It was late June 2015 when I asked my mom a question that carried much more weight than she perhaps realized at the time. Struggling with the dual burdens of gender dysphoria and the closet, I asked her what she thought of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, which had been revealed just days earlier.
I had been struggling with whether I should transition, which would undoubtedly blow up my relatively comfortable life. I had no idea how my family would react to my coming out — growing up, LGBTQ issues weren’t discussed at the dinner table. I was pretty sure my mom would be supportive, but I wasn’t certain. Countless trans people had been unexpectedly let down by their parents before me.
I held my breath as I waited for her response.
“Good for her if it makes her happy,” my mom replied. It was a short but promising signal that maybe, possibly, I could safely come out to her at some point. Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out became a catalyst for gauging my family’s feelings about trans people.
I was not alone. Julie Kleinbach, a 53-year-old trans woman from just outside Sacramento, California, said Jenner’s coming out served as initial inspiration for her too. After years of thinking about transitioning, Kleinbach said she felt, at least in a small way, the courage to come out after seeing Jenner “almost be accepted.”
Jenner’s transition helped bring trans people visibility in the waning days of the Obama administration, which made American trans lives easier to live in substantial ways, by passing laws prohibiting discrimination in health care, reforming passport gender markers, and enacting gender identity protections throughout the federal government. And she was clear at the outset that she wanted to be a leader for trans equality. “I’ve lived a fascinating life,” Jenner told USA Today Sports in 2017. “Especially now, being in the fourth quarter, I’m happy to be where I’m at. I sincerely want to make a difference, to help my (trans) community.”
Though her coming out was momentous, Jenner did not arrive with trans-savvy talking points. Early into her transition, Jenner said she didn’t mind when people called her by her deadname, which most trans people generally consider a painful faux pas. She also complained about not being able to hang out with her male friends at the country club like she used to. Her problems — and public statements — were a natural outgrowth from her wealthy, privileged background and relative newness to trans issues.
“It’s been really disappointing to see the extent to which she has not understood why [it] was so easy for her” to access transition-related care and receive relative acceptance, said Kleinbach, a registered voter in California. “All the people that came before her that paved the way didn’t have that luxury, didn’t have her privilege.”
Even more insulting for the trans community was her continued defense of the Republican Party — and of Donald Trump in particular — as the GOP kicked off a moral panic over trans issues that rages ever harder even now.
In 2017, she told Seth Meyers she’s “not a one-issue voter,” saying she acknowledges Democrats are better on queer equality but that she also believes in the “Constitution, freedom, [and] minimum government.” Meanwhile, Politico reported April 21 that Jenner hasn’t been much of an active voter at all, sitting out almost two-thirds of the elections in which she was eligible to vote since 2000.
Jenner did speak out publicly on rare occasions, criticizing Trump over his ban on trans military service and attacks on trans health care access. In an August 2018 interview with Variety, she claimed she was working on fighting back against transphobic conservative policies quietly, through back channels.
“I don’t do a lot of media. I don’t want to be seen everywhere,” she told Variety. “Today, I’m very politically involved. Nobody really knows it. I do it very quietly because I have been so criticized by the liberal side of the media. I can get more things done if I don’t stick my nose into everything publicly.”
Now Jenner isn’t keeping her politics out of the public eye. She has thrown her hat in the ring for the California recall race in a bid to replace Gavin Newsom as the state’s chief executive. She filed paperwork as a Republican candidate on April 23 and has teamed up with former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale.
While California is one of the most supportive states for LGBTQ people, it is also majority Democrat, so it’s not clear to whom, exactly, Jenner’s run is supposed to appeal. Her trans identity may hold her back from attracting votes from hard-core Trump supporters in the state, too. “If her base is trans sympathetic Republicans, well, that’s not 51 percent,” Jim Newton, a former LA Times reporter who’s now an editor at Blueprint, a UCLA-sponsored public policy magazine in California, told Vox. “But in this race, if there are enough candidates, and they divide up the vote enough ways, she could win with a lot less than that.”
Jenner’s politics and controversial existence as a self-professed trans advocate has long put trans Americans in a double bind, forcing them to defend her from transphobic attacks while deploring her political views. And her gubernatorial run, however successful, is amplifying those tensions once again.
Caitlyn Jenner’s politics
In 2016, the hot political culture war was over bathrooms — specifically trans people in bathrooms. North Carolina had just passed HB2, a.k.a. the bathroom bill, triggering an uproar of protests and causing billions of dollars in revenue to leave the state after widespread boycotts.
The inference she was trying to illustrate was clear: Donald Trump supports trans people because she could use the women’s room in his building. Left unsaid is that Trump was (and still is) required by New York City law to let trans people use the bathrooms on his property according to their gender identity. It’s the kind of law that, incidentally, Trump and Jenner’s fellow Republicans generally oppose.
Jenner’s political naivety became apparent on her 2015–2016 reality show I Am Cait, which followed her and a group of trans activists, intellectuals, and celebrities as they traveled the country meeting with groups of trans people. A frustrating political discussion broke out between Jenner and the other trans women on the show, with Jenner insisting Republicans didn’t care about attacking trans people even as conservative states moved on bathroom legislation.
