From taking front and center of a Vanity Fair cover to receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYs to starring in her own reality show, I Am Cait, Caitlyn Jenner has been the center of public media attention for the summer of 2015. Jenner is now one of the most high-profile transgender individuals in the world and her celebrity position along with her ability to influence others because of her stardom has led many to see her as a potential leader of the transgender community in years to come.
While I do believe it’s true that Jenner’s coming out and transition has forced many members of the American public who previously had little to no contact with the transgender community to think about transgenderism and consider the struggles that trans individuals go through, I’m still hesitant to say that Jenner could or should be a poster child for the movement and its activism.
It’s good that Jenner is leading her life down the direction that she wants it to go, but that doesn’t mean that her transition was a typical story of transformation or that it is indicative of transgender needs in general. Surely Jenner has already received and will receive discrimination based on her gender identification, but she still has some privileges which put her above the average individual who comes out as transgender and begins a transition to the gender that he or she identifies as.
First, Jenner comes from an extremely wealthy background. She was easily able to pay for plastic surgery such as breast augmentation, a tracheal shave and facial reconstruction to give her a more feminine outward appearance. Additionally, should Jenner decide to undergo full gender reassignment surgery, she can afford to pay for this, whether her medical insurance covers this expense or not.
Most medical insurance companies, however, do not cover the cost of reassignment surgery and many do not even provide financial assistance for transgender individuals to receive hormone treatments. Not only that, but other expenses that transgender individuals may need to pay for, such as binders and other undergarments as well as counseling or therapy for the emotional issues that can accompany transitioning or gender dysphoria, are not always covered by medical insurance.
Even if trans individuals can find an insurance company which provides coverage for transitioning expenses, many still must deal with unpleasant healthcare interactions.
Recently, many trans individuals have taken to social media to reveal discrimination and transphobia in the doctor’s office by using the hashtag “#TransHealthFail” on twitter. Members of the trans community share memories of doctors and nurses blaming all medical issues on Hormone Replacement Therapy even if it is a totally unrelated problem and even health care workers using transphobic slurs and laughing at trans patients while in the same room.
The healthcare industry is not always friendly to transgender people, but that may be an obstacle that Jenner’s financial situation and success allows her to surpass.
The Human Rights Campaign released a report in 2013 about transgenderism and poverty, revealing that the unemployment rate for transgender individuals is double the national average and many trans workers can be discriminated against in the workplace due to lack of legislation regarding gender expression and identification. With transgender individuals struggling to find and keep jobs, find medical insurance and navigate the doctor’s office, cosmetic surgery and other expenses are not as readily accessible as they were to Jenner.
While it is not Jenner’s fault that she has the money to pay for these procedures and benefits, it definitely shows that her life is not the typical existence for many transgender individuals, bringing into question whether she is really the ideal candidate to represent the transgender community.
Additionally, Jenner came from an extremely supportive household, another privilege which many trans individuals do not have. She is lucky for this blessing, but once again, not wholly representative of the typical transgender person and his or her needs.
Will Jenner become a forerunner for transgender activism? It is certainly possible. She has the platform to make a difference and convince many people who were not previously interested in the transgender community to listen. Yet, it is not for the largely cisgender mass media community to decide. Whether Jenner should and will be the spokeswoman for the transgender community is solely up to her and others in the field of transgender activism.
I think Jenner needs a lot of understanding her own privileges and walking in the shoes of others before she is going to be able to lead a collective group in the long and difficult battle for equality.