As a transwoman who began transitioning more than a decade ago, before the words “trans” or “transgender” was part of the public conscience, I have witnessed time again as trans representation in popular culture and politics has been lauded for its positive impact in the fight for trans rights.
Representation alone, however, is an insufficient goal in the fight for trans rights, as evidenced by the Republican Party’s cynically strategic embrace of Caitlin Jenner as a gubernatorial candidate in large part due to her trans identity to sneakily further the GOP’S broadly anti-trans platform in the recent gubernatorial recall effort. The recall and Jenner’s bid failed, but this move by her and the G.O.P. is worth examining as it signals a broader set of political tactics at work that will assuredly be at play in upcoming elections and could have a profoundly negative impact on the trans rights movement.
This Is not an altogether new trajectory by the GOP. As writer, activist, and media strategist Raquel Willis tweeted in November 2020: “Be ready for the Republican resurgence. Next time, they’ll play fully into identity, weaponizing a woman and/or person of color as the voice of their party and their destructive beliefs. It’s time we move beyond championing representation without a clear discussion on values too.”
Despite what might be seen as increasingly positive representations of trans people in popular culture and the Republican party’s acceptance of Jenner, more than 100 anti-trans bills were proposed by largely Republican lawmakers across the U.S. in 2021, according to the ACLU and their ongoing effort to track anti-trans legislation. This pattern makes it clear that the goal of this representation is not to support the lives of trans people, but instead to act as a smokescreen to cover up anti-trans political action.
So, what should those of us committed to improving the lives of all trans people do?
It is essential to acknowledge that positive representations of trans people are important, especially in validating the lives of trans youth. The goal shouldn’t be to disregard representation or visibility altogether, but rather to acknowledge the limits of these strategies. We should celebrate trans representation that values trans lives.
Building up these tools for critical analysis becomes more imperative as identity politics will continue to be weaponized in future elections. Here are four questions I ask when considering a candidate or cause:
- Who benefits financially, socially, and politically?
- Who is being left out?
- How does this impact material living conditions for trans people?
- Could my attention/praise be better focused elsewhere?
Ask yourself these four questions about Jenner and you may end up with a different view as to why the GOP embraced her candidacy and will continue to cultivate figures like Jenner in future political campaigns.
Who benefits financially, socially, and politically?
The Republican Party was blatantly tokenizing Jenner, a member of the LGBTQ+ community in order to distract from their virulently anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Jenner’s celebrity and trans identity provided cover for a political party that is committed to maintaining power for wealthy white America by dehumanizing other marginalized groups, including the trans community.
Who is being left out?
The Republican vision for the future of the U.S. doesn’t include trans people. For proof, take a look at the legislative agenda being brought forth to exclude trans people from public life and spaces. BIPOC LGBTQ+ people, in particular, find themselves discriminated against in numerous ways as systemic racism intersects with anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies.
How does this impact material living conditions for trans people?
When representation is tied to political campaigns or causes, we need to consider the real impact on the lives of trans people, including access to healthcare, housing, and public spaces. Jenner’s own problematic views on trans people’s participation in sports, coupled with the efforts of Republican leaders across the nation to either curtail or erase trans rights, points to the disastrous impact a would-have-been Gov. Jenner would have had on the lives of trans people in California and across the nation.
Could my attention/praise be better focused elsewhere?
Ask yourself why you feel compelled to share or promote the trans representation that caught your attention. There is an abundance of other people doing amazing work to support trans people in California and beyond, such as The Transgender Law Center, Trans Lifeline, or your local community Pride center.
Jenner’s trans identity was being weaponized by the GOP to promote an extremely anti-trans worldview. Why Jenner was willing to play a part in this wretched game is hard to say, but it may very well be in part due to her keen understanding of the power and money whiteness provides in our society and she wants more of it even at the cost of the rights of other trans people.
With new anti-trans laws being written and introduced all the time, the trans people in your life need more than celebrations of representation. We need justice, equity, and accountability.
About the author:
Chelsea Thompto is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media Art at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project. Her research explores issues of trans representation and technology.