I must admit that when Bruce Jenner first came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair (7/2015; see full article), I took notice but didn’t think of the act as particularly significant. In the context of the other news of the day—the police killings of unarmed black civilians, the enduring recession, currently coming to a head in the Greek debt crisis—my gut instinct was to criticize the moneyed and celebrity position from which Caitlyn is coming. My first thoughts went something like: of course she can afford to do that, unlike others who might feel the same way, indeed others who have more urgent medical concerns, but do not have the resources of the top 1%; of course she can think about being “who she really is” rather than settling with a given he can’t change, indeed can’t even think about, given more grounded preoccupations, say, with daily material needs; of course she would have a commodified response to a crisis revolving around gender felt as personal, given his own commodification as an Olympic athlete and American hero.
Jenner’s acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPY (see clip) dispelled these reservations. This award was a necessary follow-up to the Vanity Fair cover as it situated Jenner in context, both where he’s coming from and where she plans to go, in the process driving home the significance of Caitlyn, all this taking place in an especially pertinent setting. Yes, there are other problems that do need our attention, but those pertaining to gender and sexuality, as highlighted in this case by a sports event, are not to be ignored. The harrowing statistics of trans violence in this country alone highlight the political urgency of trans justice, which Jenner claims was a motivation for her to come out. The same goes for arguments that question whether Jenner, and not some other athlete who has gone through more significant hardship, deserves the award (see brief profile of Arthur Ashe). There are, indeed, other minorities who are also oppressed, perhaps more than the subjects that Caitlyn represents, certainly more than Jenner herself, but pointing this out is less an argument against giving Caitlyn a public platform than an argument for devising more ways to grant recognition. This is so especially since subjective recognition, like struggle itself, is not exclusive, but shared and contagious. As such, the complaint, “What about X? Don’t they deserve it more?” (contrast to: “Our fellows won something they needed!”), is counterproductive. Among other things, it resentfully and unwittingly participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy by which the dominant keeps the oppressed, well, oppressed.
As for Jenner’s privilege and celebrity, first, when it comes down to it, it means nothing; and secondly, it is, in fact, an advantage, and not only for Jenner. Everyone who is privileged in some way (thanks to background, talent, looks, etc.) knows that such privilege proves cheap in the face of an attribute that could be exploited as a weakness. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, there is always a closet in which one finds oneself in, no matter how out one thinks him/herself to be, no matter how open the environment. This is because you can be respected for something in which you are considered “good” or “strong,” and lose all that respect because you’re gay, or be respected only despite being black, Hispanic, or Asian, or be excluded and ridiculed for not being one of the boys. At the same time, Jenner does have privilege, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, because she is privileged, Jenner has the resources with which to fight, and, it must be noted, for a group of people deemed and treated as the lowest of the low, including in the gay community. Privilege buys (some) power (in some contexts), and it is the use to which power is put that is to be judged, not privilege by itself.
In fact, Jenner’s performance of the ex-“American hero” now identifying as and standing up for gender outcasts—already ironic—ironically makes him more critical than the mainstream LGBTQ movement. After all, the current thrust of the gay mainstream is heavily weighted toward marriage and the “proper” “type” of gay, undoubtedly a compelling factor leading to its recent victories, its acceptance in the mainstream. The price of this has been the disavowal of the less proper type of queers, notably trans, despite the fact that it was trans activists in Stonewall that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. Similarly, of course ESPN has a vested commercial interest in presenting Jenner the award and that such presentation involves her commodification, but why single out a transgender woman, and not the other athletes, heteronormative or not, as the object of televised exploitation? And so what if Jenner is commodified as she is publicly recognized? Does commodification necessarily blunt the critical force of her public performance? In fact, doesn’t commodification, given its speed, its shock or seduction value, its mass dissemination, propel Jenner’s performance? In a world where capitalism attempts to penetrate virtually everything, does pointing out that something is entangled really amount to a critique? More importantly, does entanglement necessarily foreclose critique of that to which one is entangled and, it must not be forgotten, of the other operative axes of power that may or may not be aligned with capitalism, say, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and patriotism?
These attempts, ostensibly well-meaning, to dismiss or minimize the significance of Caitlyn Jenner miss something crucial about her. Criticisms from the right make up a reactionary backlash (what else is new?) against the way in which Caitlyn has deconstructed the American hero, proving him not only to be unknown (as expressed by Caitlyn’s constant remark, “Before this, nobody really knew me”), perhaps unknowable, because hollow—a mere ideal, a fantasy—but, indeed, as the opposite of what he’s thought to be, i.e. as deviant, wretched, monstrous, as someone undesirable and unworthy of admiration, at least not in the conventional sense, in other words, as queer. These reactionary criticisms, in other words, root from a nostalgia for something that’s not there but is believed in, an anchor of identity that Bruce used to be, but which Caitlyn has shattered. Whereas these nostalgic criticisms do everything they can to erase what Caitlyn has revealed, more sympathetic criticisms, including those coming from the fellow oppressed, miss what it was that Caitlyn showed the world. For in courageously standing up there to flamboyantly parade her gender for all the world to see, what Caitlyn Jenner has showed, in these times of enduring racial persecution, unending economic recession, and the institutionalization of gay marriage, is the centrality of sexuality itself, not against but along with other axes of struggle.