Editor's note: This essay was published before Caitlyn Jenner posed for an Instagram photo with Hillary Clinton on March 14, expressing her willingness "to listen." Still, Jenner's long-documented history of supporting conservative politicians is worth examining.
Caitlyn Jenner has faced many obstacles adjusting to life as a transgender woman — backlash within the trans community, hate speech from bigots, and the sometimes-painful learning process inherent in becoming a new person at age 65 — with cameras documenting it all. Watching her develop, struggle, and acclimate to her new community — and slowly realize of just how far removed she is from most of its members — has been a fascinating, compelling, and often difficult process.
Jenner’s flaws are what make her a relatable human. And her E! reality show, I Am Cait, is important. While there are far too many montages of Jenner walking through her Malibu mansion, or getting her hair, makeup, and nails done by a team of assistants, or shopping for things like a private plane, this is the first show to feature a diverse cast of trans women being themselves. It exposes the general public to critical conversations about gender identity, the power and pain in the word “tranny,” and the epidemics of homelessness, abuse, poverty, and suicide within the trans community.
Yet, in the first episode of season 2, which aired on March 6, Jenner reminded us why so many still question her ability to represent women’s interests. She’s holding onto a relic from her decades of living as a privileged white man that threatens to ruin all of the progress that she has made: Her blind, unwavering conservative Republican beliefs.
Twice this month, Jenner has vocally supported Republican presidential candidates, all but ignoring their obvious shortcomings when it comes to issues of equal rights for any non-majority group. In an interview with The Advocate, Jenner talked about how she likes Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate. Her confusing logic went like this: “I think he’s a great conservative, and a constitutionalist… and probably one of the worst ones when it come to trans issues.”
Yes, Cait, he is. Cruz consistently votes against equal rights legislation, calls same-sex marriage a “crisis,” and the trans community “distracting.” And in voicing his disgust for a 2015 Illinois Department of Education ruling that advocated for the rights of transgender students to use the locker rooms that correspond with their identified gender, Cruz said, “I don’t want my daughters taking showers with little boys.”
Jenner’s solution for that teeny-tiny sticking point was to become “trans ambassador to the President of the United States, so we can say, ‘Ted, love what you’re doing but here’s what’s going on.’” Advocate writer Dawn Ennis makes sure to note, “She wasn’t joking.”
The latest episode of I Am Cait finds Jenner talking Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton, crushing all hope that she has any connection to reality. Jenner says that Trump is “too macho” for her tastes, but she’d vote for him in a heartbeat over Clinton. Because if Clinton is elected, “the country is over.” And on second thought, Jenner says about Trump, “I think he would be very good for women’s issues.” This statement causes Candis Cayne’s face to go through a series of horrified contortions worthy of an Emmy nod. Without a word she expresses what everyone else is thinking: Are you fucking kidding me, Caitlyn?
Trump’s entire career has been riddled with misogyny — from the time he made male contestants on The Apprentice rank their female colleagues on hotness, to the offensive joke he made about ousted Miss USA contestant Jenna Talackova, who was kicked out of the then Trump-owned pageant once it was discovered she was trans. The way he calls women who disagree with him “dogs” or “bimbos,” and protestors who demonstrate at his rallies “terrorists,” is more than merely macho. His most extreme followers push around teenage girls at rallies, give the Nazi salute, and advocate barring homosexuals from entering the country — in addition to the refugees and immigrants who Trump repeatedly says he’d “kick out.” By refusing to denounce this hatred and violence, Trump is inciting it.
When the other woman on the I Am Cait bus — they’re on a discovering-your-trans-spirit kind of road trip this season — start to push back against the idea that Trump, or any Republican candidate, would be an ally to women in general and the trans community in particular, Jenner’s rant against Clinton gets louder and more indignant. “Look at all the things going on in the Middle East, all because of what she did!” Jenner screams. “Look at Benghazi! She’s a fucking liar! She’s a political hack! She’s done nothing!” Jenner cuts everyone off, refuses to listen, and the women start to leave, one by one.
“I’m at a loss,” Cayne later tells the camera. It’s a relatable feeling.
Jenner’s conservatism has never been a secret. In her coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer last year, Jenner scrunched her nose at the idea of voting for Barack Obama and insisted that if she brought up LGBT issues with then Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “I think they’d be very receptive to it.”
Until recently, Jenner’s conservative ideology has been something we’ve sort of rolled our eyes about, as if we’re expecting her to come around and see the light, just as she learned to stop saying “them” when talking about trans women. With the help of her friends, Jenner has made tremendous progress from the obliviousness of living in a bubble to actively seeking out the stories of trans men and women across the country and learning about the challenges of their lives. She really does seem to care. And yet, her support of conservative candidates who actively work to harm these same people unravels all of this progress.
You cannot step up as a face and voice of an entire community without even trying to understand how most of it thinks. You cannot advocate for presidential candidates who want to “fix this country” without understanding what that means within their context — that to them, “fix” means limit access to the underprivileged and underrepresented, gut funding for programs that specifically help the LGBT community, and work to reverse Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage.
Even I Am Cait co-star, author and activist Jenny Boylan — who often serves as Jenner’s moral guidance counselor — has had it with her rhetoric. In an interview with The Daily Beast published Friday, Boylan revealed that she threatened to quit the show after suffering through Jenner’s repeated conservative tirades. “I wished I hadn’t agreed to be on this show,” she said. “On Day 2 or 3, on camera [this season], I quit the show. I said, ‘I cannot do this.’”
In the episode in which Jenner bashes Clinton, Boylan can’t even look her in the eyes. Instead, she walks off muttering, “Kill me now.”
Jenner’s claim that her adamant conservatism and support of prejudiced politicians does not contradict her commitment to trans activism is as nonsensical as anti-choice crusaders calling themselves feminists. No, and no. You cannot participate in the abolition of a community’s human rights and then claim to be a supportive member of that same community.
So, the trans community and those who genuinely support the welfare and advancement of all women — trans women, women of color, immigrant women, Muslim women, women who enjoy governing their own bodies, etc. — are faced with some serious questions: Can we root for Jenner when she supports politicians who don’t root for us? Can we champion her as a role model, celebrate her as brave, and continue to defend her against her many prejudiced critics when she pledges her allegiance to her own attackers? Can we watch I Am Cait and promote the change we hope it creates without supporting the backward, damaging ideology of its star? Or — like Boylan is perhaps still debating — is it time to walk away?