Winter Laike is a trans musician, storyteller, son, brother, and less notably, Original Plumbing magazine's Mr. Transman NYC 2013. Nicole Pasulka 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 Sunday night's episode of Cait, "Politically Incorrect."
Winter Laike: Last season, Cait was just discovering the world of makeovers and girls' nights, but thanks to amazing friends and activists, she was also introduced to issues like sex work, homelessness, and the staggering suicide rates for trans youth. I'm curious to see what Cait learns next about her community, but I'm really here for her badass crew of trans women.
Nicole Pasulka: It's been six months since Cait and the ladies have hung out, and they're reuniting for a monthlong road trip across small-town USA. In a big ass bus. During an election year. It's the perfect excuse for endless, polarized political discussion.
But, first: hugs. Most of the crew from last season are back. Chandi Moore and Candis Cayne, of course, artist Zackary Drucker, author and academic Jenny Boylan, and writer and gender outlaw Kate Bornstein (who made my day when she had no idea who Kylie Jenner was). Also along for the ride this season is 18-year-old Ella Giselle, the daughter of one of Cait's friends.
W.L.: Kylie and Kendall Jenner stop by the house to visit Caitlyn and her friends. It's actually nice to see them and, as Jenny Boylan points out, it's important to see that transgender people have families. They do look a bit uncomfortable, though. I wonder if they actually want to be there.
Auntie Kate Bornstein wants to know when Kylie and Kendall knew that they were girls. They say they've always known. Kylie has a lot of sisters and she wanted to be just like them. The way they understood their gender had nothing to do with clothes or genitals. No one would ever question a cisgender woman who says, "I just always felt that I was female." And yet, a trans person can give the same answer and have their entire existence questioned.
Kylie tells Jenny and Chandi that before Cait transitioned, she had a lot on her mind. Now, their relationship is much stronger. It's easier to have meaningful connections when you're not spending every minute hiding who you are.
Cait is still "dad," though. When it comes down to it, this is about what makes everyone comfortable. It may be a hybrid title like Mad or Maddy, or Moppa, like in the TV show Transparent.
N.P.: Nevertheless, there's a storm cloud hovering over this happy reunion. After last season ended, Cait took a lot of heat for telling Time magazine, "It makes people uncomfortable" if a trans woman looks "like a man in a dress." Cait is not comfortable outside the gender binary. This was true during season one and it's true now. Because of this, and because of her vocal support for conservative values and politicians, a lot people don't believe she can or should be a spokesperson for the trans community. In November, protesters at a Chicago event where she was speaking told her, "You are an insult to trans people. You have no right to represent us."
This tension, which was one of the most interesting parts of the first season, isn't going away. In the past, Cait's friends overlooked her less-generous ideas — that people on welfare don't want to work, for example. But now they seem less willing to give her a pass. It's a tough spot. Being politically progressive shouldn't be a requirement for gender transition and it's unfair to hold Cait to a higher standard just because she's transgender. Still, if she wants to be a spokesperson or ambassador for the community, as she has said so many times, people are going to scrutinize her politics.
W.L.: Everyone, including Cait's personal makeup artist, is shuttled to meet the big bus. Jenny Boylan brings a train whistle to sound off the start of their voyage. I'm still waiting for her to play her autoharp. Taking stock of the "totally amazing" tour bus, Chandi can see that "there's never going to be any place for Cait to run on this trip." Being around all these girls "is going to make — or break her."
N.P.: Okay, well, all good reality TV must have conflict and it looks like the women of I Am Cait will clash over … LGBT issues in electoral politics. It's a somewhat nerdy topic to mine for drama, but I say, let's do it! Just as soon as Chandi gets off the bus.
W.L.: Oh great, we fought for so long for our right to be on the bus, and now Chandi is locked on the bus. How can this entire group enter the restaurant, sit down, order, and receive their food before they even realize that Chandi's not there?
N.P.: Earlier, Jenny Boylan guessed that Cait thinks this trip is about having fun with the girls. We now know that the girls have something a little more substantive in mind. After lunch, Jenny starts turning up the heat. She wants to know if Cait plans to date men now that she's living as a woman. This came up last season, too. Jenny had wondered why, after being with women all her life, Cait was reluctant to date them. Was it because she didn't want to be seen as a lesbian?
