Social Media’s Double-Edged Sword: The Palatability of Privilege in the Transgender Community | Jane Ninivaggi

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In February, of 2014, Blake Brockinton was crowned homecoming king at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, in December he led a march through Charlotte’s uptown advocating for black lives, this upcoming September he planned to attend UNC Charlotte. Yet, in March, Blake committed suicide. Blake, like millions of other teens, was transgender. To be transgender refers to a population of people, roughly 2-5% of the world’s population, whose gender-identity does not conform with conventional notions of gender and sexuality, specifically the sex they were assigned at birth (The Health and Rights of Transgender Youth).

Blake’s death is part of a troubling, larger trend in the U.S: a disproportionate number of suicides in transgender and non-conforming youth and adults. While 4.6 percent of the U.S. population has self reported suicide attempts, that number jumps to 41 percent for trans or gender non-conforming people. The statistics are even more staggering when you take into account gender and ethnicity: 46% of trans men report attempting suicide, while “more than half of all American Indian, Alaska Natives and mixed-race/ethnicity respondents have attempted to take their own lives, and the figures aren’t much better for the black (45 percent) and Latino (44 percent) trans communities” (Malone 2015). With more than 50% of transgender teens attempting suicide before the age of 20, it is clear that the societal inclination to generalize gender identity based on physical attributes present at birth results not only in a denial of basic human rights, but appears to be the impetus for this startling epidemic of suicide (Fulton 2015).

Social media is a double-edged sword: for the privileged it can offer tremendous opportunity, while for the majority of the transgender community it can accentuate societal pressures to conform. In the wake of the Caitlyn Jenner media flood, it seems only appropriate to address the role of modern media in public perception of gender identity. Despite grumbles from conservative social media trolls when Caitlyn was honored with ESPN’s “Courage Award,” the response to her transition has been largely positive. However, this does not mean that the trans community has escaped from the Sisyphian battle of being the least understood of the “LGBT” acronym. As a transgender person, Caitlyn represents perhaps the most palatable version of a community that does not psychologically identify with the gender they were born with. As a wealthy, attractive, white celebrity, Caitlyn is relatable to mainstream society because she is still able to appeal to cisgender norms. Caitlyn’s privilege allows her to exploit media for her own benefit and the benefit of the greater transgender community to it’s fullest extent.

However, with this newfound visibility, Caitlyn is able to draw attention to barriers that trans and gender nonconforming communities face everyday, including: homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, discrimination, and access to healthcare. These struggles are just a few facets of a multi pronged gender identification struggle that ultimately leads to higher mortality rates, more suicide attempts, and an increased risk of developing substance abuse problems. According to a study, led by Emma Dargie, a PhD student in clinical psychology at Queen’s University, exploring the identities and experiences of a trans person, the most likely explanation for these afflictions are a lack of daily support in the life of a transgender person: something Caitlyn is fortunate to have almost entirely avoided (Orwig 2015).

Modern media’s emphasis on perfection leads to a domino effect that impacts teens of all gender identities by highlighting unachievable expectations that leave an entire population feeling inadequate, and some, suicidal.

Blake, on the other hand, was not so lucky. While by no means a celebrity, throughout high school, he was a vocal and well known advocate for LGBT rights locally and on social media. The pressure to present oneself in the best light on social media, the “faux-perfect-happy self,” which has become practically ubiquitous among social networking, creates unique pressures on young people who are already known to be at risk for depression, anxiety and suicide. One well publicized case of this is the former University of Pennsylvania track star, Madison Holleran, who committed suicide in January of 2014, to the shock of her peers, teachers and family, immediately after a cheerful Instagram post. In Blake’s case, his social media presence was confident and secure, yet that might be seen as evidence of the burden and risk of advocacy, particularly on social media, by vulnerable youth. Both Madison and Blake cloaked their social media accounts, like most adolescents, with a facade of normalcy that seemed to be an attempt to filter the strife of depression. Modern media’s emphasis on perfection leads to a domino effect that impacts teens of all gender identities by highlighting unachievable expectations that leave an entire population feeling inadequate, and some, suicidal.

