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, “The Great Debate.”
Winter Laike: Caitlyn Jenner and her badass group of trans women are in Chicago, practicing the tried and true method of bonding — the mani-pedi. Caitlyn suggests they all get the same color in solidarity, to which an enthusiastic Ella suggests “a deep red.” Zackary Drucker isn’t really about the red nail polish, but Cait tells her to “get out of her comfort zone.” They even turn on their vibrating chairs at the same time.
Nicole Pasulka: The group is planning to head to Cait’s alma mater, Graceland University, a school in Iowa that’s affiliated with the Mormon church. Cue tense music as the women eye each other awkwardly.
W.L.: Before they leave town, Caitlyn speaks at a fundraiser for Chicago House, an organization that provides resources to the city’s transgender population.
N.P.: As Cait makes the rounds this season, presenting at benefits and giving speeches, it would be nice to see some accounting of what she’s donated to community organizations. I’m not trying to police her intentions; she’s clearly bringing attention to issues. I’m just interested in the economics of this show and her own trans advocacy.
W.L.: Outside the fundraiser, protesters chant and hold signs that read, “liberation not miss-representation” and “we ain’t Cait.” Cait goes on the defensive and places her hand on a protester’s shoulder, saying, “I’m not representing you.”
“Do not fucking touch her!” another protester yells. Cait has serious boundary issues, and she’s clueless about a lot of things. She definitely is not representing most trans people’s experiences. How do you call yourself a trans spokesperson and then tell a trans person that you’re not representing them? As one protester, Monica James, told the Chicago Tribune, “[Cait] can’t speak to those struggles. It defaces the real truth behind transitioning.”
N.P.: When the ladies head back to the bus, they seem rattled. Kate Bornstein tells Caitlyn that all trans people are convinced they have “the truth” about trans and that “nobody else is trans but them.” The women appear to be backing up their host in this moment, but they have also been very critical of Cait’s values and her ideas about gender. As Jenny Boylan points out, there are a lot of people with reasonable objections to Caitlyn’s privilege, her definition of womanhood, and her politics. “She’s a problematic figure,” Jenny says, and this is the first time she has to confront this criticism from the outside world.
W.L.: Next stop: Dubuque! Cait wonders what resources are available for trans people in a small town. But before they get down to the nitty-gritty, they stop by a lingerie store. Jenny is playing it cool and making lots of sarcastic comments, but by the time they leave the store, she has a bag of her own.
N.P.: Rachel Ferraro, founder of Dubuque Transgender, joins the ladies for lunch and talks about being “the only one” in Dubuque. Rather than flee for the coasts, she stayed in Iowa because people need to know that “trans people are everywhere.”
W.L.: There is a lot of focus on trans people in major cities like NYC and Los Angeles, but what about the small towns? It’s hard to be in any situation without shared experiences, so it’s even harder when your experience is also stigmatized.
N.P.: Rachel is a dealer at a casino, so the girls decide to host a casino night. One adorable kid named Lizzie tells Cait they’re genderqueer and have been having trouble coming out. Cait leans down, and pauses. This is a hard one — what do you say to a child who lives in a small Midwestern town? She tells the 13-year-old to “surround yourself with positive people.” Which is trite and a very classic Cait response. A 13-year-old like Lizzie doesn’t have much control over who’s around them.
W.L.: Well, now that this episode has aired, I don’t think Lizzie has to worry about how to come out anymore.
N.P.: Now the group is headed to Des Moines for the Democratic debates. They’ve got a safe word — “God Bless America” — because Caitlyn sometimes loses it when talking politics.
W.L.: As they’re watching the debate, the room is split into sections according to political affiliation. Kate Bornstein is a socialist, but she chooses to be Republican for the evening and sits next to Cait. She probably wants to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Cait makes a comment about Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders and Kate drops the safe word. Why can’t she disagree without attacking?
N.P.: In conversations about politics, Cait does this thing I’ve started to think of as “Cait-splaining.” She gets loud and insistent and talks over everyone, then calls it a “debate.” The other women are understandably put off by this tactic. If they’re going to survive the trip, they’ve got to teach Cait how to have a civil conversation.
W.L.: Back at the hotel where the group is staying, Hillary Clinton rolls in with a huge group. Cait approaches, and Hillary is surprised to see her. “Did you come for the debate?” she asks. Everyone is starstruck, but Cait is most of all. After the meeting, her tune has changed: “I have to admit: I think she is very good on transgender civil rights.” Well, that’s a step forward. Oh, and Bill was there, too.
N.P.: Ella is adorable, but as she explains, coming out as trans in high school wasn’t easy. Even though most people were accepting, she felt like an outsider. Now she’s barreling towards her former crush and his friend (who happen to go to college at Graceland) in a bus full of fabulous trans women. These women are experiencing a lot of emotionally charged coincidences right now.
W.L.: The ladies chat over dinner about their upcoming visit to Graceland. Cait wonders how Chandi will react to the students’ questions. Really, Cait is hoping that the others don’t embarrass her. “I was good and treated Hillary Clinton with respect,” she says, and she wants Chandi and the other trans women to treat potentially transphobic religious students the same way.
After walking into Graceland, Caitlyn sees two of her former coaches. She was nervous about seeing folks at the university following her transition, but everything goes well. Former coach Jerry Hampton seems stoked to see her.
N.P.: And then Ella gets stood up by her former crush. But! His best friend Michael shows, explaining that his friend is totally MIA and he doesn’t know why. Michael seems compassionate and supportive, so #TeamMichael all the way.
W.L.: “I hope that the girls respect that this is my school … this is where I went to college … this is where my name is on the whole sports complex. I just don’t want to do anything to upset anybody,” Cait says. She seems way more concerned with her friends’ behavior than by how students and faculty might treat them.
N.P.: Cait is always concerned with propriety and making the non-trans world comfortable. Plus, she likely feels as though she has more control over her friends the people at Graceland. But you’re right, it seems like she’s putting the burden of civility on the women.
W.L.: During the discussion, a student asks the group how they could transition and keep religion in their lives. Caitlyn doesn’t know how to respond. This is the moment she’s been worrying about all day. Chandi’s “got this one.” She says she’s right with God because God always knew this is who she was.
N.P.: The women mostly speak in platitudes about strength and beauty and “living life authentically.” The exception is Kate Bornstein, who tells the audience about her daughter, a high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology, whom she hasn’t seen in over 35 years. Kate left Scientology in 1981, and when she did, she was cut off from her family.
Platitudes aside, situations like this allow people who might not know trans people to learn. Religious or not, people want to know what it means to be Cait Jenner. So here comes this group of eloquent ladies, letting folks into their lives and giving them a chance to relate and better understand.
W.L.: Despite all the warnings about Graceland’s church-affiliated conservatism, the trip ultimately turns out to be pleasant. I’m glad the women weren’t in a harmful situation. I agree that it’s also important for these students to see trans and gender non-conforming people. As Jenny Boylan says, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”