In nine days, Irvine Auditorium will welcome Caitlyn Jenner onto its stage and into the spotlight. But some students on Penn’s campus, and in particular, in the transgender and non-cisgender communities, will not be as welcoming.
The Social Planning and Events Committee was primarily in charge of bringing Jenner to campus for its spring speaker event. Upon learning that Jenner would be speaking during the same week as QPenn — a week of LGBTQ+ related events dedicated to the celebration of the queer identity — the QPenn committee decided to feature her as their keynote speaker as well. This year’s QPenn theme is Power: Power through visibility, education, discussion and so on.
“The decision to make her our keynote speaker was not taken lightly because we know that her experience is vastly different from the experience of many transgender people. Particularly because the week’s theme is Power, it was hard for us to reconcile having a speaker who has used her power and visibility to say things that have been harmful to LGBTQ community members,” said College sophomore Kai Kornegay, co-chair of the QPenn committee. “While Jenner is privileged in many ways that other transwomen are not, her willingness to share her journey with the public is powerful. Her deliberate visibility aligned nicely with our theme of Power.”
By bringing Jenner to campus, SPEC and QPenn hope to support an ongoing dialogue on trans and queer identity. However, a number of students in the trans and non-cis communities do not believe she is the best choice.
“I realize that she’s famous, but she does such a terrible job of representing the opinions and experiences of trans people all over not just Penn’s campus, but the United States,” said College sophomore and Penn Non-Cis member Dylan, who uses they/their pronouns and preferred that their last name not be used. “I’m on the more privileged end of the spectrum, but I still feel some type of way about the fact that there’s going to be 1,000 cis people going in and coming out thinking they know what it’s like to be transgender.”
Jenner is no stranger to controversy. During her appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” she sparked backlash with comments such as, “I’m older than most people in the audience. I kind of like tradition, and it’s always been a man and a woman.” While Jenner has since changed and clarified her position on marriage, many people in the LGBTQ community have found it hard to fully embrace her.
Jenner also said during an interview with TIME Magazine that “if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.” Some members of the trans and non-cis communities thought this comment perpetuated already existing pressures to conform to the gender binary; further, there are those without the wealth and resources to do so.
“She’s really complicated because she has a lot of other scandals, so her own image isn’t very positive. In every group, there are going to be a couple people who are problematic, but as a public figure, she inadvertently will be a representative, so it’s not like we have a choice to tell her to shut up,” said a College freshman involved in Penn Non-Cis and Penn Queer & Asian, who preferred not to be identified because she has not yet come out to everyone she knows. “We just hope that she carries herself better and owns up to other things.”
College senior Roderick Cook, a founder of Penn Non-Cis, is interested in Jenner’s reactions to the backlash she has received, and whether or not she believes misogyny and double standards have influenced the criticisms she has received.
“[I’m] more ambivalent than anything. I’m not going to discredit people who have a negative view because I think that’s totally valid. I just try not to give it much thought because I think she comes from a place of a lot of attention and wealth that’s not really representative of the trans community,” Cook said.
Jenner’s appearance on Feb. 17 will feature a 60-minute discussion moderated by Penn alumnus Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who broke Jenner’s story in Vanity Fair last summer. An audience question and answer session will follow.
The next day, as part of QPenn, Penn Non-Cis will hold a speaker debriefing session to discuss visibility and representation, as well as power and privilege.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.