Being famous and trans isn’t enough

When you’re trans, it can be tough to find real community leaders and role models, even though sometimes it seems like just about every one of us wants the job.

Real trans leaders, at least those who have some significant level of mainstream name recognition, have proven to be far and few between. In addition, certain segments of our community seem to delight in tearing some of these folks down, sometimes for good reason and sometimes not.

We’ve had pretenders to the throne, such as Susan Stanton and Zoey Tur, trans women who were presented in the media as trans leaders because of their notoriety, but soon showed themselves to be too self-serving and unqualified to take on such a role. Unsurprisingly, the always-skeptical trans community rejected both of these women as leaders because they didn’t measure up.

The roots of this skepticism go back to the days of Riki Wilchins, the Executive Director of GenderPAC (GPAC), which existed from 1995 to 2009. GPAC was originally created as a national organization to represent the interests of trans people. At the time, Wilchins was one of the most well-known trans people in the U.S. and respected as a community leader.

When Wilchins and the GPAC board announced that they were revamping the mission of the organization from one focusing on trans people and issues to a broader focus on gender discrimination, one that included advocacy for gender-based discrimination of non-trans individuals, many trans people saw it as a betrayal of their mission and the investment the community had made in it.

As a result, Wilchins was personally vilified by many, and once it became known that the organization had begun working with and received funding from the almost universally hated Human Rights Campaign, many trans people withdrew their support and new organizations which were completely focused on the interests of trans people, such as the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, began to appear.

It’s this history, which provides us insight into why trans people are as skeptical as we are of those who are popularly defined as our community leaders, whether by their own choice or by having it foisted upon them by outside sources.

It also explains why so many trans people have refused to embrace Caitlyn Jenner in the same way as we have Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. Simply being famous isn’t enough. Saying nice things about trans people isn’t enough. Saying you want to make the world better for trans people isn’t enough. No, to be truly considered a leader in this community you have to not only talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. You have to actually do the work as well as say the right things. You have to show up and speak up when you’re needed by the community, not just when you try to charge people $500 a ticket for the privilege.

Being on television doesn’t earn you the mantle of leadership, no matter how good your ratings are. It’s also about what you do when the cameras aren’t rolling, when the only audience is your fellow trans people and those who care about us. It’s about putting your community’s interests above your own. It’s about understanding why it’s not credible to say you support trans people and our equality in one breath and then declare you’re going to be voting for a political party which supports creating laws which would put trans people in prison for using the bathroom in the next.

To be a leader in the trans community, to actually lead and have people follow, you have to be real, really real.

Real like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox are real. They not only use their celebrity status to best effect to help the community, but they also do a lot of work behind the scenes, work that most cisgender folks, and in many cases the vast majority of trans people, will never see or hear about.

Real like Mara Keisling is real. Regardless of what her detractors may claim, she’s the hardest working national advocate we have. It seems like she’s always on a plane somewhere to spread the message. She always does a great job when she gets the call to talk trans issues in the media, even with a loudmouth trans radio host like me.

That’s what being a real leader is all about, not just talking but doing the work and putting the interests of your community first, even when no one’s watching.

It’s a hard job. I know. I was a trans community leader once, for a while. I wasn’t particularly good at it, which is why I’m not anymore, but that’s another column.

Leaders lead, and if Caitlyn Jenner truly aspires to be one, she’s going to have to earn it.