Social media is the fastest moving communication network that society has ever seen; if Kim Kardashian thought she “broke the internet” with a picture of champagne on her famously bodacious butt, she must have been as shocked as everyone else online when Caitlyn broke a Guinness World Record for fastest Twitter account to reach 1 million followers. However, this immense demonstration of social support does far more than just earn a spot in a book, it fosters an infrastructure of acceptance for the trans community. Dargie notes that, “The most important factor (in overcoming challenges related to being transgender) … is social support,” (Orwig 2015). The tragedy of that absence is highlighted in cases like Blake’s, who did not benefit from the same support system.

Blake was an advocate for trans teens worldwide and seemed to be transitioning as well as anyone. However, while recognized as a “hero” in the LGBT community, the disconnect between Blake and his family, which ultimately resulted in him moving in with a foster family to complete his transition, left him feeling like his entire life had been a “lie” (Garloch 2015). This ostracization was never more apparent than in his obituary, in which his parents used the pronoun “she” throughout and referred to him as “Lashonda Marie Brockington,” his female birth name (Garloch 2015). The extreme stigmatization of transgender teens is a systemic problem that cultivates a complex network of factors that makes trans teens more vulnerable to suicide than more mature adults or less vulnerable teens. A recent study found that “transgender people who experience family rejection, discrimination, victimization or violence are more likely to report having ever attempted suicide” (Herman 2015). Related research conducted by the Williams Institute also noted that “seeking help from mental health or medical providers does not reduce the likelihood of a suicide attempt” (Herman 2015). In fact, those who sought assistance from a religious advisor were more likely to attempt suicide than those who sought no counseling at all (Herman 2015). So, if professionals can’t help transgender people struggling with traumatic psychological issues what can their families and friends offer? Social support. Research has found that a support network and a connection to a larger trans community contributes to lower suicide rates. However, with societal acceptance low, the suicide risk remains high as anecdotally evidence by the fact that Blake was a client of an LGBT center, The Time Out Youth Center.

Caitlyn Jenner is fortunate to have an immense support system ignited by her now famous Vanity Fair cover, opening channels of gender-identity dialogue that had previously been practically untouched by popular media. However, Jenner is no stranger to the spotlight; she won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, kept up with the Kardashians for 10 seasons, starred in her own spin-off “About Bruce,” televised interviews with Diane Sawyer, and now her newest venture, “I am Cait,” a reality show, premiering on July 26, that will be an attempt to shed light on gender identity and Caitlyn’s transition. Hopefully, it will also foster acceptance of the transgender community. There are doubts that the show will accurately be able to represent the realities of Jenner’s struggle, while also maintaining the much anticipated entertainment aspect that comes with being kin of the famous Kardashian family. Although some are skeptical of the ‘reality’ in Jenner’s upcoming reality show, it has the potential to make serious strides in the LGBT community.

In the recently released “I am Cait” trailer, Jenner declares that she is “the new normal” (Whitney 2015). As the docuseries follows Jenner living her life as a woman, the show is intended to focus primarily on everyday aspects of Caitlyn’s life, offering a socially constructive media outlet to an often polarizing topic. In fact, research on media and social change has found that “the irony of entertainment media’s effect on attitudes and beliefs is that when it persuades, it is usually not trying” (Argo, Idriss, and Fancy 2009). This notion has been observed in a study analyzing MTV’s popular show “16 and Pregnant” and a reduced rate of teen pregnancy. While many originally remarked that the show glorified young motherhood, it ultimately led to a 5.7% decrease in teen pregnancies 18 months after its premier: this accounts for one third of the overall decrease in teen births in the United States during that time frame (Wilson 2014). This is most likely a result of a lack of persuasive nature to the show. By focusing on volatile relationships, new tattoos, and G.E.D. classes, opposed to the mundane of dirty diapers and crying babies, viewers are entertained by the dramatics of program, without feeling like the show is propagandizing teen pregnancy. “I am Cait” may act similarly when portraying perceptions of the transgender community. Psychologists studying persuasion have found that when viewers “sit back to relax” they aren’t mentally preparing for a defensive situation, whereas in a persuasive situation “they are prepared for a highly rational and cognitive deliberation, they scrutinize a message carefully and think up counterarguments or stories” (Argo, Idriss, and Fancy 2009). Ironically, this results in a lack of persuasion. If produced effectively, “I am Cait” has the opportunity to put the “real” back in reality and stimulate acceptance for a struggling trans community.

