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June 09, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner’s big reveal? Reactions from Philadelphia’s transgender community

Entertainment Media
Caitlyn Jenner High Res Vanity Fair /for PhillyVoice

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as reality television star and former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, poses in an exclusive photograph made by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair magazine and released by Vanity Fair on June 1, 2015.

He was 22 when he first realized he wanted to transition. “I began changing to male pronouns,” says Jaden Remy, now 30. While Remy’s story mirrors those of many other transgender men and women, the truth is that not every transgender story is like the next. Race, age and economics each play an enormous role in how successfully (or not) someone is able to transition, which makes Caitlyn Jenner’s reveal that much more of a hot-button issue for many within Philly’s own trans community.

“I applaud Ms. Jenner for her courage and strength,” Remy says. “Any positive coverage of a trans person is a step in the right direction of acceptance and equality for our community.”

But Remy, who took his name from a superhero, knows from experience that the transition is a long process and that there’s really no “right” way to do it. He started saving up for his own top surgery (the removal of female breasts) seven years before he actually had it done. And while it’s been life changing, to say the least, (Remy posts a lot of photos on social media documenting his transition, and was recently profiled in The New York Times), it didn’t happen overnight. He was lucky to have supportive family and friends, something that many transgender brothers and sisters are often lacking.

Reality vs. reality TV

Elizabeth Coffey Williams, a resident of the John C. Anderson Apartments, transitioned long before other famous trans men and women like Chaz, Caitlyn and Laverne. Having appeared in several early John Waters films (she began taking hormones to develop breasts and female features when she appeared in "Pink Flamingos" in 1972), she had gender reassignment surgery just a week after filming her scene with legendary drag star Divine in "Female Trouble".

Today, married with one child, Williams is paying close attention to the media hype surrounding Caitlyn Jenner.

“I can only hope that since Ms. Jenner has chosen to present herself in such a public fashion, that she will use her visibility to address the issues faced by the trans population,” she says.

Williams has spent much of her life championing LGBT causes and sees this as an opportunity to enlighten people. “Discrimination, bullying, poverty and unspeakable violence are still epidemic,” she says. “Hundreds of trans people, a disproportionately high number being trans women of color, still meet a tragic and violent death each year.”

In Philadelphia, several notable crimes against trans women like Nizah Morris and Kyra Cordova have yet to be solved. And just recently, a suspect was arrested for allegedly murdering trans woman London Chanel in an abandoned row home in North Philly. The statistics of violence against the trans community is staggering, with an estimated one in two people having experienced sexual assault or physical abuse.

The focus on how Jenner looks, though, almost mirrors how women are treated in the media in general.

And while Williams believes that the level of publicity surrounding Jenner’s transition could be good for trans awareness overall, she admits, “It’s still a bit easier to struggle in a mansion than it is in a homeless shelter.”

Is there such a thing as trans privilege?

The Bilerico Project, one of the oldest and largest blogs, recently took on this issue of trans privilege, the idea that many well-educated, white, economically secure trans people who often end up telling their stories in the media are not necessarily representative of the trans community at large. As anyone who’s ever attended a Trans Day of Remembrance might attest, the statistics of violence against transgender people is impossible to overlook. And the stories are sobering. Many people of color who grow up disadvantaged are disowned by their families, turn to sex work to make ends meet and risk their health and wellness by buying unsafe hormones everywhere but the doctor’s office. They often go without important medical and psychological treatment that can mean the difference between life and death.

In Philly, the Mazzoni Center is committed to providing care for the transgender community regardless of financial need. The center’s Trans Wellness Project, one of the most respected such centers in the country, is focused on meeting the diverse needs of the community – everything from street outreach to social services and healthcare. The center also operates a free True Care clinic twice a week and P.A.C.T.S. (Pediatric and Adolescent Comprehensive Transgender Services), the only program in Philly designed for young people and their families. As more young (pre-pubescent and teenage) people are coming out as transgender, the need for these programs is growing.