“These girls think that now that I’ve transitioned that everything has to change,” she said in an on-camera interview. “[They say], ‘You can’t be conservative anymore. You have to be a liberal.’ No, I don’t believe that. I think I can keep all of my views the same ’cause I feel in my heart that’s the best way to go.”
Despite forewarning from around the trans community, Jenner continued to claim Trump — and the Republican Party — supported trans people. Trump became perhaps the most actively anti-trans president in the history of the US, rolling back nondiscrimination protections in health care, banning trans people from the military, trying to exclude trans people from equal education rights, giving homeless shelters and prisons the right to force trans people to be housed according to their assigned sex at birth … the list goes on and on.
In October 2018, Jenner admitted she was wrong about Trump being good for LGBTQ people. “The reality is that the trans community is being relentlessly attacked by this president,” she wrote in an October 2018 op-ed for the Washington Post. But her early support for the now-former president left a lasting impression on trans Californians. Eleanor Hall, a 24-year-old trans woman from Berkeley, told Vox that Jenner “trying to advocate that Donald Trump was in some way going to be good for trans people” is why she couldn’t trust her as governor.
Jenner also remains a proud Republican even as her conservative colleagues escalate their attacks on the trans community. Republican-led state legislatures are executing a coordinated effort to ban trans adolescents from accessing lifesaving transition care and trans girls from girls sports; so far this legislative session, eight states have passed anti-trans bills and more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
It’s not clear who, if anybody, Jenner’s campaign appeals to. It seems unlikely she’ll appeal to the state’s hardest-core conservatives who have been railing against trans people for years. Meanwhile, California liberals, both trans and cis, will have a hard time getting behind her. It’s not clear at this point what her platform will be beyond her association with Parscale; so far, her official campaign website has only three functions: soliciting donations, selling campaign merchandise, and signing people up for campaign updates. She told Variety in 2018 that her political views had evolved over the first few years of her transition, saying she identifies as “economically conservative, socially progressive.”
“My impression of her in general is I sort of assume the worst an older, white, Republican woman is going to do,” Zach Hauptman, a 37-year-old nonbinary person in San Francisco, told Vox. “And that way I’m never disappointed.”
Caitlyn Jenner has always been a magnet for transphobia
Despite how trans people may feel about Jenner’s views, it doesn’t mean they don’t condemn the transphobia she’s faced.
Before she transitioned, it was reported Jenner had a tracheal shave, a procedure trans women sometimes get to reduce or remove the appearance of an Adam’s apple, which puzzled cis people and triggered mockery at the time. In 2015, Jenner was named one of Glamour’s women of the year, which turned into a conservative meme that is still openly mocked in online circles for social conservatives and trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs. Conservative media still misgenders or sometimes calls her by her deadname.
The trans Californians who spoke with Vox worry Jenner’s campaign may stir the transphobia pot ever further. Kleinbach said she’s had to defend Jenner from transphobia before, “mainly with respect to pronouns and people calling her [by her deadname] instead of Caitlyn,” she said. “My actions in speaking up for someone that’s being harassed are separate from my feelings about that person’s actions.”
But for Kleinbach, the bigger frustration has been with Jenner’s actions than with those who attack her. “She’s had such a soapbox. She’s had such an opportunity to reach people,” Kleinbach said. “It’s more irritating, in a way, that she has chosen not to not use her platform to educate people and to help people understand.”
Jenner’s campaign, representing a party that is now forcing families with trans kids to potentially flee conservative states, puts trans people in an awkward spot — feeling like they must defend her identity while Jenner does nothing but promote herself in return.
Her run could also serve to kick up transphobia on the left. Liberals and Democrats have shown no hesitation to attack a conservative political figure’s perceived identity. One homophobic example are online liberals calling Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) “Lady G,” a reference to an obscure and unverified online accusation that he frequently visits with gay sex workers in DC. Just last week, The View cohost Joy Behar misgendered Jenner as she talked about Jenner’s gubernatorial run (she subsequently apologized).
There’s a risk that Jenner, running as a conservative in liberal California, could generate liberal transphobia in a similar way, causing progressives to conflate their annoyance with Jenner’s Hollywood persona and politics with her trans identity. “If you throw insults or slurs at celebrities because you’re upset with them, what are you saying to the people next to you?” asked Hauptman.
Right now, it seems unlikely Jenner has a shot at becoming governor. A vote to recall Newsom will be on the November ballot, and more than half of voters will have to answer “yes” for the recall to succeed. If it is successful, the top vote-getter named in the second question on the ballot will win the election — which means that “if there are 25 candidates in the recall, the winner could win with 15 percent” of the vote, said Newton. This could be in Jenner’s favor, since she has name recognition, but a mid-March poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 40 percent of residents supported the recall.
“If California continues to battle Covid successfully in the fall, then I think it’s very hard for me to imagine that [Newsom] gets recalled,” said Newton. “Then it doesn’t matter where Jenner gets her support.”
But that doesn’t mean the race itself won’t create a lasting impact. For now, trans Californians are holding their breath and watching their neighbors’ reactions to Jenner’s campaign. Six years after her Vanity Fair cover, the question that carries so much weight is: What will the trans people in your life have to deal with because Caitlyn Jenner is running for governor?