W.L.: Can we have a TV show or movie without some sort of love interest? Trans people are often questioned about their sexuality and the constant grilling on this show seems to be telling people that's okay. Maybe Cait doesn't want to date women because being trans and a lesbian would just be too much to deal with, but that's her issue to work out.
"I said what everybody wants to hear. Yeah, I would date a man. Maybe now they might leave me alone for a while," Cait says later at the hotel. This is wishful thinking. Cait wants a man to take care of her and hold open doors. She could have this with a dainty service queer or a nice butch lesbian, too. Maybe she can just identify as queer and call it a day.
N.P.: I cannot wait for Caitlyn Jenner to reject binaries, monogamy, and capitalism and come out as queer. If that's where this trip ends, I'm onboard.
Next stop: Heated discussions about political recognition of trans people. As they're leaving the Grand Canyon, Jenny Boylan finds out a ballot measure known as HERO, which would have banned discrimination against LGBT people in employment, housing, and public spaces like bathrooms, was defeated in Houston. The measure failed in large part because its opponents argued it would allow men to use the women's bathroom. Anti-discrimination protections vary significantly from state to state — and there are no federal protections for LGBT people — so while 18-year-old Ella Giselle has had a positive experience transitioning as a high-school student in a relatively progressive Southern California town, students at other schools protest when trans kids try to use the bathroom appropriate to their gender identities.
Bills and ballot measures that restrict anti-discrimination protection and access to public accommodations are overwhelmingly supported by Republicans, and so, Cait's diehard conservative values are in conflict with her professed dedication to trans rights. Or are they? She doesn't think so because she is in major denial. I would love to see Caitlyn talk to the politicians who supported those bathroom bills.
W.L.: Yes! I would like to see her and the others organize a mass bathroom trip with trans folk. Or really, anything political that supports trans people. Politicians who support restricting access to bathrooms say they want to keep "men" out of women's restrooms and prevent them from "preying upon our children in restrooms." I guess they don't realize how awkward it would be if trans people had to use bathrooms that matched their assigned gender. Their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters would end up sharing restrooms with burly, bearded trans men like Michael Hughes, whose selfie from a women's restroom in response to such bills went viral last year.
N.P.: Do you have the sense that Cait wants her own civil rights, but would be okay closing the door behind her? One of the questions her friends are asking is how far her solidarity extends. Does it include people with less money, access, and visibility?
W.L.: I don't know that Cait believes she has been denied any civil rights. I don't see Caitlyn changing anytime soon because, at the moment, she doesn't have anything at stake. She has security and doesn't fear for her life every time she steps out of her house. She has enough money to make sure her looks conform to a certain standard. She's rich and white. Unless there is something like a bathroom bill that affects all trans people, she will probably never experience limitations that other people face. And even if she's in a state where a bathroom bill has passed, she would probably pay to use a private bathroom somewhere.
N.P.: Sure, she's privileged and often by her own admission doesn't get what life is like for other people, but that doesn't totally explain why she's so adamant that Republican values are compatible with trans rights. Being a Republican seems to be a huge part of her identity. Her defense of the party is not rational; it's emotional. Her friends will never change her mind debating policy. It's going to take something besides facts or air-tight arguments. These women have tried so much: education, compassion, friendship. Cait is just not ready to renounce that conservative identity.
W.L.: But why not? How does it serve her or anyone she cares about? "Every conservative guy out there believes in everybody's rights," she tells the women on the bus, who side-eye, sit with dropped jaws, and — in Candis's case — even walk away. HERO was repealed, and yet, Cait excuses Republicans by saying that they are too focused on fixing the economy to think about civil rights. That's just a way of saying that money is more important than people.
N.P.: Winter, you seem fed up with Cait's politics and you are in good company. Last week, after Cait told The Advocate she wanted to be Ted Cruz's transgender "ambassador," Jenny Boylan wrote a post about their political differences on her website. "Everyone needs to get their mind around the fact that politically she is, like half the country, a conservative, and the sooner you get your mind around this, the angrier you can be." Early during shooting, Jenny Boylan writes, she even wanted off the bus. She stuck with the trip "because on Survivor, (my favorite show), I always get angry when people 'quit the game,' as if they really didn't understand what they were signing on for when they agreed to spend 39 days boiling rice and eating tarantulas."
It seems safe to assume that this trip will not to transform Caitlyn Jenner into the queer anti-capitalist of my dreams.