Did Caitlyn Jenner Help or Hinder the Trans Revolution?

05_30_Caitlyn_Trans_01
Caitlyn Jenner at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, where she won an award in New York on November 9, 2015. The authors write that for many Americans, Jenner is the reference point for their perceptions of transgender people. But her experience is hardly representative. Carlo Allegri/reuters

It's been a year since the June 2015 issue of Vanity Fair hit newsstands announcing the arrival of Caitlyn Jenner. From her interview with Diane Sawyer, where she unpacked years of emotions, to subsequent reality television shows and media appearances, Caitlyn's transition has been very visible to the public eye.

With so much fame, it was clear this would be a make-or-break moment for the transgender community. Ironically, it appears to have done both.

Caitlyn's public transition was polarizing in a way that led many of us to dig deep and ask tough questions. The media largely portrayed her transition as a positive experience worthy of commendation.

Yes, we applaud Caitlyn's courage for recognizing her true self after years of internal struggle. And we applaud her for transitioning in a public fashion to help raise awareness and catalyze conversations that previously went untold.

However, for many Americans, Caitlyn Jenner has become the reference point for their perceptions and expectations of transgender people. Unfortunately, her experience is hardly representative of the rest of the population.

Caitlyn has about as much privilege as a trans woman in America could possibly attain. She's upper-class, white, college educated, not to mention famous as both a former Olympic athlete and reality TV star.

Her daily life looks nothing like that of the rest of the transgender community, and by keeping the focus solely on one high-profile individual, much of the real story is being left out of the conversation. While the TV lights have never shined brighter on transgender issues, so much still remains in the dark.

Instead of a one-on-one with Diane Sawyer, many transition journeys begin with family rejection, discrimination and oppression for transgender Americans. Transgender people face staggering rates of unemployment, homelessness, denial of medical care, harassment, assault, suicide and murder.

Transgender homicides in the U.S. are on the rise, especially among transgender women of color. Worse, a report by the Human Rights Campaign found that of the 53 recorded murders of transgender people in the U.S. from 2013 to 2015, not a single one was prosecuted or reported as a hate crime.

Caitlyn Jenner has never claimed to be an activist. But we need to recognize the privilege from which she speaks, and how someone with the best intentions can still serve as a distraction.

While we all look on in mild shock as Caitlyn expresses her conservative views or applaud quietly after she receives another award, the lived reality of the rest of America's transgender population gets pushed to the wayside.

If as a society we feel the need to designate a spokesperson for the trans community, let's consider other voices such as Laverne Cox, who acknowledges the privileges she has and consistently and passionately uses her voice to bring attention to the challenges and barriers faced by all transgender people.

These topics may be uncomfortable and difficult to talk about but it is imperative to address them. We must step outside our comfort zones and realize that our silence on the subject actively harms the most marginalized individuals in our society. And conversations must be more substantial than revolving around which bathroom to use.

Life as a trans person doesn't usually come with magazine photo shoots, courage awards or reality TV shows. As a society we need to steer our conversations and perceptions back toward the issues facing the entire community. Reflective conversations at home, work and places of worship can lead to real and lasting change.

You don't have to stop watching I Am Cait, but each time you do watch, take a moment and think about the wider transgender community, and what their reality show might look like.

John Cullen is the coordinator of outreach for the Susan B. Anthony Center at the University of Rochester. Nick Kasper is a program assistant for the Susan B. Anthony Center at the University of Rochester.