There are sobering statistics of suicides among transgender teens, staggering rates of homelessness, and countless stories of kids being bullied in school simply for being different. Yet, there remains a certain cultural disposition to generalize gender without regard to the evident psychological effects plaguing a sector of society. At 65 years old, Caitlyn Jenner is the voice of the millennial generation; she epitomizes what it means to be bold and authentic in a time when media glorifies unattainable perfection rather than recognizing the unanimity of flaws. Caitlyn highlights the role that gender plays in identity, a short sighted mentality that ignores the complexities of human nature. Too often society puts gender in a box rather than on a spectrum: ignoring the woman that would rather work than have a family and shunning the man that wants to be a woman. ESPN’s Courage Award may have Caitlyn’s name on it, but it truly represents the strength of a community of people that struggle every day with something as inherent as their own identity. Caitlyn’s immense media presence is far more than some sort of carefully orchestrated publicity stunt, but a powerful human rights campaign capable of empowering an entire community that seems to be a societal afterthought.

Bibliography

Argo, Nichole, Idriss, Shamil, and Fancy, Mahnaz. “Media and Intergroup Relations: Research on Media and Social Change.” Soliya. 2009. Accessed June 14, 2015. http://www.soliya.net/SoliyaGuideEnglish.pdf.

Fulton, Deirdre. “Transgender Youth’s Tragic Suicide Galvanizes Movement.” Common Dreams. January 2, 2015. Accessed June 6, 2015. http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/01/02/transgender-youths-tragic-suicide-galvanizes-movement.

Garloch, Karen. “Charlotte-Area Transgender Teens’ Suicides Rock Community.” The Charlotte Observer. March 28, 2015. Accessed June 7, 2015. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article16655111.html/.

Herman, Jody. “Parents of Transgender Children Need to Look at the Research.” The New York Times. January 8, 2015. Accessed June 8, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/01/08/is-it-child-abuse-to-make-a-trans-child-change/parents-of-transgender-children-need-to-look-at-the-research.

“The Health and Rights of Transgender Youth.” Advocates for Youth. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/publications-a-z/2282-the-health-and-rights-of-transgender-youth.

Malone, Luke. “Transgender Suicide Rates are Staggering.” Vocativ. March 5, 2015. Accessed June 6, 2015. http://www.vocativ.com/culture/lgbt/transgender-suicide/.

Orwig, Jessica. “Science Says Caitlyn Jenner Could be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to the Transgender Community.” Business Insider. June 3, 2014. Accessed June 7, 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/caitlyn-jenner-could-be-good-news-for-the-transgender-community-2015-6.

Wilson, Jacque. “Study: MTV’s ‘16 and Pregnant’ Led to Fewer Teen Births.” CNN. January 13, 2014. Accessed June 12, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/13/health/16-pregnant-teens-childbirth/.

Whitney, Erin. “Caitlyn Jenner Is ‘The New Normal’ In First Trailer For Docuseries ‘I Am Cait’.” The Huffington Post. June 3, 2015. Accessed June 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/03/caitlyn-jenner-docuseries-trailer_n_7502010.html.

 

 

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