How To Not Compliment Caitlyn Jenner

If you’ve been online at all in the past few days, you know that Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) is the big topic of discussion. Instead of writing about the polarizing reactions I’ve seen – which range from applause, to collapsing on the fainting couch in horror – I want to write about something that Laverne Cox discussed and what is a common thread in conversations by people who do support trans people and trans rights.

This is from Laverne Cox. The emphasis is added:

A year ago when my Time magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am “drop dead gorgeous” and that that doesn’t represent most trans people. (It was news to be that I am drop dead gorgeous but I’ll certainly take it). But what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves . It is important to note that these standards are also infomed by race, class and ability among other intersections. I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people. No one or two or three trans people can. This is why we need diverse media representstions of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities.

Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance has been a huge focus of her big debut. The quote (from a supportive Demi Lovato) that I was most troubled by came from the singer’s twitter:

Screenshot 2015-06-02 at 7.51.37 PM

The problem with focusing on how attractive a trans person is or pointing out body parts, and saying things like, “So-and-so looks more like a woman that I do,” “You could never tell that so-and-so wasn’t born a man,” or anything that breaks down to objectifying their appearance, basically says that how someone looks is what defines a man or a woman. I don’t think Demi Lovato is aware of what her statement suggests, but it boils down to beliefs like, “The better the boobs, the more woman the woman.”

Why is this a big deal? Because it facilitates a culture of violence against trans people. Extreme? Unfortunately, no. Beauty and appearance play a huge role in how people are viewed, and trans people are no exception. There are way too many stories about trans women being assaulted or murdered because a straight cis man has felt she has “tricked” him into finding her attractive. The term “trap” is used to describe a transwoman who hasn’t had surgery, but is still conventionally “hot” for a woman. People often get extremely confused – even enraged – when they can’t identify the gender of complete strangers they see on the street because that person doesn’t fall into conventional appearance standards for “male” or “female.” In July of 2013 from Canada to the United States to Central and South America, trans people were being murdered at a 50% higher rate than gay and lesbian people, who outnumber trans people 6 to 1. Think about that number for a second. And let’s not pretend their murders were not almost assuredly connected to their trans identity.

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Society is obsessed with appearance. To keep focusing on that, especially in the case of trans people where that type of focus leads to violence – is dangerous and unfair. Trans people are people, first and foremost, with stories and interests and fears and doubts and dreams. As Laverne Cox wrote, trans people – like any person – want to be seen for who they are as themselves, not for their appearance. They shouldn’t have to embody certain standards of beauty to be seen as who they are. To reduce their journey to whether or not they “pass,” is not a compliment.

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