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What the spotlight on Caitlyn Jenner leaves out

Vanity fair cover/shutterstock/globe staff illustration

In an attempt to discipline myself for the forthcoming election season, I’ve been trying out a social media strategy in which I allow myself just one Facebook argument per day. It must be contained to the comments of a single post, concern only one topic, and address just one other person. These rigid guidelines not only make choosing the right battle feel crucial, they’re also better for my blood pressure. (I’ve learned I am not good at not arguing.)

This has not been an easy week for my new protocol.

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“RuPaul did this in the early ’90s,” read one of hundreds of posts that I scrolled through on Facebook related to the recent coming out of transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner. “He didn’t have a huge press release, and nobody really cared all that much.”

There was so much to correct. Could this be the one?

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Or would I better reserve my commentary for another post I came across, emblazoned with a dumb meme and bubbling with outrage that Caitlyn Jenner was awarded ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award over “runner-up” Army veteran, athlete, and double amputee Noah Galloway. (Spoiler: There was no “runner-up.”).

Maybe I should go with one of the handful I saw about the “non-story” of Jenner “deciding” to be a woman. With so many threads knotting so quickly into impossible misunderstandings of the Caitlyn Jenner Moment and its significance, it was hard to know where to begin.

I ended up sticking with the RuPaul guy. And while it took several exhausting and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to convince him that RuPaul is a drag queen (and not a transgender woman, that there is a difference, and so on and so forth), I felt like my daily bickering ration had been well spent. Despite its sleek multiplatform packaging, shrewd marketing, and carefully controlled timing — or perhaps because of them — there’s still so much to be misunderstood about the significance of the Caitlyn Jenner Moment.

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Part of this is because it’s Caitlyn Jenner’s moment.

It’s hard to underestimate the benefit that Jenner’s new visibility as her true self brings to trans people living in a world where their stories are seldom represented correctly, fairly, or even at all. But just as the “reality” of Jenner’s role on TV (soon to be more fully realized in E!’s forthcoming “I Am Cait”) isn’t easily mistaken by most of us for reality, nor should her new role as a representative for trans people be taken as representative of trans experience.

The sheer distance Jenner had to cover to get from life at one end of the spectrum of gender identity to the other is the source of her story’s social and poetic power: A trial of endurance and strength, followed by an emergence as a champion — Caitlyn’s experience feels like a metaphorical echo of Bruce’s Olympic legend. And the camera-readiness of Jenner’s narrative isn’t just because of the cameras already rolling; there’s a vastness between the Wheaties box and the cover of Vanity Fair that makes her journey intrinsically compelling.

It’s inspiring to watch Jenner take the reins of her own media destiny, but it bears little resemblance to the level of control trans people (especially trans women of color) enjoy over their own lives. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which polled more than 6,000 respondents, found transgender people face double the rate of unemployment, with 90 percent reporting harassment or discrimination on the job and 47 percent reporting suspicions that they were “fired, not hired, or denied a promotion” for being transgender. Transgender people also face high rates of violence and suicide, as well as less access to health care and housing.

The Jenner narrative subtly reinforces a notion of agency that many transgender people routinely struggle to attain. (While celebrating Jenner’s glamorous Vanity Fair cover, “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox and “Redefining Realness” writer Janet Mock wrote social media posts that emphasized the importance of, as Cox put it, “lift[ing] up the stories of those most at risk.”

The tight focus of the spotlight leaves out a lot. Just as Jenner’s heightened visibility could blind many to the most daunting complexities of trans life, it could also obscure something simple and potentially more useful to our understanding of gender than any one story: that gender is fluid.

Following the Vanity Fair cover’s appearance, Jon Stewart emphasized the hard shift in our perception of Jenner in a swiftly viral clip that skewered the media for obsessing over Jenner’s looks: “It’s really heartening to see that everyone is willing to not only accept Caitlyn Jenner as a woman,” he said, “but to waste no time in treating her like a woman.”

The grand arc of Jenner’s transition from Bruce to Caitlyn is what gives her story such sweeping mainstream-ready momentum. But it also spans the sprawling in-between that too often gets forgotten in favor of rigid, binary understandings of gender. Rather than presenting gender as a continuum of possibilities without fixed points that we all situate ourselves within, we tend to accept more rudimentary this-or-that reductions: man/woman, before/after, hot/not. A more nuanced understanding of gender’s uncertain terrain would make it easier for everyone to navigate, with fewer of us getting lost along the way.

As we rightly praise her bravery for coming forward, and as we watch the inevitable tide of advances that attend such shifts in visibility (with shows like Amazon’s “Transparent,” Fuse’s “Transcendent,” ABC Family’s “Becoming Us,” and others sustaining the mainstream push), it’s important that we take Jenner’s story less as a symbol than a reminder. Despite what has changed, we can see her how we’ve always seen her: Exceptional.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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