In Arabic there’s a word with no English counterpart; it’s pronounced wasta, which means the power one gains from making connections. Wasta is horseback riding with the daughter of the mayor of Amman on a colonial road; it’s sleeping in an underground hotel room surrounded by rainbow fish and stingrays in Dubai; it’s unlimited glasses of Dom Perignon in Abu Dhabi 30 minutes before takeoff to JFK. Wasta most definitely seeps through our Gothic walls, where children of ambassadors and trust-fund babies have a tremendous head start in the search for prestigious jobs after college. This latter point, though, is fodder for another column.
This column is about wasta in the context of 21st-century American transgenderism. It’s about two transgender women who have followed critically different life paths to achieve their authentic identity. These life paths sharply diverge in their degree of privilege, and they are painful representations of how wasta plays out even in one of the most marginalized communities in contemporary society. They are examples that belong on a metaphorical ladder in which one’s position is loosely decided by a few general patterns concerning socioeconomic status and gender. Specifically, transgender individuals with higher privilege tend to be upper-class and in the process of transitioning from female to male because our hyper-patriarchal society shames femininity in men more than masculinity in women. There are individual exceptions to these trends — outliers who, due to inordinate fame or inherited privilege, can skirt the inflicted prejudices of the transgender community altogether.
In July 2015, Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, came out to the world as transgender by donning an off-white strapless dress and light brown curls on the cover of Vanity Fair. The story’s combination of radically changed identity, pre-existing stardom and newfound beauty provided a unique shock value that made its publication a turning point in the modern transgender landscape. Jenner demonstrated how an objectively accomplished celebrity could still feel internally unfulfilled, but how fulfillment was still attainable through voicing difficult yet profound truths even after six decades of living in closeted agony.
Jenner’s revelation to the outside world was two-sided. On the one hand, her coming out most likely eased the emotional burden of countless individuals struggling with gender identity, including myself. The day my eyes touched July’s cover of Vanity Fair I immediately identified with Jenner’s rejection of her former heteronormative image broadcast to a flawed society. Still, her overhyped image still dampens the voices of struggling transgender individuals and undermines their everyday tribulations. These individuals scorn at the public’s newly glamorized perception of transgenderism that significantly downplays their grueling confrontations with flimsy job prospects, health care and housing. In other words, solely evaluating 21st-century transgenderism from Jenner’s wasta-infused narrative stymies real social change happening at the grassroots level.
The real face of 21st-century American transgenderism should not belong to Caitlyn Jenner. It belongs to someone like Kricket Nimmons, a black transgender woman from New York City whose life path was recently documented in The New York Times. Nimmons endured an upbringing in the conservative rural South, where she was sexually abuse as a child and evicted from home. She braved an HIV-positive diagnosis as a teenager, spent years in prostitution and was put in prison for fraud and theft. Further, she also fell victim to botched black-market medical procedures and faced multiple suicide attempts. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that the average life expectancy for transgender women of color is 35. Nimmons did not have Jenner’s upper-class wasta, and so she suffered from damages on the metaphorical ladder of transgender privilege for far too long.
Indeed, Nimmon’s case is a microcosm of a macro-scale problem ravaging the present-day transgender community, in which activism is on the rise while violence is also paradoxically increasing. At least 22 transgender men and women were killed in 2015 alone, the largest amount transgender hate crimes in recorded history. Nineteen of these victims were people of color, and their deaths were often carried out in brutal fashion — through shooting, beating, strangulation and even burning. These brutalities, which reveal the true face of a stigmatized world, lead us to question the reality of leadership misrepresentation and privilege-induced issues in greater society.
Isaac Amend is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .