On Caitlyn Jenner And Activist Work

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans, I heard some of my trans friends complaining: Why her?  Why did she get to be the face of trans women in America, when there were so many trans activists who’d devoted their life towards working for trans acceptance? Hell, Caitlyn hadn’t been notably political in any way before this, being a reality show TV star for one of the most fatuous and narcissistic celebrity families.  And even now, there’s no guarantee she’ll work to further trans issues beyond the simple fact of her being a trans person. (Though we can hope she does.)
Why was she the one who sparked conversation instead of the many activists who’d given their lives for the cause?
Yet if I had been asked to predict who would become the most famous trans person in the world – and to be honest, I wouldn’t have guessed that trans issues would have catapulted into the limelight in my lifetime – then my answer would have been, “Someone who got famous another way, then came out as trans.”
Because most humans need to know someone before they sympathize with their plight.
You see that all the time, that prioritizing personal experience over reading knowledge.  It’s a sad fact of black peoples’ lives that when they acquire a white friend, that white friend (if they’re inexperienced) will ask all the usual dumb questions about “Do you tan?” and “How does your hair work?” instead of looking it up from the thousands of freely-available sources.
For better or for worse, humans connect with other humans, not reference materials.  (Which is not necessarily a bad thing – folks are all like “I WISH THEY’D LOOK THIS SHIT UP,” but I think they’d change their tune if these people got their information on the black experience by reading Fox News. The fact is, reference materials can be riotously wrong or skewed, and most people learn where to read about things by asking their fellow humans where to start – and that allows you to point them in the right direction, as exhausting as that is.)
And you know what sucks further?  For a lot of people, knowing someone who identifies as trans when they first meet means that they can shunt them aside and go, “What a freak, wow, let’s keep this schmuck at arm’s length.”  And their shields go up, and they just go, “Well, that person’s trying to cause trouble.”
The reason Caitlyn Jenner is the connecting point for folks is because they’ve known Bruce for years on some level – either as a famous athlete or a reality show star – and have already sympathized with him for years.  And when she came out, they went, “Wow, someone I know is going through this, and I know they wouldn’t do this just to cause a fuss, so… why?  Why the hell are they doing this?”
And they start asking the right questions.  Enlightenment may arise.
You see that in the coming-out stories of gays – that’s why coming out is so powerful.  A lot of the uneducated gay opinion is “THESE FREAKS ARE JUST DOING IT TO CAUSE TROUBLE” – a cry you still hear from a lot of the anti-gay-marriage crowd.  But over the years, thanks to people literally risking their goddamned lives (and, in some cases, losing them) to come out to family and friends, straight people came to realize that these beloved, level-headed friends of theirs could be gay, and they weren’t just doing this for the fabulous social benefits of pissing off mom and dad.
(Which leads to the equally wrong-headed argument that “Being gay is not a choice!”, which I despise, because if someone wants to put a penis in their mouth, and the owner of the penis is both willing and able to consent, then it shouldn’t matter what their motivations are.  But that’s another rant I’ve made before.)
Anyway, the point is that you can have thousands of books written on “the trans experience” and “the gay experience” and none of those stacks of books will be as potent as one person sneaking under the radar to go, “Hey, you respected me before, and now I am also this.”
Caitlyn Jenner is the face of trans acceptance because she flew under people’s prejudices, and now that she’s wedged deep people have to reexamine their attitudes.  Sadly, someone who became famous as being trans could never do that.  Which sucks, but hey.
You know what sucks more?
Black people are never gonna do that.
My sneaking suspicion is that gay equality is gonna shoot right the fuck past black equality in a decade or two, because gay people come from all angles, and some gay-bashing idiot is always going to be dealing with a cousin or a best friend who comes out, and that attitude will soften.
But too many white people have this shield in place when they see black people protesting – the same shield they see when they see gays, and trans, and other minorities protesting – that goes, “Wow, these people are just looking to cause trouble, aren’t they?”  And unfortunately, there’s almost no way for black people to win here – with the exception of maybe very light-skinned black people, there’s no way of forcing folks to question their assumptions about how black people work.
The bright spot, however, is that on Twitter, it’s easier than ever for people to have black friends.  I do – my social group is largely homogenously Caucasian in real life, but online it’s a lot more varied, which is part of the reason I care more about this stuff.  It affects people I love.  And right now, there’s a hot cluster of “Black Twitter” where black social media interacts and amplifies, catapulting ignored stories like Ferguson into the mainstream, which I think will help over time.
Still. I think it’s gonna be a lot slower.  And I think it sucks that there have been trans people working their asses off, some who died to further the cause, and a reality show TV star blossoms into the face of the trans lifestyle.
Yet this isn’t bashing Caitlyn Jenner: I’m glad she’s finally happy, and I’m glad she’s subverting paradigms and changing attitudes.  And I’m not bashing humanity, either: given how different this massive world we’ve created is from the small social environments we were evolved to live in, I’m shocked at how well we’re adapting.
But you gotta know how to hack the system.  And “the system” is, sadly, that the more you can leverage people’s personal vouchsafing for you to change their attitudes on the lifestyles you lead, the better it goes.  It’s why I came out as polyamorous, which I gotta tell you, is not at all always comfortable.
Yet “coming out” is one of the most effective ways to change people’s takes on things, and though you are not obligated to be anyone’s teachable moment in any way, we should never forget that yeah, the teachable moment is a frighteningly potent tool to circumvent the biases of evolved monkey brains.
 

All Comments Will Be Moderated. Comments From Fake Or Throwaway Accounts Will Never Be approved.