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, “Woman of the Year?”
Winter Laike: Cait and her pals are road-tripping across America. The group is planning to go to the Democratic debate and Cait is not thrilled. They start talking about policies that affect trans people and, soon enough, the conversation turns to electoral politics. It’s an especially emotional topic, since Cait’s conservative Republican views offend the bus full of Democrats.
Nicole Pasulka: And now they’re all trapped on a bus with a stinky bathroom arguing about politics — it’s a literal and figurative shit show.
W.L.: Kate Bornstein tells Courtney that she identifies as a “tranny.” The subject causes some tension, especially with Jenny Boylan, who is understandably opposed to the use of the word. Boylan does not identify as a “tranny” and thinks the word, like the N-word and “faggot,” is associated with violence. She says she was once assaulted by someone who repeatedly called her a “tranny.”
I agree with Jenny Boylan. Although I use the word “queer” — and occasionally “fag” in certain circles — to identify myself, I refuse to use the N-word. There isn’t a “right” and “wrong” in these scenarios. Words have different meanings to different people. Often, the question isn’t about the words — it’s about who can say them.
N.P.: As Jenny has repeatedly said, this show is really not about Cait. She’s certainly not always the focal point this season; often, she’s just describing or restating discussions from the other women on the bus. The women on this trip have full lives and complicated, well-developed opinions. They’re thoughtful and skilled communicators, and it’s nice to see them get a platform. And so, instead of talking about one woman’s very specific experience transitioning, we hear about a painful and seemingly intractable divide in the trans and gender non-conforming community — what’s most affirming for Kate Bornstein is violent to Jenny Boylan. It’s unclear whether they can find a way to love and respect each other in spite of this.
W.L.: “Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?” Kate asks Caitlyn. Do you think Kate is on this show because of her ability to spark debate?
N.P.: She does that, it’s true, but I’d like to think she’s here because she’s an accomplished and influential auntie who pushes people to accept identities outside the gender binary. Though, she might also be trolling a little in this moment.
W.L.: Caitlyn says that she would never vote for Hillary because “she’s a fucking liar.” Yet somehow, she thinks that Donald Drumpf would be very good for women’s issues. To what women’s issues is Cait referring? This is the guy who views about abortion changed from “it is a personal decision that should be left to the women and their doctors” to wanting to de-fund Planned Parenthood. This is the guy who refers to women as “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.” He calls breastfeeding “disgusting” and was even uninvited to a Republican event for his misogynist behavior. Wake up, Cait.
Candis Cayne tries to defend Hillary Clinton, but she’s shut down by Caitlyn’s constant interruptions, then leaves the room out of frustration.
N.P.: I feel sorry for 18-year-old Ella during these fights. She thought she was going on a road trip with some great trans role models and instead she’s listening to Cait yell about Benghazi. This has pretty much cleared the room. No air freshener in the world is strong enough to get rid of this stink.
But wait! Zackary gets to the heart of things by asking, “Where is this anger coming from?” Cait is so defensive about her conservatism and so I say, as I will for as long as this stuff continues, that her identity is overwhelmingly emotional. Debating issues or policy will make zero difference.
W.L.: These scenes are painful to watch. Not only because Cait’s political views are out of touch with the needs of women and the LGBTQ+ community, but also because of the way that she reacts to disagreement. Zackary thinks Cait’s attitude “comes from 65 years of being a Republican man.” When her point of view is opposed, she raises her voice, talks down to others, and constantly interrupts.
N.P.: Cait is kind of a bully. She’s making it hard for both the women on the bus and all of us watching at home to feel for her. At dinner, she realizes it’s time to shift course, so she changes the subject to her being Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year.
W.L.: “What does it mean to be a woman?” she asks the group. Ella and Chandi believe it means being comfortable in your skin. Zackary says a woman is powerful and aware of her power. Cait says people often ask her, “Why would you ever transition from the strong powerful person that a male is into a weak female?” Here’s what I’m wondering: Why do we put so much emphasis on trying to characterize gender?
N.P.: It does seem important to Cait to have a working definition of “woman” that she can live up to. If gendered expectations are the air we breathe, I guess it’s better to define gender for yourself than to constantly try to conform to norms and assumptions.
Kate Bornstein says that her mother initially rejected her, saying, “If I have to call you Kate, you can call me Mrs. Bornstein.” Later, Kate’s mother did accept them, but the pain of that rejection is still clear.
W.L.: I felt Kate’s story so hard, and it seemed like most of the others did, too — except for Cait, who looked like she was laughing at certain points. Does Jenner not understand the gravity of these situations? It took almost two years to hear my father use the proper pronouns. It was such a casual moment, but to me, it was monumental. He was on the phone with someone and mentioned me; I don’t even know if he’s aware that I heard him. Something as simple as using the correct pronoun is huge because it tells us, “I see you.”
N.P.: There has been a lot of tension on this trip. Maybe what everyone needs is … to go horseback riding?
W.L.: I guess this show is just going to be one awkward, uncomfortable event after another.
N.P.: Adventures, Winter. They’re called adventures.
W.L.: Horseback riding it is. Everyone takes off on the trail, but once again Chandi is left behind. Her horse won’t walk. Last week, she got locked on the bus. Is this going to be a running joke? Are we seriously joking about leaving behind a black trans women — the only trans woman of color still on the show?
N.P.: I think Chandi is really funny. Doesn’t seem necessary to make jokes at her expense. After the ride, Kate and Jenny model how to be amazing humans and friends. The reach a détente over the word “tranny” and Kate admits that, yes, she was trolling Cait. Funny how Cait is Glamour’s “woman of the year,” but there’s no way I would watch this show without Jenny, Candis, Chandi, and now Zackary and Kate Bornstein.
W.L.: The group sits down for a rare moment of what I’d describe as “calling in.” Rather than point out Cait’s behavior and dismiss her, Kate admits that she left the room on the bus because of anger. Cait has to hear that she made the others feel uncomfortable — and no, it wasn’t just because they were disagreeing. “It’s not about the issues. We’re asking you to hear the fact we’re telling you we were scared,” Jenny tells her.
N.P.: Cait says that listening is “the feminine side of me that I’m working on.”
W.L.: Cait does need to work on listening. It may also be helpful to try to work on cutting out this feminine versus masculine bullshit. Listening is something that everyone should do.
Okay, now it’s back to bathroom talk. The group joins Sante Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and members of the trans community to put up a gender-neutral bathroom sign in celebration of the Santa Fe bathroom ordinance. All single-occupancy public bathrooms in the city are now gender neutral. Cait gives the honor of switching the bathroom sign to Kate Bornstein, which makes her feel included and acknowledged. Relieving oneself is a universal function, and everyone having a place to do so should be a basic human right.