The first transgender public figure whom I ‘encountered’ was Renée Richards–thanks to her landmark legal victory in the New York Supreme Court over the United States Tennis Association, which had denied her entry into the 1976 US Open, on the grounds of their supposed ‘women-born-women’ policy. (Richards–formerly Richard Raskind–had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1975.) Shortly after I read about her in a sports magazine, I heard what would become a seemingly constant refrain in most of the superficial responses to transgender persons: “I feel sorry for him. He was a sissy man, now he’s an ugly woman.” Later, in conversations about transgender men, it would be slightly modified to, “I feel sorry for her. She was an ugly, manly woman, and now she’s a sissy man.”
Part of the problem, it seemed, with transgender persons was that they were ‘just plain ugly.’ They weren’t ‘attractive men’; they weren’t ‘attractive women.’ That was the biggest sin of all. If only they could be more ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome,’ then all would be good. If only they could somehow be made to cleave to conventional notions of beauty and attractiveness, if only they could so dramatically transform themselves that no traces of their older self would survive, into thin, sexy women or perhaps brawny, hunky men, the stuff of pin-ups, then perhaps the rest of the world would be able to bring themselves to pardon their otherwise unpardonable attempt to determine their chosen identity for themselves.
Caitlyn Jenner has–thanks to her elevated public profile–struck an important blow for transgender rights; she has sparked a broad, diverse, conversation about transgender persons and their place in our society. She seems to have been ‘accepted’ by many, though, of course, there were those too, who wrote refrains that were almost exact reprises of the reactions I had heard directed at Richards all those years ago.
But Caitlyn Jenner ‘entered’ our lives on a Vanity Fair cover. Shot by Anne Leibovitz. She looks glamorous and sexy; she has benefited from the attentions of an expert photographer, backed up by a small army of make-up persons, lighting assistants, and perhaps even personal trainers. We might imagine that someone, on not knowing anything at all about Bruce Jenner, might say, “Hey, that’s a mighty attractive sixty-six year old woman.” And a common reaction, indeed, to Caitlyn was that “she looks great!”
Phew. What a relief. Imagine if she didn’t ‘look great.’ Would the ‘freakshow’ conversation start all over again? Of course, it would. We are obsessed with appearances.
There are many, many transgender people who will not be able to ‘transform’ themselves in the way Caitlyn has. (I have no idea what Caitlyn looks like away from the camera lens.) They will not be offered good lighting, touch-ups, a glamorous outfit, and the attentions of those who know how to make us look good. They’ll just look like any ordinary person might. They won’t have public relations help; they won’t have access to sympathetic writers who can help them bring their stories to life. Hopefully, some of the kindness and tolerance on display in the reactions to Caitlyn’s ‘debut’ will be sent their way too.