Vanity Fair cover hailed as trans landmark

New frontier: Caitlyn is one of a growing number of transgender celebrities © Vanity Fair

Transgender Olympic medallist Caitlyn Jenner has revealed her new name and look on the cover of Vanity Fair. How can celebrity culture help us to understand minority identities?

‘Call me Caitlyn’ says July’s cover of Vanity Fair, as a woman in a white dress gazes out at the reader. Inside is a 22-page story on Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic medallist and step-parent to the Kardashian siblings.

Caitlyn first came out as a transgender woman earlier this year, while still using the name Bruce. It is the first time that she has publicly spoken about her identity since completing her transition to a woman, and she says that the photoshoot is ‘about my life and who I am as a person.’ She recalls winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic decathlon. ‘That was a good day,’ she says, ‘but the last couple of days were better.’

Lots of high-profile transgender figures have spoken out about their experiences over the last few years, including the Matrix director Lana Wachowski and the boxing manager Kellie Maloney, who appeared on the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother.

In Western society, it was long believed that sex, which is biological, is essentially the same thing as gender, which is how someone feels inside. Most still expect that the sex a baby is declared at birth will match their gender when they grow up. In other words, men will be listed as male on their birth certificate, and women female. For many this is true, and these people are sometimes referred to as ‘cisgender’. But transgender people experience ‘gender dysphoria’: the sense that their gender does not align with their sex. This can come in many forms. Some people may not identify either as male or female, while others — like Caitlyn — may decide to transition to the sex they feel best represents their gender, possibly using hormones or surgery.

The increasing visibility of transgender people in the media has coincided with a growing movement to understand and recognise their rights. A year ago, the actress Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of TIME magazine under the headline ‘The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier’.

Transparent lives

It is wonderful to see more transgender people being open about their experiences in the media, trans activists say. This is one of the most useful ways for cisgender people to learn about transgender issues if they have not come across them in person. Perhaps even more crucially, a positive story like Caitlyn’s can be a source of hope for those struggling with their own gender.

But we should remember that Caitlyn’s story is unusual in the transgender community, others point out. Her wealth and fame mean that she can afford expensive surgery and stylists, which few other transgender people have access to. Life can still be incredibly difficult for many in the trans community, and these struggles should be represented too.

You Decide

  1. How important has celebrity culture been for LGBT rights?
  2. Are transgender issues the ‘next civil rights frontier’ as TIME magazine suggests? If not, what is?

Activities

  1. Research another famous transgender figure and create a short presentation on their achievements.
  2. Plan an essay on the history of the struggle to win equal rights for another minority group.

Some People Say...

“When a trans woman gets called a man, that is an act of violence.”

Laverne Cox

What do you think?

Q & A

Is being transgender quite a new thing?
The word is relatively new, but the idea isn’t. Around 30,000 years ago, shamans were thought to have supernatural powers which could be known by their masculine and feminine qualities. Many Native American tribes recognised a third sex which was neither male nor female, and in India ‘hirjas’ have been considered a third gender for thousands of years.
What kind of struggles do they face?
Worldwide, there are worryingly high rates of violence against transgender people; the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project has recorded over 1,500 killings since 2008.
Is it the same as being gay?
Not at all — transgender people can be straight or gay and their orientation does not necessarily change when they transition.

Word Watch

Transgender woman
A woman who was assigned a male sex when she was born, sometimes referred to as ‘MTF’ (male to female). Transgender men were assigned a female sex at birth, and are sometimes called ‘FTM’ (female to male).
Transition
Changing from living as a man to living as a woman — or the other way around — can be a long and complex process which is generally called a ‘transition’. It can include changing your name, asking others to use new pronouns such as ‘she’ or ‘he’, and physical changes through hormones or surgery (see below).
Kellie Maloney
Kellie managed the boxing champion Lennox Lewis. A documentary on her transition will air on Channel 5 on Thursday.
Hormones or surgery
Under-18s can be prescribed hormone blockers which suppress some of the changes which can happen to male or female bodies during puberty. When they reach 18, they can begin taking the hormones of their preferred sex: testosterone for men and oestrogen for women. There are several stages to gender reassignment surgery, including breast removal or implants, facial surgery and genital surgery.

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