This is the second part of a two part conversation. For part one, click here.
Jaimie Hileman – Board President of Metro Trans Umbrella Group of Greater St. Louis
Joss Barton – Writer and Artist
Ruby Threadgill – Radio Personality, founder of Generation Next
SEX+STL: Joss, since you’ve watched the show, what is your opinion of I Am Cait?
Joss: I saw all of season one and it was a total guilty pleasure for me. I’m kinda a pop culture junkie, I love trashy, horrible reality shows. So for me this is gold, this is reality TV gold. I watched it as someone who identifies as trans and has identified as a queer person for a long time. There was nothing new on the show, I didn’t learn anything. Nothing was enlightening to me. I had no “aha” moments.
Ruby: So it’s just The Adventures of Caitlyn?
Joss: Basically. It was a very junk food reality television show, but featuring trans women, and the most famous trans woman on the face of the planet right now. I had no real feelings about it, good or bad. I don’t think it’s a benefit to the trans community. As far as promoting trans activism or trans liberation; I don’t think it did that by any means. Now did it educate some cisgender people in the country who had no idea about trans identity? Maybe. Possibly. I’m sure someone had an “aha” moment. I didn’t have any of those. I watched it for the pure fuckery of it.
I like to have a nuanced view of the show and her in general, because I do know some great, smart, very talented trans people who have looked at her and they don’t see this really bad person. I know trans people who are the children of celebrities, and they understood the pressure of being around paparazzi all the time…. The insulation and the privilege obviously are issue that she should and does need to deal with, but there’s a flip-side; I don’t know what it’s like to have a camera follow me from the moment I leave my house to the moment I come back. I don’t know what that’s like.
A good trans friend of mine who is no longer with us – this is a woman who’s done a lot of work and she was a great writer and artist – one of her last tweets was a commentary on Caitlyn Jenner, strangely enough and it was a response to people criticizing Caitlyn Jenner, and her simple response was, “You try enacting this idea of what the femme is and what femininity is on a national stage and see how you do.” I think I like to hold those notions in my head because it gives [Caitlyn Jenner] her humanity, because she does deserve her humanity, even if she is actively, with her politics, working against a lot of the dignity and humanity that a lot of us are fighting for, she still deserves that dignity.
I hope that with people talking about her like this, hopefully she will come around and say, “fuck you” to the Republicans, but we don’t know.
Jaimie: Regarding her and her celebrity, I still have hope that as she settles into herself a little bit more, she will come around on issues of privilege and what her publicity means, both negatively and positively. Despite all my issues with problematic things that she has said, I would rather call her in than call her out. I’ve been asked about her almost every single Trans 101 that I’ve done in the last month. In the last two weeks, I’ve done eight, and in all but one, I’ve been asked about her. I have said and will say again, I would rather call her in than call her out. She still has the possibility to do a great many things things for the trans community, particularly trans women.
[NOTE: In November of 2015, Caitlyn Jenner and the crew from I Am Cait came to St. Louis on Transgender Day of Remembrance for the dedication of America’s first ever Transgender Memorial Garden.]
Jaimie: I did respect the fact that she and her crew wanted to respect our space when it came to the Transgender Memorial Garden dedication and the [Transgender Day of Remembrance] MCC [Metropolitan Community Church] service. The garden is something that came up rather quickly, got in the news, it’s the first [transgender] memorial garden in the United States, and that’s what caught their attention.
At the MCC service, I was lead on that from MTUG, working with Reverend [Phiwa] Langeni of Zion [United Church of Christ] in Florissant and Reverend [Wes] Mullins at MCC to put all that together. We really wanted to do something different this year than had ever been done before. I don’t think any TDOR service anywhere in the St. Louis region has had more than 50 attendees. And that goes back to when the first service in St. Louis was held in ’99 and Sylvia Rivera herself was here for that.
We felt like with 2015 being a year with a 62% increase in the murders of trans people versus 2014. Twenty-three [murders] versus fourteen in ’14, all trans women and twenty-one trans women of color. We felt like we absolutely had to find a way to bring disparate elements within the LGBT community together and increase awareness and visibility, so we planned this big ceremony. And that had been in the works since April, and [Caitlyn Jenner’s visit] came up five weeks before. Those of us in the planning committee had to sign our lives away in blood that we weren’t going to reveal that this was going to happen, and that’s fine. We had our demands too. They’d be welcome to participate as much as any other attendee, at either event and we understood that space would have to be made for the crew and the equipment, but otherwise we did not want to surrender our events which had meant a great deal to us and to the community and which were very solemn events, because that’s what TDOR is: it’s a commemoration, but also it’s a funeral. This year more than any, we wanted to be sure that the take away from that was that these folks aren’t with us anymore, but their lives didn’t come to an end and just bring fame to to their murderers. Their lives were more than their chalk outlines. We want to speak about their lived lives and who they were as people.
They respected that and didn’t insert themselves into either event, except Kate Bornstein, trans feminist, activist for thirty years. (I have all her books — yes I am a fan girl.) She asked if she could speak at the garden ceremony. How could anyone not let one of the most famous trans activist in world speak at the Transgender Memorial Garden Ceremony? For that alone I’m glad that they came.
SEX+STL: Any final thoughts?
Ruby: [To Jaimie] I like what you said about “calling her in” instead of calling her out, because I’m not condemning her because of her fame, I just think hopefully her exposure through this show to more trans people, I have high hopes that she will humble herself, because I think that’s what truly needs to happen: realize her position and the potential of what she could do for the community at large. I don’t want to say that I dislike her because of her celebrity status. She’s said some very counter productive things, and I think it’s important that she realize just who she’s reaching, who’s listening and what influence that has. I don’t want to condemn Caitlyn, there just needs to be a wake up call, and I don’t think she’s had it yet.
Joss: I think the last thing I want to say in regards to the Caitlyn phenomenon is just the fact that I think it’s great that her presence on the national and world stage is bringing people who are cisgender into a transgender community to let them understand who transgender people are and what transgender identity might mean to someone. Obviously, they’re finding out what it means to someone like Cait, not a trans girl teenager who lives in South City, St. Louis. They’re not seeing that side of transgender identity, but they’re seeing Cait’s side, and it is a net positive in a lot of aspects. But I hope that maybe one day, Miss Caitlyn can find a way to give back to the community in really helpful ways, or step aside and let other people take the stage, because the downside to the Caitlyn phenomenon is that we’re focused on her and not focused on the systems that create the transphobia and the violence and the murder and the stigma and the disenfranchisement that transgender people, trans women, and trans women of color face on a daily basis.
It’s those systems that need to be faced with just as much fire and conviction as is being directed towards us by conservative, right-wing America. Because as long as the systems are in place, nothing is going to change. As long as the poverty is in place, as long as there’s neoliberal capitalism, as long as there’s racism, as long as there’s transphobia, as long there’s homophobia, as long as there’s classism, as long as we’re satisfied that there’s an HIV epidemic in trans women in this country and no one seems to give a fuck about it. As long as those systems are in place, we middle class and poor people, regardless if you’re cis or trans, we’re still going to have to deal with these systems of oppression. So, hopefully, we can all come to a point where we can focus on those things and not focus on what Caitlyn Jenner is wearing at what premiere. But I wish her the best. She deserves happiness just like the rest of us. But I think there’s a way that we can focus our attention away from her and go back to the real work that needs to be done which is dismantling these systems that are hindering all of us.