Skirting the Issues: Privilege vs. Perspective
In the spring of 2008, while still presenting as male, I walked into The Town House Bar in St. Paul for the very first time. Internet searching had suggested that an older, well-connected, and likable transwoman named “Nora” frequented there.
After an hour or so of sitting by myself at a back table, I spotted a taller older woman with white hair who was surrounded by people. I watched as one person, and then another, stopped to pay this woman homage.
That’s Nora, I said to myself.
Eventually, I worked past my introvert roots and approached. “Hi,” I said. “Are you Nora by any chance?”
The woman tilted her head and answered, “Yes. Do I know you?”
I responded that she didn’t but that I had heard of her. “More than one person has said you’re the Mother Superior of transgender people.”
Nora laughed. I asked if we could talk, which led to us sitting in a back room where, for nearly an hour, Nora conducted what amounted to a Trans 101 orientation — about the transgender community, its resources, and the hurdles one needs to overcome in order to transition genders. That one conversation shaped my perspective to this day.
I’ll forever be grateful to Nora for taking the time to care about me, a complete stranger.
By the time this piece goes to press, nearly half a dozen Caitlyn Jenner I am Cait episodes will have aired. Understanding that I’ve seen only the first two episodes and that I’m taking a certain risk relative to “staleness,” I’d like to weigh in on one aspect of Ms. Jenner’s life orientation that’s been readily apparent from the first moments of the first show.
Privilege. Rich white male privilege to be exact.
To be clear, as I’ve written before, I view Caitlyn Jenner as the critical catalyst for greater societal understanding and acceptance of trans persons. Thus, what follows isn’t an attack on her — god, no, I both respect and have much in common with her — but is instead an honest calling out of some gaps in Caitlyn’s perspective on the community she’s now leading.
I can talk about Caitlyn’s shortcoming because, as I relate above, I also was quite ignorant about trans folk. Heck, I’m sure many would offer that I still have some gaping holes in my perspective.
The fact that Caitlyn looks darn good for her age doesn’t mean that she’s cleared all the necessary hurdles to achieving true womanhood. Indeed, it’s painfully obvious that one hurdle is the inability to understand that her transwomen sisterhood spans a very wide spectrum ranging from the homeless who engage in survival sex work to the country’s richest female CEO.
Thus, with episode two of I Am Cait, we hear Caitlyn admit that until hosting an on-air “girls party” of various transgender activists and writers, she had never been in the presence of more than one trans person at a time. We then watched her jaw drop as one of the “girls,” actress Candis Cayne, talked about searching for a trans-friendly physician, only to hear that the doctor she saw later publicly stated he didn’t want “any more of those (trans) people” in his waiting room.
Revelations about Caitlyn’s limited perspective continued with her saying that social programs cause people not to work. Since many of those programs (such as free medical care and Social Security Disability Insurance) are all that some transgender persons have, Caitlyn’s comment reflected both ignorance and arrogance. While one can rationalize that Caitlyn’s political/conservative background accounts for this attitude, it’s no excuse for not becoming more familiar with the challenges facing trans people (or, for that matter, lower income-earning persons in general).
What struck me most about Caitlyn was her apparent pre-transition lack of curiosity about transgender persons. It was painfully obvious that she hadn’t even done the most basic of internet searches related to being a part of the GLBT alphabet. Indeed, until being told right in front of the camera, Caitlyn didn’t even know about the Human Rights Campaign and its work on behalf of GLBT people nationally.
Something tells me there’s no Town House Bar anywhere close to Caitlyn’s Malibu estate. Even if such a gathering place for trans people existed, I’m not at all sure that Caitlyn would have frequented it given her ignorance about folks who stand on much lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
Paraphrasing Jennifer Boylan (one of Caitlyn’s new trans friends), “If Caitlyn’s going to be a spokesperson for our community, she’s going to need to understand what it means to be transgender in our society.” I couldn’t agree more.
At one time, I was also ignorant like Caitlyn. Similar to Caitlyn, I lived a very privileged life of country clubs, big houses, fancy cars, and money. Unlike Caitlyn, I lost all of that as a consequence of finally being me, a woman named Ellen, something which gave me greater empathy for others who are less fortunate.
Witnessing Caitlyn’s lack of perspective made me appreciate the education that I received by simply being at The Town House on Pumps & Pearls night.
Caitlyn should have found a Nora, too, long before she became my leader.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honest and Gender Change (2013). She welcomes your comments at [email protected].