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In the short time since her in-depth interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Caitlyn Jenner has become one of the most visible transgender people in the world. Known largely for an astonishing performance at the 1976 Olympics where she earned a gold medal and the reality television career that followed, Caitlyn recently shared another aspect of herself with us: she’s a transgender woman. As Caitlyn put it in her acceptance speech for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs this month, reflecting on the time before she came out, “The ironic part is that the whole world thinks they know who I am — and they know nothing about me.” But we are beginning to know her.
We are seeing more of Caitlyn’s life, as she steps out and embraces her true identity. With only 8 percent of Americans reporting that they personally know someone who is transgender, the stories of transgender people featured in entertainment and news have immense power to shape our views on the subject. Unfortunately, the majority of those stories in film and television, as well as in print and TV journalism, have historically been dehumanizing and filled with harmful and inaccurate stereotypes. The real-life experiences of transgender people often mirror the mistreatment their stories receive in the media, with rates of discrimination, poverty and violence soaring above those facing the general population, and with 41 percent of transgender people reporting having attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of the general population.
Through the work of GLAAD, alongside countless trans people and their allies, media images are improving and including more nuanced representations of transgender people — and Caitlyn Jenner is among those who are creating that change. While some in the media continue to overly scrutinize changes in her appearance, Caitlyn herself is using her media platform to teach people more about what it means to be transgender — to live as someone whose deep, internal sense of their own gender does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
But there is much more work to do, particularly for transgender people who are not as privileged as she is. Caitlyn underscored this point toward the end of her ESPYs acceptance speech, saying, “It is an honor to have the word ‘courage’ associated with my life. But on this night another word comes to mind, and that is ‘fortunate.’ ” She continued, “If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead. Because the reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
In the E! docuseries, I Am Cait, viewers will learn more about Caitlyn Jenner, but they will also learn with Caitlyn as she immerses herself in community with other transgender people for the first time. All of those trans people will come from different backgrounds than her own. She is taking the spotlight shining on her and turning it on trans people with very different life experiences, allowing them to tell their own stories in their own words. And the impact will be global. I Am Cait will air in more than 120 countries, reaching over 100 million subscribers. Viewers around the world will see her story, and the stories of the other transgender people she meets.
In the premiere episode viewers will see one example of how families of transgender people react when someone they love transitions. Typically there are nerves all around as families adjust to the “new normal.” Ideally a transgender person receives support, love and acceptance from their family — even if the family doesn’t completely understand what it means to be transgender. From this episode, it appears that’s the reception Caitlyn has received from her family. In this, she is also fortunate. Far too many families reject a loved one who transitions — and if that loved one is a teenager, the outcome is often dire. More than 20 percent of all LGBT youth are homeless, and 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT, largely due to family rejection.
I Am Cait is a chance to celebrate Caitlyn Jenner living her authentic life, while also seeing how her experiences are both shared and unique among her transgender peers. Caitlyn made her intentions clear at the ESPYs, saying, “It’s about all of us accepting one another. We’re all different. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.” If viewers tune in curious about Caitlyn, it appears she wants to make it easier for them to accept their own transgender family members, co-workers, classmates and friends. And that acceptance will contribute to making the world a safer, happier place for all transgender people.
Nick Adams is the director of programs for transgender media at GLAAD. I Am Cait premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on E!.
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