Last year, TIME Magazine told us we had reached the “transgender tipping point,” featuring on its cover the stunning actress and activist Laverne Cox, one of the most high-profile transgender women in America. It was a huge moment for trans visibility.
This week was similarly significant: Vanity Fair released its cover image of another of the nation’s most famous transgender women, though this time we’ve only just learned her name: Caitlyn Jenner. Shot by famed photographer Annie Leibowitz, the image was instantly iconic, going viral on social media.
If Laverne Cox’s TIME cover marked a trans tipping point, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair image signaled – as far as mainstream cultural awareness goes, at least – a transgender avalanche.
Of course, Jenner has for decades been a public figure. Since competing in the Olympics in the Seventies, and on through her marriage into the Kardashian clan, Jenner has spent much of her time under the eye of a critical public, inside the fishbowl of U.S. celebrity life. These experiences became particularly fraught as she started to transition recently (she’d explored hormones for the first time in the Eighties), and the tabloids began to swirl with rumors about her appearance, forcing her to come out in an April 20/20 interview.
But as America lingers over the “lascivious” details of Jenner’s transition, most people are ignoring an equally significant part of the trans experience: what happens next, after the transition.
Cisgender people have been fascinated with transition for as long as trans people have been out about the process. A slew of bestselling trans memoirs focused on gender dysphoria and transition accompany endless pop culture speculation: Has she or hasn’t she gotten The Surgery? Will she or won’t she? What about implants? “Feminization” surgery?
And the real slap in the face: Are trans women “real” women?
It’s a question rooted in an obsession with transition. Many people say they want to understand the trans experience, and in the stories we see about those experiences transition is often the focus, providing context for what it’s like to live as a transgender person. But it’s not an entirely fair focus, because it’s only one aspect of trans life: For some people it’s an ongoing process, but for others, it’s simply a landmark – once they transition, they move on to other things in their lives.
This is a fact we don’t often see in media and pop culture. Rather, trans people appear in the media for two reasons: because they’re celebrities, like Jenner, or because they’ve been murdered. The media doesn’t show us the often mundane, day-to-day lives of many transgender people. Their gender is part of a multifaceted identity, and it contributes to their experiences in significant ways, but it’s not the only thing that does. You wouldn’t think so if you read… well, just about any media coverage of transgender people.
As a result, the public doesn’t often enough hear about discrimination against transgender people, and it also doesn’t hear trans success stories. It can be difficult to fight transphobia when people don’t even know what that word means, thanks to a media focus that tells us being transgender begins and ends with transition.
This is especially dangerous for trans teens. Too many of them don’t see that transgender people can and do live happy, fulfilled lives surrounded by people they love. Instead, they see only tragic (though very real) stories like Leelah Alcorn’s, or the seemingly unobtainable fame of people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. For teens struggling with access to transition services and basic information and support, the lack of representation in media isn’t just problematic: It can be fatal.
Many older transgender individuals, meanwhile, look at stories like Jenner’s and wonder if their lives will ever be anything other than a series of transitional steps. Will they ever be able to live a life as who they really are? The media fixation on transition casts doubt on that by suggesting that trans people do nothing other than transition – and that there’s only one way to transition, with hormones and surgeries and a list of other boxes to tick.
Jenner’s transition amounts to the first day of the rest of her life. In a sense, she’s given birth to herself – a momentous event in her life, to be sure, but only the start of her next big adventure.
If the media can accept that trans narratives don’t stop with transition, we’ll really have reached a transgender tipping point.