If you’re a cis guy, and your reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover was to yell about over-fishing and poverty, it’s time to take a look at yourself in the mirror
It’s funny, isn’t it, how many people suddenly develop a deep passion for tackling "the important issues" when there’s a momentous news story that they deem to be frivolous? Throwing out patronisingly vague statements about "starving children in Africa" or even "over-fishing" before Instagramming their morning coffee. With the unveiling of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover last week, those unlikely social justice warriors came crawling out the woodwork once again.
"Kno what never ever 'breaks the Internet'?" tweeted 52-year-old Breaking Bad actor Dean Norris, "46 million Americans in poverty. Starving kids r courageous but not hip or glamorous." Because apparently, taking a moment to celebrate a member of (whether you like it or not) one of the world’s most famous families revealing her identity as a transgender woman is just not something worth paying attention to. Norris did somehow bravely manage to find the time last month though, to post 11 tweets about his trip to the Kentucky Derby.
Then there’s Tom Cruise's son Connor, who tweeted, and then wisely deleted, "I’m totally in support of people staying true to themselves and finding true happiness in whatever way they can. There are just way more things that we as a nation and as a planet should be talking about and working on. Like the fact that we are overfishing and in 30 years there will be no more fish… That’s one of thousands of things that should be of a higher importance than what is currently being gone over… " That’s right, he made a direct comparison between transgender rights and over-fishing – because everyone knows those two hugely similar issues are mutually exclusive.
"It’s funny, isn’t it, how many people suddenly develop a deep passion for tackling 'the important issues' when there’s a momentous news story that they deem to be frivolous?" – Alexandra Pollard
In the days after Caitlyn #unitedtheinternet, both Chris Brown and Snoop Dogg posted a meme that went beyond offensively misguided to just plain offensive. "Shout out to Akon! He is about to supply 600 million Africans with solar power", the post read, in reference to the Sengalese-American rapper’s renewable energy initiative. "Im really upset that this isnt major news but that science project bruce jenner is #Society."
#Society indeed. That meme, and the outrage of Connor Cruise and Dean Norris, are missing a whole heap of nuance. The various cultural, political, and social issues that the world faces on a daily basis are not going to be solved any faster by enforcing upon them some sort of superficial ranking system. Or by ignoring them completely on the 364 days of the year when Caitlyn Jenner isn’t making trans history – neither Snoop Dogg nor Chris Brown made public reference to the Akon Lighting Africa foundation previous to the last week. Despite our efforts to make it history, poverty still exists, as does over-fishing. But so does transphobia, and anti-LGBT hate crime.
To many well-off cis men, apparently, cases worthy of charity are very clearly defined – as is gender identity. But to a teenager – or indeed a 65 year old – in America struggling to come to terms with their own identity, this means a great deal. A recent survey found that 41% of trans or gender non-conforming people have attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the overall population. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than one in four trans people have faced a bias-driven assault – and rates are even higher for trans women and trans people of colour. If Caitlyn Jenner "breaking the internet" helped those people struggling so desperately with their identity, or prompted a conversation about the shocking hate crime statistics, then trampling on the news with a sanctimonious and counterproductive issue hierarchy is not as noble as some seem to think. In fact, it could be seen as quite the opposite.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t use Caitlyn Jenner’s moment to also highlight how far there is still to go – and how many issues, thanks to her immense privilege, she will never have to face. To ask ourselves and society, as Mykki Blanco did in a series of deleted tweets, why we still largely ignore "the repeated deaths of Trans women of color", to question our obsession with how well she adheres to societal beauty standards, or to point out the huge economic barriers that most trans people, particularly in America where the healthcare provision is so unstable, must face. Because alongside those other statistics, trans people are also four times more likely to live in extreme poverty. Still, Mykki Blanco went on to tweet, "Caitlyn Jenner just took every crown! Icon" – because reservations about Jenner’s privilege shouldn’t have to be at the expense of supporting her.
“We need to talk more about poverty and war and trafficking and, yes Connor Cruise, overfishing – but we also need to talk more about trans equality. And, thankfully, there need be no limit to our empathy” – Alexandra Pollard
But why have these cis men developed a sudden, passionate interest in world issues that have absolutely no place in this discussion? Why right now, when these issues have been present for their entire lifetime? Is it because this is the only socially acceptable way to project their discomfort?
There is no doubt about it, we need to talk more about poverty and war and trafficking and, yes Connor Cruise, overfishing – but we also need to talk more about trans equality - and thankfully, there need be no limit to our empathy. There is room in our minds and our hearts and our headlines for all of it. I don’t think I can put it much better than Kylie Jenner’s response to Chris Brown’s Instagram meme though. “State what you want about the world” she wrote, “without bashing others.” Especially when those 'others' have been so very marginalised for so very long.