Caitlyn Jenner + Rose McGowan Fight Takes Away From Real Issues

When a public figure is thrust into the national spotlight and faced with an insurmountable pressure to become a spokesperson for a movement, trivial nitpicking can take center stage, while real issues become lost in the sauce. That’s exactly what happened this past week to the transgender movement, when a metric ton of shit hit the fan surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s acceptance of Glamour’s 25th Annual Woman of the Year Award. We’ve all borne witness to the incredibly inspiring and divisive journey that Caitlyn has taken the country on. She shed the false image of Bruce that had tormented her for over sixty years, reemerging as the woman she’d always been.

With a historic Vanity Fair cover, a 20/20 special with Diane Sawyer, and an E! docuseries called I Am Cait, Caitlyn has undoubtedly had the biggest year in her life. Yet as of late, this has been overshadowed by a firestorm of controversy, beginning with a comment made to Buzzfeed backstage at the awards ceremony.

The Comment That Ignited an Outcry

It's the line that sparked a thousand angry responses.
It’s the line that sparked a thousand angry responses.

It all began when Caitlyn was asked what the hardest part about being a woman was, to which she gave a response that seems to have caused some people’s entire worlds to implode. Here’s the full answer:

“The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear. It’s always that way; I never thought it would come to this. I had really no sense of style. Everyone around me in my family had the sense of style — I learned as much as I possibly could. But, it’s more than that. I’m kind of at this point in my life where I’m trying to figure this womanhood thing out. It is more than hair, makeup, clothes, all that kind of stuff. There’s an element here, that I’m still kind of searching for. And I think that’ll take a while. Because I think as far as gender, we’re all on a journey. We’re all learning and growing about ourselves. And I feel the same way.”

Want to take a wild guess about what aspect of that answer was ripped out of context and caused people to take out their picket signs and pitchforks? If you guessed, “the hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” you are correct. Leading the charge against Caitlyn’s comment are 9/11 widower James Smith and outspoken feminist advocate and Dawn actress Rose McGowan. Smith captured national attention when he returned his wife Moira’s Woman of the Year award, and wrote an open letter criticizing Glamour for its decision. Moira had posthumously received the award in 2001 for her rescue efforts and tragic death at the World Trade Center. In his letter condemning Caitlyn’s award, Smith was careful to note that he supported Glamour’s decision to honor actress Laverne Cox in 2014, but was instead outraged by the notion that getting dressed is the hardest part about being a woman.

“They didn’t have the luxury of being part of the Kardashian circus,” Smith wrote. “They weren’t living in a Malibu Barbie beach house surrounded by what passes for family in Hollywood. They were truly brave people fighting hourly for existence. When Mr. Jenner said the hardest part about being a woman was figuring out what to, he proved to me that he is not truly a woman. I believe this comment and others he has made trivializes the transgender experience as I have witnessed it.”

Smith’s blatant misgendering of Caitlyn is cringeworthy, to say the least. McGowan added to the transphobic response with a fiery retort on a since-deleted Facebook post:

“You want to be a woman and stand with us- well learn us. We are more than deciding what to wear. We are more than the stereotypes foisted upon us by people like you. You’re a woman now? Well fucking learn that we have had a VERY different experience than your life of male privilege.

Woman of the year? No, not until you wake up and join the fight. Being a woman comes with a lot of baggage. The weight of unequal history. You’d do well to learn it. You’d do well to wake up. Woman of the year? Not by a long fucking shot.”

The actress wasn’t done. She shared a series of memes that overlayed Caitlyn’s out-of-context quote over graphic images of a woman being raped, a woman giving birth, a woman being followed at night, and even an image of Nicole Brown Simpson (Kris Jenner’s best friend) covered in bruises. McGowan’s response immediately created a wave of headlines and think pieces calling her feminist advocacy into question, and addressing her potential transphobia and her status as a cis white woman speaking on trans issues. With backlash mounting, McGowan eventually came out with a follow-up message to clarify her statement.

Refocusing the Trans Dialogue

The transgender community is in crisis and it's up to us to pay attention to the real issues.
The transgender community is in crisis, and it’s up to us to pay attention to the real issues.

Yes, there are so many issues women face that are bigger than what to wear every day. Yes, being trans doesn’t make one immune from criticism. However, by misgendering Caitlyn or suggesting that she is not yet a woman, as Smith and McGowan did in their respective statements, they are creating an essentialist portrayal of womanhood as something Caitlyn has yet to achieve. It’s wrong to refer to her with the incorrect pronouns, and using terms like “us” and “people like you” to refer to women when talking about Jenner casts her as an outsider looking in at womanhood.

It is a fact that Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, and always has been. There is no surgical requirement to become a “real” man or woman, because as scholars like Judith Butler have been pointing out for years, gender is a social construct—it’s confusing, complicated, and personal. Everyone experiences it differently, and to suggest that Caitlyn’s pre-transition “life of male privilege” disqualifies her from being awarded the Woman of the Year status is horrendous.

We all know Caitlyn Jenner is a 66-year-old white Republican woman with untold wealth, privilege, and teams of hair and makeup artists working nonstop to make her look glamorous. Her Olympian status made her the pinnacle of manhood. While living as Bruce, Caitlyn was massively famous, a masculine icon printed on Wheaties boxes. She has a team of security officers, and could afford a quick and speedy surgical transition without resorting to sex work like many transgender people looking to raise money for surgery. Despite her best efforts to understand the struggles most trans women go through on their journey, she remains imperfect and out-of-touch, because she will never truly experience those woes. Yet she is still a transgender woman who commands an international presence, and has become a spokeswoman and leader within the transgender community.

By attacking her out-of-context comment on the hardest part of being a woman, the dialogue over legitimate issues facing the transgender community becomes muffled. The reality is that there have been 21 documented reports of transgender homicide so far in 2015, and almost all of them are transgender women of color—a number that vastly underrepresents the true murder rate due to the difficulty of tracking the homicides. The reality is that transgender women are the fastest-growing population of HIV-positive people in the country. The reality is that transgender people are four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty, with a household income less than $10,000 a year. The reality is that one in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

Recognizing Today’s Transgender Leaders 

It's time we give equal attention to all of the trans leaders.

These are critical issues within the community that aren’t being talked about, because the conversation has shifted to a petty argument over a single comment taken out of context. It’s become easy to pick apart every word and action because of Jenner’s spotlight and fame. But we shouldn’t forget the sacrifices and accomplishments of people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock who—as trans women of color—are fighting a bigger battle, advocating for so many issues that are overshadowed by the frenzy over Caitlyn’s every move.

In addition to Cox’s acting and hosting work (she’s sure to be amazing in the new Rocky Horror), she’s a political advocate and critic, recently campaigning for the release of trans woman Cece McDonald (who was imprisoned for manslaughter after experiencing a hate crime). Mock uses her platform as a TV personality to highlight trans issues, she consistently discusses the need for intersectionality within the trans community, and her brave memoir, Redefining Realness, is a critically acclaimed bestseller. Cox and Mock are exceptional examples, and they still only represent a small number of the heroic leaders and advocates within the trans community fighting for equality, safety, and respect.

Focus on Caitlyn’s accomplishments and advocacy, but also focus equal time on the work by other people in the transgender community, who are not blessed with the privileges afforded to Caitlyn.  It’s time to stop sensationalizing and decontextualizing comments that take away from the issues that matter. No matter where you fall on the gender spectrum, it’s essential to work together.

Images via ABC, Glamour Magazine, Buzzfeed, Twitter, Flickr, and MSNBC. 

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