Yesterday, Penn welcomed Caitlyn Jenner as the Social Planning and Events Committee Connaissance spring speaker and QPenn’s keynote speaker. The moderator was 1972 College graduate and Daily Pennsylvanian alumnus Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the Vanity Fair story announcing Jenner’s transition. With ticket lines stretching down Locust Walk, it was clear that the student body was definitely interested in hearing what she had to say.
We commend SPEC and QPenn for hosting such a visible and socially relevant speaker, who, since her announcement that she is transgender, is a figure of both celebrity entertainment and social justice. SPEC has chosen a speaker who is interesting in both who she is and what she has to say.
SPEC did well in bringing a speaker who could create discussion both before and after the event. Regardless of how well you may have thought she spoke, this event will foster productive conversation among the student body. Last week’s DP article “Penn non-cisgender community hesitates to welcome Caitlyn Jenner” suggests that her place as a transgender celebrity is already creating conversation on campus.
First and foremost, let us be clear. We cannot make a value judgment on whether it is her responsibility to be a representative for transgender rights, or how well she represents and advocates for them. We are not asking her to embody any particular concept of what a transgender celebrity should be. These are questions that are not our place to answer, regardless of our individual values.
However, we do feel it is our responsibility to hold her accountable for sparking productive discussion at Penn, as this is what should be expected of all the speakers that SPEC brings.
In that regard, we think that she and Bissinger delivered. Although Jenner consistently ignored Bissinger’s attempts to move forward with the conversation, her enthusiasm and readiness to answer every question was exactly what we want from a speaker.
When confronted with a question about her position as an icon for the transgender community, she acknowledged that she was a special situation and should not be considered a spokesperson for the community. She also admitted her lack of knowledge, having only met her first transgender person nine months ago. However, her speech about her past body dysmorphia and suicidal thoughts she felt gave genuine insight into her experience as a transgender person.
The most heartfelt moment had to have been when Jenner opened up about her regret of never being able to tell her father, who passed away in 2000, about her transition. The auditorium went silent as Jenner praised her father and wished that he could see her now. This willingness to expose vulnerabilities is what differentiates good speakers from great ones, and groups should look for speakers that are willing to move past what we can already learn with the click of a button.
The event ended with audience questions that were pre-selected by SPEC and QPenn. This was a good decision on their part. The questions chosen were thoughtful and did not hold back: One student asked Jenner about the conflict between her transgender status and her conservative Republican beliefs.
However, another student did not ask her original question and instead asked Jenner, “What emoji do you use the most often?” This caused significant confusion on stage, which led to Jenner’s eventual response, “I have no idea what an emoji is.” We don’t blame the hosts for this disturbance because there really is no way to completely control audience engagement.
We believe that SPEC should seek to continue bringing speakers like Jenner to campus — speakers who command the attention of the student population and spark meaningful discourse on campus.
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