I Am Cait and the Transgender Tipping Point

I Am Cait. Photo: E

Winter is a trans musician, storyteller, son, brother, and less notably, Original Plumbing magazine’s Mr. Transman NYC 2013. Nicole is a non-trans journalist who writes about sexuality and gender and can remember a time not so long ago when every article about trans people or issues had to include an ad hoc definition of the term. Those days are gone, and in their place we have I Am Cait, part reality show, part PSA, a landmark moment for trans visibility, and a romp through the homes and closets of a very rich woman. Ahead, we discuss last Sunday night's episode of Cait: "Family Interference."

Winter Laike: The social-justice and vineyard tour of northern California is over, and Cait is back at the Malibu bachelorette pad. Last episode, Cait opened up about feeling distant from her kids since she’s transitioned. She knows she needs to make amends and gain their acceptance. But that’s going to be hard, especially since the paparazzi have her cooped up inside the house.

Nicole Pasulka: Cait’s determined to figure out a way to get to Candis Cayne’s house for a sleepover, though. Cait’s never been to a sleepover. She likes to go to bed early, so she wants to know what will happen — pillow fights? Gossiping? Lingerie fashion show?

These two have had a light flirtation going since they met at girls night during episode two. They never talk about it together on-camera, but it feels like they’re negotiating whether a romance is worth risking the great gal-pal thing they’ve got going on. Cait is also understandably reluctant to get into a relationship. Candis tells Cait that some other girls might stop by after trans pride, but if not, it’ll just be the two of them. Wink. Nudge. Nervous laughter.

WL: Does Caitlyn know what Trans Pride is? Why didn’t she ask about it?

NP: You’re not going to cut her any slack this week, huh?

WL: I’m just curious.

NP: Kim comes by to tell Cait that the family is angry because she called them “a distraction” in the Vanity Fair article. They hate the way Kris was depicted in the interviews. “You’ve got the fame, but you’re losing your family,” she says.

And while, yes, the article does imply that the reason Cait and Kris split was because Kris didn’t accept Cait’s transition, it also calls Cait a father with a “tendency toward self-victimization … who had been absent for years at a time, insensitive, hurtful, and weak in no longer making an effort to keep up contact after he married Kris Kardashian.” So, ouch all around.

WL: We’re only a few minutes into the episode, and this conversation between Caitlyn and Kim is bringing drama. It seemed like I Am Cait was about to become the type of reality show America is used to: lots of arguing and gossiping about how everyone feels. Then, boom! The realness hits. Behind all the “she said, she said” is the underlying theme of acceptance. Ultimately, Caitlyn doesn’t feel accepted by her family. Kim and the rest of the family feel like they’ve been neglected and treated like crap. I got nervous just thinking about how difficult it is to come out to family. Every person that comes out and shares their truth with loved ones risks losing everything.

NP: There is such a tricky mix of intense, life-defining identity struggles and celebrity madness in the conversation. Kim tells Cait, “You look amazing. It’s your time, but you don’t have to bash us on your way up.”

Cait feels bad that Kris feels bad, but Kim tells her that if she’s going to make amends, she has to do it in public because, again, Kardashian.

WL: Just as things were getting a little too real, the show cuts to Cait preparing for her sleepover at Candis’s house with the help of her trusted sidekick and gal pal, Courtney. They don tiaras and go through Cait’s closet to find the perfect lingerie for the evening.

NP: At Candis’s house, Jen Richards shows up with none other than Kate Bornstein! “One of the most experienced people in this field,” Caitlyn explains. This is a pretty dry introduction for a person who escaped Scientology, lived as a badass lesbian in the ’90s, wrote a book to help queer kids grappling with self-harm and suicidal thoughts, fought cancer, and once wrote, "I identify as neither male nor female … I'm neither straight nor gay." Kate never settles for an easy answer and is so damn comfortable with ambiguity and complexity.

“We are freaks to a lot of the world,”she tells Cait. She wants to know how Caitlyn has been dealing with the freak factor.