Deja Lynn Alvarez, 40, works as a peer outreach worker at the Mazzoni Center. As someone who has transitioned herself, she assists others throughout the experience, ensuring that they receive the proper healthcare and support. That’s what makes the spotlight on Jenner so poignant.

“I think it's a great opportunity for our community,” says Alvarez. “There really is no right or wrong way to transition. It’s important for society, as well as our community, that we respect everyone's transition no matter what your position in life, finances or age.”

While Alvarez admits that being financially secure does make the transition easier (most surgeries are not covered by most employers and healthcare policies), being in the public eye also has its share of challenges. She says Jenner’s reality television fame does not diminish her experience and does not make it any easier or less emotionally taxing. “I hope our community will use this as a teaching moment and society will use this as a learning moment,” she says.

Sharron L. Cooks, owner and CEO of Making Our Lives Easier, a consulting firm that provides social resources to marginalized people and organizations in Philadelphia, spends much of her time engaging in social, political and economic advocacy for trans and LGBT issues.

Her hope? That the fanfare over the Vanity Fair story does not diminish the painful realities that many transgender people face in a society that can be anything but tolerant.

“Many trans women, especially trans women of color, can not afford basic medical care, obtain sustainable and gainful employment, still face discrimination and violence and only make headlines when they have been brutally attacked and are murdered,” explains Cooks. “We have young people being disowned by their families, engaging in survival sex work and living on the streets and in abandoned buildings.”

As a volunteer at the William Way LGBT Community Center, Cooks has met many transgender men and women and has heard myriad stories – from the inspiring to the heartbreaking. And while Jenner’s transition at 65 years old is not something to be dismissed by any means, on the contrary, she hopes Caitlyn's story will help others tell their own stories, it will ideally introduce us to people who are often overlooked or mocked for being true to themselves.

It starts but doesn’t end with Jenner

Joe Ippolito, a 45-year-old clinician, advocate and educator (he founded Gender Reel, a transgender film festival) is looking on the bright side. As a transgender man, he hopes that while even though Jenner, a white and wealthy person who has passed for many years as a male and experienced all that comes with white male privilege in this country, will become a touchstone for trans issues that matter.

“This kind of visibility is crucially important in moving the trans narrative forward into the mainstream,” says Ippolito. “At this point in history, mainstreaming the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming people (GnC) needs to happen in order to make the lives of all trans and GnC people easier.”

Jenner’s reveal has already inspired conversations all over social media and across the dining room table in households around the world where such discussions have seldom happened, if ever at all. That Jenner had been a beloved Olympic athlete, a hero to many, surely has the power to open at least some peoples’ eyes the reality of gender issues through his own unique story.

“My only concern is the continued lack of recognition regarding the trans male experience,” admits Ippolito. While Chaz Bono had certainly made in-roads a few years ago when he documented his transition on TV and in his book, and later appearing on "Dancing With the Stars", the big question is whether society at large will ever truly grasp the diversity of the experience?

 “I’m glad that we are talking about people as trans and not as a woman who used to be a man.”

Later this summer, well-known trans man Aydian Dowling will be making history when he appears on the cover of Men’s Health magazine after winning The Ultimate Guy Search. Jenner will also be debuting his new reality show, and ABC Family is airing "Becoming Us", a reality show about teenager Ben and his transgender mother starting this week.

Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, has also been vocal about the transgender experience, making in-roads as a well-respected actress and activist. She came out publicly about the Jenner reveal, discussing the politics of race that’s often ignored when the transgender experience gets media coverage. But like Carmen Carrera from RuPaul’s Drag Race, the world has only ever seen them as women. Arguably Jenner is offering a highly unusual glimpse into the transition itself, her very own experience going from male to female, even if it is tinged with the Kardashian spotlight and no shortage of equity (and a glam squad).

“I think that Caitlyn Jenner’s reveal was exactly what the world needed. It was right in your face. If nothing else, it got people talking,” says Kayden Coleman, a 28-year- old trans man. “To see someone, an Olympic gold medalists at that, who has presented as male for 65 years, and more than half of that in the (very) public eye transition? That is epic.”

