transgender people and ‘celebrity’ Transgender identity. This issue is rendered further problematic to non-binary and genderqueer individuals, as the high attention Jenner receives helps publicise a perception that equates Transgender identities with a rather ‘traditional’ cisgender (in this case cisgender female) identity. Readings of this nature, when proliferated overwhelmingly in the mainstream press, serve to deliberately turn away the little attention that non-binary, non-Caucasian, non-cisgender genderqueer people get in media outlets.
In any case, good for Jenner (and whoever Trans celebrity that follows suit), but not so good for a large number of Transpeople at the grassroots, grappling mammoth problems of violence, discrimination, unemployment, psychological trauma, rejection from personal circles, misgendering and poverty – to name just a handful of issues.