Student reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s Wednesday evening appearance are mixed, although those within the LGBTQ community tended to be more critical of Jenner’s comments.
Before 8 p.m. on Feb. 17, hundreds of students lined up outside of Irvine Auditorium to hear Jenner speak. The event was co-sponsored by the Social Planning and Events Committee, as well as the QPenn committee, and aimed to support ongoing dialogue on trans and queer identity.
Wharton freshman Melissa Matalon thought the event was an interesting opportunity to see a prominent figure speak and believes that people are over-analyzing Jenner’s words.
“I think a lot of people pick apart what she had to say, and I obviously agree that she could word things a little better, but overall, it’s very clear that she has good intentions. She’s still trying to understand it all herself,” Matalon said.
Many controversial points were brought up throughout the night, including the question of why Jenner isn’t an “ardent Democrat,” to which Jenner responded, “I have gotten more flak for being a conservative Republican than I have for being trans.”
Identifying as LGBTQ and being a conservative aren’t mutually exclusive, Matalon believes.
“I feel like if [the Republican party is] not going to support who she is, I don’t see why she should support them,” Wharton freshman Chrissy Walker said.
Jenner went on to express her conservative views and said that the national debt and other economic issues take precedence over certain LGBTQ issues — a statement which stirred up quite a bit of controversy, especially for some students within the LGBTQ community.
“The fact that she equated two completely different issues, invalidating one by doing so, is a problem in itself,” College freshman Kenneth Lac said.
During the event, moderator and Penn alumnus Buzz Bissinger referred to a previously published Daily Pennsylvanian article which questioned Jenner’s representation of the transgender community.
Jenner responded, “I am a spokesman for my story,” emphasizing how her experiences do not align with the narratives of most transgender people, due to her privilege. She explained that going through a public transition made it harder than for most people of the same experience.
Some students found a disconnect between Jenner’s words and actions. College sophomore Jacob Gardenswartz, a member of the QPenn planning committee and a previous member of the Lambda Alliance board, said that there’s a disconnect between Jenner’s TV presence and her lack of interest in being a spokesperson for the LGBTQ community.
“She’s definitely made an effort to be in the spotlight; there’s nothing wrong with that, but if she’s going to do that, she has a responsibility to educate herself on all sorts of issues that don’t pertain to her necessarily,” Gardenswartz said.
Walker thought that Jenner’s coming out process was highly orchestrated and that she “capitalized on the process with all of the media that she contacted — like Vanity Fair and E!. If she had wanted it to be a smaller deal, she very easily could have made it a lot smaller than it was.”
“At this point, it’s not really up to her [whether she’s a spokesperson],” Walker said. “What is up to her is how she wants to use that platform and how she wants to use that to the betterment of the entire community.”
Many students found problem with Jenner’s comment that her transition was harder than most. Jenner’s privilege in terms of race, wealth, support and access to resources enabled her transitioning process to be relatively seamless. At the same time, many people within the transgender community do not have the opportunity to even consider transitioning due to a lack of such privileges.
“Caitlyn Jenner as an activist is like having activism filtered through a colonial lens in which everything is white for her — as in she doesn’t think of intersectionalities — by saying she has it the hardest,” Lac said.
While criticisms of Jenner’s speaking engagement abound, there is general consensus that it was better that Jenner visited than if she hadn’t, as the event successfully invited the whole student body into the conversation.
“I thought overall she was an engaging and interesting speaker,” said College senior Kelly Naeun, who was on the QPenn board and is involved with Queer Christian Fellowship. “There were definitely a couple of awkward moments, but she handled those gracefully. I think it showed that she is trying to understand the trans community and her place within that community.”
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