What “I Am Cait” gets wrong about trans suicide

This past week there were a lot of dismal “I told you so”s fluttering around social media with the (entirely staged) revelation that Caitlyn Jenner holds odious views on welfare recipients, repeating the dependency myth and suggesting they have no incentive to find other income sources. Her comments were certainly ignorant, and from someone with a walk-in closet full of designer label dresses, even more aggravating; but the hue and cry about what she said was fueled by a fleet of nearly identical news articles that played up the “conflict” this created between Jenner and her coterie of friends.

In other words, we were told nothing we did not already know about Jenner’s politics, but we did let ourselves get sucked into promoting the show by amplifying this manufactured “drama.” And like any honest commentator on the matter, I must admit my own obvious complicity here; I’m writing this very piece, after all.

But what has bothered me the most about I Am Cait is something I’ve struggled to find words for until now. The way it deals with trans suicide, the flagship pro-trans cause that Jenner has taken up in the show, profoundly unsettles me.


When I briefly reviewed I Am Cait’s premiere episode, along with four other trans writers, for The Guardian I found myself trying to focus on how the show was oriented entirely towards the prejudices of its undoubtedly cis-majority audience in a bid to be persuasive. As I wrote,

The audience stand-in is her sceptical mother, Esther, who grants utterance to cisgender middle America, Bible quotes, weeping proclamations of difficulty and all. The therapist who Jenner brings in to counsel and educate her, to ease her into acceptance, seems meant to speak to the entire audience as well. As Esther processes her anguish, you can almost see in her the conflicted emotions of the cis audience, coming to grips with trans existence.

But I was unable, at the time, to explain one of the key reasons the show was not for me: Jenner’s prescription against suicide is “don’t do it” and “it gets better.”

Suicide is, indeed, a plague on our community and grappling with it is, whether we wish it or not, a significant part of all our lives as trans people, whether as a matter of community activism or just for the sake of our own survival. But when one combines societal transphobia with the false idea that suicide is the ultimate individualist malady, one gets a chillingly subtle toxic brew.

In I Am Cait’s first episode, which focuses on suicide, every mention of trans oppression circles back to it, as if other people aren’t killing us. Jenner’s solution is to aver that children should simply not commit suicide and hold on because “it gets better,” as if self-harm were ever held in abeyance by such proscriptions. It isn’t that simple, and I fear it pathologizes victims of suicide to suggest, however implicitly, that they were at fault for failing to see beyond their noses to a brighter future. When we kill ourselves all of society is putting its hands on the weapon.

This is not as overwrought as it sounds. To be trans in this society is to live in permanent placelessness, without a country. Many of us are literally homeless, and many more are spiritually so in a world where we remain freaks, jokes, or objects of aloof pity to many. Even in our own communities — whether queer or feminist — we are at best peripheral and at worst actively seen as pollutants, especially if we are transfeminine. Jennicet Gutierrez was roundly condemned by the wider LGBT community for interrupting President Obama’s address at a White House Pride dinner to draw attention to the dreadful conditions undocumented trans immigrants suffered in detention centers; for using a tactic that cisgender gay men have used time and again to advance the cause of same sex marriage with this president, she was villainized.

In such a climate, the all important sense of belonging, those binding ties that ward off anomie, are elusive at best. We are made to not only feel alone, but that the thin threads of connection between us and other trans people are not enough to hold the terrors of this world’s antipathy at bay.

The fight against suicide is an unenviably fraught one. The goal most certainly is, as Jenner desires, to see that more of us survive and to help us make our post-transition lives worth living. In Jenner’s mind, she clearly hopes her own example — and that of the other trans people she seems to feature in later episodes of her series — will show trans kids that they are not alone and that a better life is indeed possible.

But what troubled me about the way E! and Jenner handled this can be summed up very simply: In saying “don’t commit suicide,” this was the only time the show seemed to speak to trans people directly. The rest of I Am Cait is held together by its conceit of cis-centric persuasion. But this one part breaks with the show’s through-line and simply tells trans people to hold it together. It’ll get better.

As someone whose life has improved dramatically since transition, I still find the saccharine slogan of “it gets better” to be wanting. Not only did I have to put my shoulder into things in order to make it better (rather than merely waiting around as the slogan implies), but what has made my life possible, made it even remotely livable, is the activism of those who came before me — and, indeed, those who now work alongside me.

Life is not merely a matter of our own will, but the will of others to cultivate a world in which lives are livable. I share Jenner’s passion for ending suicide among trans youth; but she must recognize that we cannot do this alone.


Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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