Michigan Trans Activists Respond To The Debut Of Caitlyn Jenner

By Jason A. Michael

At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Bruce Jenner won a gold medal in the decathlon and, in the process, set a new world record. This week Jenner set yet another new record.

After announcing to the world that she would now be known as Caitlyn in a tweet that featured a photo of her July cover shoot for Vanity Fair magazine, Jenner reached 1 million Twitter followers in just four hours.

After her April interview with Diane Sawyer for "20/20," the world, of course, knew that Jenner was transitioning. But this week, for the first time, the world saw what the new Jenner would look like and found out what her name would be. Her Twitter followers - as of this writing she's up to 2.38 million followers - show there's much public support for Jenner. Just hours after the photos made their debut, in fact, it was announced that Jenner would be honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYS in July.

Still, there has been, as was expected, a bit of a nasty conservative backlash, too. Republican blowhard Rush Limbaugh, in speaking of Jenner, said that transgender people "have a very serious problem, and they need treatment... They need help, not encouragement."

Remarks made in February by former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee were made public following the release of the Jenner photos. Huckabee said, "I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE. I'm pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, 'Coach, I think I'd rather shower with the girls today.'"

And pundits on Fox News - too many to list - acted predictably when they used the wrong pronouns and continued to call Jenner "Bruce" and refer to her as "he."

Perhaps the week's most interesting anti-transgender moment was the announcement that a

woman from Fort Worth, Texas, Jennifer Bradford, had started a petition on change.org to have Jenner stripped of her gold medal. "It has recently come to light that gold medalist Bruce Jenner is in fact transgender, and therefore, identifies as a woman," the ludicrous document reads in part. "We congratulate Ms. Jenner on these new developments and wish her the best. However, this creates somewhat of a problem as Ms. Jenner (as talented as she is) claims that she has always believed herself to be truly female, and therefore, was in violation of committee rules regarding women competing in men's sports and vice versa."

But enough about the nastiness. Between The Lines wanted to know what the transgender community thought about Jenner's transition. Will the Olympic athlete become the new champion for transgender rights? Or are Jenner's fame and Kardashian family values bringing about the wrong attention?

"I think that Caitlyn coming out and doing it so honestly and so forthrightly is an amazing thing," said Amy Hunter, a trans activist and legislative consultant for the ACLU and Equality Michigan. "Let's face it: the icon status that she had prior to transitioning affords a level of visibility that most of us aren't able to draw. So her coming out, something like 17 million people watched the Diane Sawyer interview. Then staging it to follow up with the Vanity Fair photos just kind of upped the interest. Monitoring it through social media and the popular media, what I'm noticing is that there's much more substantial conversation around treating trans people with dignity and respect going on. And a lot of folks, (non-trans) folks, defending Caitlyn. So I think over all it's a good thing."

Bre' Campbell, a Detroit area trans activist and a consultant to the Transgender Law Center, said that Jenner's glamorous and rapid transformation is a story that doesn't ring true for many in the trans community. She worries that Jenner is making what is often a painstaking process look easy and giving others the wrong idea.

"I think that Caitlyn Jenner's narrative is similar to those of white trans women who transition older, and I think there's a lot of privilege associated with transitioning when you're older and a lot of access that you're afforded," Campbell said. "But I'm afraid that people will think now that transitioning is just that easy. Because a couple months ago we saw Caitlyn (as Bruce) and she looked totally different now than she did then. And that's unrealistic, especially for communities of color."

Ethan C.J. Best, a trans activist and transitional life coach, agreed.

"The media is so focused on Caitlyn's physical transition that the opportunity for providing awareness and education about the emotional journey of transition and the hurt, the pain, the struggles, the hurdles and the denial of one's self is being lost," Best said. "This is a huge opportunity to help people understand and relate to members of the trans community through that human connection, but instead we're all caught up in how gorgeous she looks."

Still, Hunter said she believes there's a legitimate opportunity here.

"The photos were stunning and I had my own objectification moment when I went, 'Wow,'" Hunter said. "But then I stepped back and thought about what this means in a broader sense. If we continue the momentum to use this as a real conversation starter about the hurdles that your ordinary every day trans woman, or the trans woman of color, face. If we are using this as an opportunity to talk about how we can bring their quality of life and access to healthcare and their ability to feel safe to new levels, then I think this is a great thing."


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