Jai Leidy, a 34-year-old trans guy, also thinks Jenner’s reveal is great not only for Jenner (“she can live her truth,” he says), but for the world at large. “She is in an amazing position to help the world understand.”

But for many in the trans community, like Eli Vandenberg, 36, they may not remember Bruce Jenner, the Olympic athlete. Instead, they are painfully aware of Jenner as a ridiculed reality TV show star on a show that glamourizes, well, glamour and riches.

“I had not been following the story too closely,” Vandenberg says. “When something so raw and so complicated is being so scripted and so managed I really struggle to find the honesty and integrity of the action and the reaction.”

Like many of us, when the cover picture infiltrated Facebook this month, everyone seemed to have something to say, and most of the comments were about how Jenner looked. “The quickest reactions were from non-trans (some queer, some not) friends who said things like ‘beautiful’ or ‘nice job’ or whatever,” he says. “I am very, very concerned about measuring someone’s gender success by their traditional physical beauty.”

Before Vandenberg transitioned, he had this vague, almost nebulous idea of what he thought a man should look like, or more to the point, what he thought he should look like as a man.

“I became the man that I am,” he says. “Certainly my body changed, but I didn’t turn into some perfect vision of masculinity. If Caitlyn Jenner is the standard of a successful transition, then very few people are going to be successful.” Few people, after all, have Annie Leiboviz taking their photos.

The focus on how Jenner looks, though, almost mirrors how women are treated in the media in general. It’s as though the transgender community (trans women specifically) are being subjected to the same scrutiny that’s applied to all women who end up on the cover of magazines. When just about every magazine preaches about how to lose weight or look a certain way (usually thin and white) is it any surprise that society may begin judging Jenner or other trans women with the same critical eye?

“One thing I think is positive is that there is talk of the act of transitioning,” says Vandenberg. “People aren’t just disappearing and a new, finished person is reemerging.”

He remembers coming out as queer many years ago, and how that was a community building experience, whereas coming out as trans, where the presumptive goal was to pass, was often inherently isolating. “I’m glad that we are talking about people as trans and not as a woman who used to be a man,” he says, “but I disagree with the premise that we’re ‘Meeting Caitlyn.’ I think Caitlyn has been there all along. Just no one was allowed to see her.”

Seeing is certainly believing for Aeryanah Von Moi, an employee at the 12th Street Gym, who says that when she was growing up, she never knew anyone who was transgender. That’s why she hopes that Jenner’s visibility will not only help people who know very little about the transgender experience, but also transgender people themselves.

“The trans community is on the global stage right now,” she says. “And not in a Jerry Springer way. Caitlyn is saving lives by sharing her story.”

Messapotamia Lefae, a 28-year-old advocate in the LGBT community, worries that Jenner is being exploited and that her story may be presumed to be the story of “all” trans people, which is simply untrue. Lefae has already been feeling the after shocks.

“This woman that I know came up and asked me if I watched the ABC interview,” says Lefae. “She presumed that I was suicidal and masochistic because I’m trans, because clearly all trans people must be suicidal and masochistic. I felt like rather than finally asking me about my gender identity and my personal tranny-transformation, she was telling me what it must have been like.”

After answering questions about what it was like to transition, Lefae realized that this woman knew very little, and pretty much based what little she did know on Jenner.

Is that progress? Are there bound to be complications? Is the subject complicated? Of course. But we have a chance to make some progress if we listen to what Philly’s trans community has to say when it comes to living, working and coexisting in a city that offers quite a lot in terms of trans awareness and legal safety nets. But that isn’t to say that Jenner won’t be both a breath of fresh air and a bane for some people who would very much like their own stories to be heard over the media din.

“She’s the token transgender celebrity,” says Lefae. “I’m afraid that people will presume that every other trans woman is sorta like Caitlyn Jenner.” In other words: rich, white and post-op.

“All in all,” she says, “I sort of hate that trans is trendy.”