Yesterday, as our daily email we sent a review of the movie Tangerine with two possible subject lines. This is something called A/B testing, in which a small number of subscribers gets one of two possible subject lines. The line that gets the most opens in a period of time “wins” and is sent to the rest of the list.
We chose a straightforward, neutral one, “Film Shot on an iPhone Will Restore Your Faith in the Big Screen” and a provocative one, “Caitlyn Couldn’t Handle the Lives of These Women,” which “won.” We chose the last one not as a joke but because it would instantly convey the general subject of the email—trans women, two of whom are at the heart of the film, Tangerine, and whose experiences as both sex workers and people of color are very different from Caitlyn Jenner’s, a white, rich trans woman.
We intended to trigger a response to the email—a click through—but in doing so we offended a number of readers and denigrated someone’s trans experience. We apologize that we chose to juxtapose the life of Caitlyn, who as one reader commented, we have “have had ZERO personal interaction with and do not know ONE IOTA of all that he/she REALLY went through,” with the lives of the film’s characters. The last thing we want to do is spread any trace of ignorance, hate or bigotry into the world, and we regret using words that did that.
Let us repeat that and underscore it here: We actively work to respect identities using the terms that individuals and communities prefer to describe themselves with. We never want to be on the side of bigotry or ignorance and we welcome the chance to have our minds opened about someone or something. Ms. Jenner–we sincerely apologize if our subject line belittled your experience as a trans person or made you feel marginalized.
What we did very much mean to point out is that within the realm of trans experience, Caitlyn’s status as a wealthy, white woman with access to the media is hardly the standard. She has unlimited resources to fund her transition and enhance her appearance as a cisgendered woman–just like all the other women in her family. When she wanted to tell her story, she did so by sitting down with Diane Sawyer and then being photographed by Annie Liebowitz for the cover of Vanity Fair. This is not the typical trans experience. This is not typical experience.
Is it necessarily fair that Caitlyn has come to be a symbol of trans identity? No, and she doesn’t pretend to speak for all trans people. It is crucial though to recognize just how different her circumstances–related not to gender, but to socio-economics and race–are from most other trans men and and women. That doesn’t take away from Caitlyn’s experience and struggle, it just gives it context. Let’s remember here that she has made a conscious decision to be in the spotlight, to participate in reality television and to tell her story. What we know about Caitlyn Jenner is what she wants us to know. And we know that she is rich and white and with that comes privilege. Does that mean her experience has been easy? Of course not. But consider these statistics:
— Transgender people are four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty (household income of less than $10,000 a year), and twice as likely as the general population to be homeless, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality
–Nearly a third of transgender Americans are HIV-positive, according to a 2009 report from the National Institutes of Health
–The same NIH study found that African-American and Latina transgender women had the highest HIV infection rates, more than 56% of black trans women were HIV-positive, for Latinas it was 16%, among those surveyed. Step back a minute–56% is a fucking epidemic that no one is talking about
–For a nuanced understanding of the relationship between sex work and the transgender community, check out this article from Plus, (which is where we also got those statistics).
These are very serious realities for a significant segment of the trans population, and either they do not apply to Caitlyn’s life, or she is not sharing with us how they might. These are factors very much in play in Tangerine. Gender identity is the only way in which Caitlyn Jenner challenges the status quo about who gets to be on television and on the cover of magazine, whose stories are considered acceptable plotlines for movies (she probably breaks some age barriers as well, especially for women). Tangerine can be uncomfortable to watch at times because the characters (who were created with extensive input from the trans women who played them) don’t behave in a way that we’re accustomed to seeing on screen. These women challenge some of the same boundaries that Caitlyn does, and then some more.
And to the reader who asked us to “man up and apologize,” thank you for the suggestion. Consider this an example of “womaning up” and exploring the issue in a non-binary way. We take responsibility for our words, but refuse to be shamed for starting a conversation.