CN: References to violent, transphobic, and ableist language. Mentions of the murders of trans people, deadnaming, and negative attitudes on mental illness and mental disability.
Every time Caitlyn Jenner’s name appears in my social media feeds, and every time I hear her name out loud, I sigh. Between tabloid rumors about de-transitioning (unlikely) and adopting a baby, new interviews in the media in which she says she wants to be Ted Cruz’ “trans ambassador,” and her ongoing TV show “I am Cait,” it’s hard not to see her come up frequently. Family members and co-workers ask me about her. Other trans people rant about her. It’s impossible to get away.
But the reason I sigh isn’t only because of anything Jenner says herself. Sure, she’s a pretty bad representative of the trans community, since her enormous economic privilege makes her immune to many of the daily struggles trans people deal with every day. She says harmful things I disagree with on a regular basis. I was worried when she was coming out that Jenner would be seen by many as the public face of the transgender community, and this has unfortunately turned out to be largely true. But I am also sighing because of the responses. So many people’s responses are, frankly, terrible.
Every time Jenner says something awful people respond. Mostly I see these responses on Facebook and Twitter, though occasionally I hear them in person too. People rightly get frustrated and angry when she says she likes the political positions of Republican politicians. But much of the time the responses don’t address the problems with her comments – they attack her in ways that are transphobic, violent, or ableist.
To start from the simplest part: It is simply not okay to missgender someone, no matter how vile their views may be. Yet I often see comments from people who disagree with Jenner using her deadname and calling her “he” when writing about their disagreement. This simply isn’t okay – it’s not okay to missgender Jenner, me, or any other trans person or cis person or genderqueer person you disagree with. It’s not okay to call Ann Coulter a man either, by the way. You use the correct pronouns and names for people, no matter what.
It’s worth asking why on this – why should someone with vile opinions be respected like that? It’s an issue of splash damage. In fact, this will be true of all of my criticisms of how people talk about Jenner – it’s not because of the damage done to her when horrible things are said about her online. I’m not really that worried about Caitlyn Jenner’s feelings. It’s because calling her by her deadname normalizes the idea that there are circumstances in which that’s an okay thing to do. Doing it to Jenner makes it easier for people to do it to someone like me with far less power, or someone like my black trans women friends, who have even less power in the world than I do. It gives legitimacy to the idea that our identities are dependent upon living up to some standard of behavior, and it’s simply not true. Our identities are legitimate, no matter what.
The second worrying type of response I hear when people are angry about Jenner’s comments are ones of violence. The violence ranges from people saying they wish someone would slap her, all the way to calls for her murder.
Trans people are murdered and staggeringly high rates, and trans women are at an even higher risk than trans men (though we get killed plenty too). So when someone directs violent language at a trans woman, even one as economically privileged as Jenner, it’s frightening. Even jokes about running her over with a bus or similar are said in the context of the real fear trans people have about violence. It’s a very REAL threat in our lives.
I’m not generally one to like violent rhetoric towards anyone, but I can understand it when people in seriously marginalized groups direct real violence (riots) or jokes about violence against those with enormous power. But when this is done against someone who is from a marginalized population, especially one with as much risk of violence as trans people, it runs the risk of minimizing or even legitimizing
the violence against that group.
Finally, a lot of what I see from comments from friends of friends is highly ableist responses. The most common ableist slur I found on a recent Facebook post was “delusional.” People also call Jenner “stupid” “retarded” and “crazy.” She is, of course, none of these things. To the best of my knowledge Jenner does not have any mental illness and is not mentally disabled, though even if those things were true these words would not be okay to throw around.
The thing is, people can be wrong – even painfully, harmfully, or extremely wrong, without being “stupid” or “crazy.” Jenner has attitudes and beliefs that are seriously harmfully wrong, and they are not the product of a brain condition. Wrong beliefs and harmful attitudes exist without the help of mental illness or mental disability, and many mentally ill and disabled people have lots of true, good, and helpful attitudes and beliefs.
It does harm to mentally ill and mentally disabled people to equate harmful and wrong attitudes with these conditions. Mental illness doesn’t make someone a bad person, and mental disability doesn’t create bigotry or authoritarian attitudes or anything like that.
All of these harmful attacks also mean that attitudes like Jenner’s get written off without being meaningfully challenged. Instead of going after Caitlyn Jenner and anyone else that we disagree with by attacking their identities, threatening violence, or using ableist attacks, instead it’s worth taking a little more time to talk about why those attitudes are harmful. By all means, discuss how Jenner’s decision to put herself before the media as a spokesperson for the trans community is hurtful, especially to those who have been working for these issues for a lifetime. Talk about how conservative politics like Jenner’s lead to serious harm to the rights and lives of trans people and other minority groups.
Go after the ideas, and we might make some progress.