As Jenner’s Story Breaks The Internet, Trans Women of Color Discuss Their Own Narratives

This week, Caitlyn Jenner debuted her new name and fabulous look on the cover of Vanity Fair. After months of her transgender coming-out process being tabloid fodder, Jenner wrote on her first tweet, “I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self.”

Transgender actress and advocate Laverne Cox, who graced the cover of Time magazine this spring, summed up her thoughts on the media circus around Jenner’s transition in an eloquent Tumblr post. First off, said Cox, congratulations. Or, in her words, “Yasss Gawd! Werk Caitlyn! Get it!” Secondly she said she hopes  Jenner’s positive attention will translate into support for trans people who aren’t drop-dead gorgeous celebrities.  “I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people,” Cox wrote. “No one or two or three trans people can. This is why we need diverse media representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities.”

As Jenner’s story became the top story online yesterday, I was thinking about a group of trans Latinas I interviewed recently in Jackson Heights, Queens. As trans issues become front-page topics, these trans women of color struggle to find their own narratives away from the lens of mainstream media. The realities of day-to-day life for trans people who don’t make it onto magazine covers is somewhat different. In Jackson Heights, a 20-minute train ride from Manhattan, 60 percent of the neighborhood is born outside of the United States. Trans women in the community share experiences and hardships twice a month in a support meeting held at local LGBTQ center Queens Pride House.

The group is currently led by Pauline Park, a trans activist who is also the center’s program coordinator. “We don’t tell people to transition or not but rather support diverse gender identities,” said Park when I first met her last summer. I e-mailed Park this week to ask for her thoughts on the discussion around Jenner’s magazine cover.

“I think the Vanity Fair cover will do a great deal to enhance the visibility of the transgender community, but I hope that the mainstream media and the public don’t make the mistake of taking Caitlyn’s journey as typical of all gender transitions. In fact, it’s highly unusual, given Jenner’s wealth and celebrity,” writes Park. “There are as many ways of transitioning and being transgender as there are transgender people. No one person can possibly represent the full diversity of the transgender community.”

Pauline Park is the program coordinator at the Queens Pride House. Photo courtesy of Park. 

Transgender Latinas and Trans women of color juggle racial profiling, economic hardships, citizenship status, and fears of deportation on a daily basis. In an April article for Fusion about Jenner’s high-profile interview with Diane Sawyer, Kay Ulanday Barrett pointed to the discrepancies between Jenner’s experience and the experiences of trans women of color:

“The current curiosity surrounding Jenner’s interview in the non-trans community creates a magical fantasy based on a very wealthy, able-bodied, American, and white experience that isn’t the case for many of us who struggle for survival and justice as transgender people of color.”

In Jackson Heights, the trans support group has members from ages 18 to 60 and is as diverse as the neighborhood. Nikki de Leon, 28, attends the meetings—she’s called Jackson Heights home ever since she moved from Colombia with her mother and sister in the nineties.  de Leon expressed ideas similar to Cox’s and Park’s about Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover: Hopefully Jenner’s story is starting important conversations, not overshadowing trans people whose journeys to their true identities look different. “Depending on each individual experience, there are trans people who feel like they need surgery to complete their transitions, while others don’t,” writes de Leon.

Through the support meetings, de Leon has met gender nonconforming people and transgender people who all had unique stories, backgrounds, and wounds. But they had one thing in common: the same need to find refuge in the group. “Trans workers who work at night have to deal with sexual assault,” de Leon told me when we met for coffee last summer. Transgender people face much higher rates of harassment and assault than cisgender people and transgender people of color are especially at risk of violence. For many trans people, reporting assaults through the justice system isn’t an option: While many undocumented immigrants leave their homes daily with the fear of deportation, for a trans person, deportation can already mean a death sentence in their home countries. When de Leon herself was assaulted one night walking home from work, she didn’t report it. “I had heard stories in the neighborhood saying that if you are trans or Latina, cops just won’t help, and they will deport you,” said de Leon. Regarding Jenner’s cover this week, de Leon summed up her thoughts, “Ms. Caitlyn Jenner could be a role model to me if she advocated for other, different trans people. But you can’t judge her for wanting to get her story out and showing a part of herself.” 

A sign at a 2013 protest for Transgender Equality in Washington, DC. Photo by Ted Eytan.

Through the support group, de Leon got a referral for counseling and was able to get a prescription for hormone treatment.  These days, she has a steady day job and is out as trans to her family. She’s doing great. But she knows she’s luckier than some of the trans people she’s met in Jackson Heights: She’s a US citizen and speaks English very well. “I have a regular day job in sales, but some trans Latinas speak only Spanish and can’t find jobs,” she said.  

As mainstream media begins to give more visibility to trans people, thinking outside of the binary is important for all of us. “Society has a gender-identity disorder,” says Park, who still sees how trans people get pathologized on a daily basis for not identifying with one rigid gender, or not matching their gender “category.” “I’ve done hundreds of gender sensitivity trainings and always have to specify that trans people are not just people who change their bodies, as the mainstream believes, they are here to talk about gender,” says Park. Let’s hope that women like Jenner help get more people talking.

Related Reading: When I Say My Daughter is Transgender, Believe Me

Carolina Drake teaches Spanish to kids in NYC and writes non-fiction essays. She contributes to AlJazeera, Jezebel, Hyperallergic, and ANIMAL NY. She tweets @CarolinaADrake.

by Carolina Drake
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