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The truth is: I really didn’t want to write an article about you. I didn’t want to spend hours thinking about you, sifting the internet for the rare piece of insightful (or even coherent) commentary on your Vanity Fair cover, or wading through YouTube clips of your television appearances. Actually, I had no idea who you even were (I was born fifteen years after the Montreal Olympics and grew up without TV) until a few weeks ago, when the media circus around your gender identity began.
You see, I was tired of writing and thinking about trans women as media “items”– tired of the endless analysis, debate, scrutiny, sensation, that has opened up around us, our bodies, seemingly without having slowed the tide of discrimination, violence, and murder that claims so many of our sisters’ lives every year. Like many trans activists of color, I was wary of your whiteness, your wealth and privilege: what could a 65-year-old American celebrity with a net worth of one hundred million dollars possibly know about someone like me? What could – or rather, would – you offer to the rest of us, the trans* community you have now come, intentionally or not, to represent and speak for?
Regardless, however, of what I want or think, the fact is that in the past month you have had a palpable impact on my life, Caitlyn – mine and the lives of many, many other trans people living in the world today. I can no longer even try to count the number of times that cisgender friends, coworkers, and acquaintances have name-dropped you in my presence over the past month, as they eagerly searched my face for the hint of some emotional reaction. The day your interview with Diane Sawyer was broadcast, the texts and messages came rolling in: What did I think about Bruce Jenner? In the two days since your photos in Vanity Fair were released, your presence in my online and social life has redoubled in intensity.
As you well know, Caitlyn, the world is hungry for our story, for the freak show of transwomen’s lives and deaths. As this same story sells newspapers, attracts viewers, garners clicks and likes; poor and racialized transwomen continue to be placed in men’s prisons, excluded from employment, denied health care, beaten on the streets. And so, here I am now, writing you this letter – sending you a message from the other side of race, power, privilege, sisterhood. Ideally, you’ll read it and maybe even write me back. Popular media these days is so invested in talking about transwomen, putting us on display, critiquing our bodies and our sanity. Only rarely does it show us talking in a meaningful way with each other. So let’s talk, Caitlyn. Woman to woman. I’ll put aside my prejudices if you’ll keep an open mind.
The question that everyone is asking each other these days, the question I cannot escape, is, “What do you think about Caitlyn Jenner?” But what I want to know is what you think of me – a 24-year-old transwoman of Asian descent, a survivor of abuse and sexual assault, someone who makes less in a year than the cost of your wardrobe for a single Vanity Fair shoot. I want to know what you think about my fierce sister, a Mauritian artist and community organizer whose work is, little by little, changing the landscape for transwomen of color in the city we live in.
I want to know what you think about transwomen who have no financial options but to perform the most dangerous kinds of sex work. I want to know what you think about CeCe MacDonald, who was imprisoned in a men’s prison for stabbing the man who attacked her; and about Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payn, Taja DeJesus, Penny Proud, Bri Golec, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, Sumaya Dalmar, all murdered in this past year. Have you, like me, engraved their stories on the inside of your heart?
Caitlyn, I want to know what you think about the fact that just the other day, while I was taking the subway home, two men came up to me and started sexually harassing me – and then, after staring at my chest for several seconds, started threatening to tear off my clothes to find out “whether it has a dick.” About the fact that I was surrounded by people who watched and did nothing. About the fact that stuff like this happens to me, to most transwomen who can’t afford or don’t want feminization surgeries every day. Do you ever take the subway, Caitlyn? Do you ever worry about this kind of violence, chartering private planes and driving your $180,000 Porsche?
I want to know how you feel about all of these things: the ties that bind and the differences between us. And most of all, I want to know what you plan to do about them. You’ve said that you want to hear the stories of other trans women and use your platform to “make things better.” I want so badly for this to mean more than just “raising awareness” through glamour photos and reality television – it’s true that trans people have been experiencing unprecedented visibility in recent years, but visibility alone will not save us. My community organizer’s mind goes wild just imagining all of the social programs I could run with a fraction of the money at your disposal.
So, what happens now, Caitlyn? Will you take your new body, your new face, your sports car, and ride off into the sunset? Or will you stand and fight with us? You may have never claimed to be any kind of transgender revolutionary, but you have the power and privilege to push for real change – the kind of power most of us would die for. The privilege you exercise in living openly as a transwoman stands on a foundation built on the bodies of black transwomen activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson. What will you give in return?
It’s hard for me to put my faith in you. A lot of trans folks of color have already written you off as a a “rich white bitch.” Truthfully, I can’t blame them – we’ve been screwed over too many times by the white “LGBT community.” But you know what, I’ve spent some time watching and reading your interviews, Caitlyn. I’ve seen that look in your eyes as you crossed the Olympic finish line in 1976. And the one thing that seems certain to me is that you are a woman who knows what it means to suffer, to struggle, to survive. To fight.
Congratulations on your transition, Ms Jenner. You’re beautiful and brave, no question. We could use someone like you in our corner. And if you ever need someone to talk things over with – well, there’s a whole lot of us over here, on the other side of sisterhood.
Sincerely, Kai Cheng