Who Speaks For Us?


On a recent episode of Chelsea, a Netflix-based interview show, host Chelsea Handler asked guest Janet Mock about another transgender celebrity, Caitlyn Jenner. Days before the show, Jenner had joked about the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise to the College Republican National Committee.

"Liberals can't even shoot straight," said Jenner, seemingly unaware that the officer who shot and killed the suspect was a liberal, lesbian-identified, African American woman.

Handler asked Mock if she feels a responsibility to defend Jenner as a representative of the trans community, and Mock was very clear in her response.

"I think my community has overwhelmingly said that we don't want that [representation]," said Mock.

Continuing, Mock said, "It's Caitlyn Jenner, who's a very specific person, with a specific set of experiences that are very moneyed, very white, and very privileged... She can say that on behalf of herself, but I don't think on behalf of the community."

This is one of the challenges, however, when it comes to the media. If they are looking for a transgender person, Caitlyn Jenner is -- for now -- one of the first people they will gravitate to. Further, they will gravitate to her for some of the very reasons Mock points out. She is a wealthy, white, privileged celebrity.

For that matter, they may choose her before someone far more well spoken like Mock or others simply because she is likely to say something controversial and -- in the eyes of the media -- entertaining. This is how they gain viewers, and how they sell laundry detergent to those same viewers.

Yet Mock is completely right when she points out the specifics around Jenner, and how her experience is vastly different from the majority of trans-identified people. I would even go so far as to note that her lived experience is dramatically different from even this Caucasian trans woman, due in large part to Jenner's privilege.

When Jenner is treated as a representative of the transgender community, she is only bringing her experience to the table. She is not speaking much of the experiences of non-binary transfolks, nor trans men, or transpeople of color, nor a wide variety of identities or experiences. When the media treat her as a representative without considering her limitations, they're potentially harming any other trans person who isn't Caitlyn Jenner.

Yet, in pointing this out, I wonder if this sets up a larger issue. If Caitlyn Jenner does not -- cannot -- speak to the wider trans experience, then can any of us? Is my experience as a lower-to-middle class, Caucasian trans woman of any value outside of those who share a similar path and environment? Do the experiences of one specific trans person from any background help explain other specific experiences in the wider community outside of their own?

For that matter, does Janet Mock, in speaking about Jenner, run the risk of speaking for a wider community from within her own very specific world view?

Think back to the start of this column. When Mock was asked about Jenner, she addressed this in a very specific fashion. She did not talk immediately how having to defend Jenner, but spoke of the community's views: "I think my community has overwhelmingly said that we don't want that [representation]."

Mock is wise. She let's the community speak. It is a community she embraces, and a community she is a part of. She acknowledges being a part of a greater whole. This is something Jenner has, thus far, been in capable of doing.

What's more, Mock has done an astounding job of speaking on behalf of the community over the last several years, via two books and countless interviews and speeches. She has shown a maturity and wisdom that has earned her a place of respect community-wide. Again, Jenner has not done the same, in spite of her own book, her reality show, and her own public appearances.

Jenner -- even though nearly 70 years old -- lacks the experience of transgender people a third of her age. She's only publicly started her transition two years ago, and still has a lot of work to do to really understand life as a trans woman.

One other thing: even if it is Jenner, speak to a trans person. Do not assume that you have to speak to a non-trans person to understand us, or get "the straight truth," or what not. You will find there are many non-transgender, self-identified experts who have their own agendas, some of which are very harmful to transgender people.

This is doubly true right now, as we see attempts to roll back transgender rights, as our foes try to paint transgender people as sexual deviants seeking to target vulnerable individuals. Never assume that just because a person isn't trans that they don't have an underlying motive for ho they may paint transgender people.

No one person can truly speak for the whole of the transgender community. I, for one, can speak to a lot of the experiences of transgender people, some more specifically than others, but it would be simply wrong for me to claim to be able to speak on the lived experiences of many within the community in more than general terms.

All this said, I would hope that the media would opt to seek out the Janet Mocks of the world. What's more, if you are focusing on non-binary trans issues, seek out a non-binary transperson. Talk to trans men about trans men's issue.

Indeed, a media who is simply going to talk to Caitlyn Jenner about trans issues is a lazy one, and needs to seek out real representation.

Gwen Smith is not suggesting she speak in place of Jenner. You can find her at www.gwensmith.com.
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