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The Internet cheered Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out in Vanity Fair as a watershed moment in transgender visibility. It’s not often that someone becomes a cover model and a trending topic on social media and breaks a Guinness World Record for fastest Twitter account to reach 1 million followers.
But many were quick to point out that there’s still a lot of work to be done for transgender equality. As transgender activists noted on social media, Jenner’s experience is far from the reality of most transgender people, who can only dream of experiencing the same support from their families and society.
According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to live in poverty compared with the general population, “and these disparities are much greater for transgender black and Latina women,” said Kylar W. Broadus, director of the group’s Transgender Civil Rights Project.
On one hand, Jenner is a positive example of what it looks like to have access to the rights and treatment to which all transgender people aspire, said Lourdes Ashley Hunter, national director of the Trans Women of Color Collective.
On the other, as a rich, attractive white celebrity, she represents the most palatable narrative mainstream America is willing to accept for its transgender icons, Hunter said.
“Caitlyn’s coming out is relatable to mainstream American society because she is white, Republican, rich and famous,” said Hunter, who advocates on behalf of black and Latina transgender women.
“Her celebrity status is great for visibility, but it can and will be used as a distraction from the lived experiences of trans folk who continue to battle discrimination when accessing basic needs such as housing, employment, education and health care.”
No one is saying Jenner does not deserve support, Hunter said. While celebrating Jenner, Hunter and others hope the media will use the moment to draw attention to barriers transgender people face in everyday life.
“Any time someone is able to live fully and safely as their authentic self, it is a beautiful thing that we should celebrate. We can celebrate, though, while recognizing that Caitlyn’s experience is dramatically different from that of most transgender people,” said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center.
“Bills have been introduced across the country to criminalize transgender people for using the bathroom. There is a tremendous amount of violence against the community and challenges simply to living and thriving as our authentic selves. Our communities, and particularly transgender and gender nonconforming people of color, face alarming rates of homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration, all of which contribute to other barriers like lack of access to health care.”
Thanks to her wealth and celebrity status, Jenner is isolated from those forms of discrimination and harassment, said Broadus.
The National LGBTQ Task Force shared several statistics on Twitter showing how the transgender community, especially women and people of color, are disproportionately affected by various forms of discrimination, based on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
Many of these barriers are related to each other, and most stem from difficulty obtaining government-issued identification corresponding to gender identity, Broadus said. Without such identification, it’s hard to get a permanent address or a job, which in turn makes it difficult to obtain official identification.
It matters because privacy is just as important to transgender people as anyone else, Hunter said. Who doesn’t want to go by his or her preferred name or gender at the bank, at the supermarket or when applying for a job?
“It’s traumatizing, and every time you pull it out, it raises questions,” she said. “You out yourself, and it makes you susceptible to mistreatment and violence.”
These pitfalls make it harder to access treatment that allows transgender people to medically correspond to their gender identity – if that’s the goal.
It was another shared sentiment on social media in the wake of Jenner’s coming out: Not everyone aspires to conform to stereotypes of what society says a man or woman should look like. Beauty means different things to different people, and you don’t have to resemble Jessica Lange to be considered worthy of acceptance.
It’s something the “Orange Is the New Black” star experienced in 2014 when she was featured on the cover of Time magazine for its cover story, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.”
Like Jenner, she was applauded at the time for being “drop dead gorgeous” in a way that embodies “cisnormative beauty standards,” she wrote. Her look drew criticism from some in the transgender community.
“It is important to note that these standards are also informed by race, class and ability among other intersections,” she said.
“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 representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities.”