Was Caitlyn Jenner's 'Man In A Dress' Comment Transphobic?

The reality star is under fire for her frank talk about 'presentation.'

Caitlyn Jenner's conservative (albeit evolving) stance on same-sex marriage earned her some serious side-eye from progressive peeps this year, as did her tolerant attitude toward Halloween costumes inspired by her Vanity Fair cover.

But that was nothing compared to the fury ignited by her most recent comments about her transition, which have many people accusing the transgender reality star of being transphobic herself.

The comments in question were made during Caitlyn's latest interview with TIME magazine, in honor of her earning a place on its "Person of the Year" shortlist.

"One thing that has always been important for me, and it may seem very self-absorbed or whatever, is first of all, your presentation of who you are," she said. "I think it's much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you're out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable."

For some people, this was the last straw.

"In other words, transphobic stereotyping from a woman who's just been awarded one of the magazine's 'Person of the Year' awards thanks to her transition and resulting position as a figurehead for the trans community. Great!" wrote Cosmopolitan's Alex Rees, before going on to condemn Caitlyn for her "conservative and disconcertingly gender-normative worldview."

The reaction on Twitter was no different, and often more vehement.

On one hand, it's not surprising that Caitlyn's comments touched off such strong responses. While she's not wrong that "passing" transmen and transwomen have an easier go of it (and her remarks are almost certainly based on personal experience, having weathered the challenge of an extremely public and publicly-discussed transition), she touches on a point of serious anxiety, anger, and even anguish for many transgender people.

Some resent the pressure to perform their gender along traditional, binary lines; others don't have a TV star's time, money, and resources to devote to it, even if they wanted to. (Transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, whose suicide last year touched off a major national conversation about society's treatment of young trans people, left behind a heartbreaking note that cited the impossibility of a "successful" transition as a contributing factor in her decision.) And of course, glamour on a Caitlyn Jenner level is totally out of reach for the vast majority of people, trans or otherwise.

Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair

Caitlyn Jenner

However, the reaction is also troubling in the theme that's emerged therein: that Caitlyn Jenner doesn't deserve her status as a high-profile member of the trans community -- or indeed, that she shouldn't speak about her experiences as a transwoman at all -- when she espouses ideas that counter dominant ideology or make some of its other members uncomfortable.

This "kick her out of the clubhouse" mentality seems to speak to a growing conflict within the transgender movement over who gets to speak up and speak out on its behalf. As trans people and trans stories become increasingly mainstream, so does the visible diversity of the individuals therein -- and that means diverse worldviews, too, whether it's Caitlyn Jenner's desire to present as a model of ultra-femininity or gender-critical transwomen's skeptical take on their own womanhood.

Which means that while Caitlyn's remarks about her "presentation" might not be sending the message some people would prefer, the message they do send is still an important one: That there's no one way to be trans, because transgender people are people first. Whatever struggles they may have in common, they're also individuals with varied perspectives, values and ideals that go beyond gender identity.

In that way, maybe we can thank Caitlyn Jenner for continuing to remind us just how diverse, and how human, the transgender community really is.

Latest News