WL: By the look on her face, Cait really doesn’t like the idea of being considered a freak. She has actively avoided the general public, and family acceptance is her major concern right now. We’re working to “normalize” the trans experience, she tells Kate.

NP: This is a case study of how marginalization affects people with lots of money — trans women of the one percent, if you will. There are a number of older, wealthy trans women who fight for trans rights from within a conservative framework. For example, Jennifer Pritzker is a billionaire heiress who has spent millions advocating for trans inclusion in the U.S.military.

I’d never expect Kate Bornstein to throw her weight behind a cause like that. But being trans doesn’t automatically make someone a queer nonconformist. I like how this comes up again and again. It’s totally narrow-minded to assume that because someone has a marginalized identity, they’ll be progressive. Still, I can’t help wishing Cait were cool with being an oddball outsider.

WL: Yes, I don’t like making stereotypical assumptions based on identity. At the same time, I’m incredibly frustrated that Caitlyn is Republican. There are just too many contradictions between those policies and the needs of the trans community.

NP: Adjusting Cait’s self-perception would mean adjusting her entire worldview. If you’re embracing your freakishness, then you just might be open to tearing down the social order and building a less violent and more inclusive world.

Winter, what do you think about the way Kate defines being an ally? I feel like it pushed the conversation further, especially since we’re still not sure if the Kardashians are going to be good allies to their dad.  

WL: Kate Bornstein thinks that in order to be an ally to a trans person (or any person), you can’t just “accept” someone. You need to ask what that person needs and see if you can provide it. I so agree with her. There are so many people that openly claim to be allies, but it is a self-appointed status. Acceptance does not equal allyship. Allyship requires action. So far, the Kardashians haven’t even reached the acceptance stage.

Candis and Caitlyn take a trip to visit a support group for children who are going through a gender transition, and a group for their parents. Chaz Bono, trans man and son of Sonny Bono and Cher, is one of the facilitators. Caitlyn tells Chaz that he’s been doing a really good job. I’m not sure what that means? Is Chaz doing a good job at being trans? Is he doing a good job running the group? Is he doing a good job staying out of the media? The latter is definitely true. Why don’t we hear about Chaz Bono anymore? Is his transition old news because he’s no longer a “baby trans” person? Is it because he’s a trans man and there is less stigma about being a trans man than a trans woman?

The participants share positive stories of coming out and parental support. A child named Scott’s parents had to put a dollar in a jar every time they used the incorrect pronoun. Scott made $100.

NP: Armed with inspiration from the trans kids and their parents, Cait goes to talk with Khloe about the family discord. 

WL: I couldn’t help but notice that, in an episode about acceptance and allyship, one of Cait’s biggest supporters, Ronda, her cisgender personal assistant and BFF, is MIA. At the end of episode three Ronda was feeling left out, and Cait took her to the movies as a consolation. Has she been watching Jurassic World in 3-D this whole time?

NP: While Ronda has been very loving, Khloe Kardashian is a truly stellar underminer. She admires Cait’s fancy new bag but nitpicks the way Cait described it. Cait’s glasses are nice, but Khloe prefers aviators. Cait’s lashes look good but could be better.

Though Cait throws her fair share of subtle shade, telling Khloe that her inferior lashes are why she’s a “C” and not a “K,” this is not a simple case of a family rejecting someone because of a gender transition.

WL: If undermining were an Olympic sport, their family would have two gold-medal winners instead of one. The ratings have been low. Do you think there’s an effort to add more drama?

NP: Maybe the hope is that more Kardashians will lead to better ratings. Is this because more Kardashians equals more drama? Who knows? I have to wonder whether low ratings mean the larger public has hit a ceiling in terms of mainstream interest in trans issues. This is the oft-repeated “transgender tipping point,” but can the inherently voyeuristic medium of reality TV provide a sustained, nonsensational look at these issues week after week?

And again, I’m wondering whom this show is for. On her website last week, Jenny Boylan wrote that cisgender people “who have never given our humanity a second thought” are the real audience. If that’s true, are there limits to their acceptance? Can we accept Cait and still not be interested in a TV show about her?