Caitlyn Jenner, America’s most famous transgender celebrity, has already managed to become a political football in the GOP presidential race and is poised to play an even bigger role now that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee.
This summer, Jenner will surely generate national headlines with a rumored, upcoming semi-nude cover photo on Sports Illustrated. The issue marks the 40th anniversary of her triumph (as Bruce Jenner) at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, where she became a national hero and Wheaties cover-model, after winning the gold medal in the decathlon. Today, despite some detractors, she is, for better or worse, the nation’s most recognizable trans figure, and one who has already shown a willingness to weigh in on politics. Should she use that bully pulpit to continue to hold candidates’ feet to the fire during the next several months, it could provide an intriguing subplot in an already unpredictable campaign season.
Jenner, who is a Republican, has already said she would “never” vote for likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and has called her a “f—— liar.” So, presumably, if she has the potential to influence any 2016 contender – it would be Trump.
“I think that Caitlyn is an individual who offers a unique set of contexts and personal narrative that I don’t think a lot of other messengers can. And as someone who identifies as a conservative, her framing and talking about these issues should have more of an impact on Donald Trump,” Hudson Taylor, the founder and executive director of the non profit, sports-themed LGBT advocacy organization Athlete Ally, told MSNBC on Friday. “Providing privacy for everybody is something that I think Donald and others can get behind.”
Jenner, who has not endorsed any candidate, said of Trump on her reality show in March: “I’m not a big fan because, I think, of his macho attitude … I think he would have a hard time with women when he doesn’t even realize it”
“It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be good for women’s issues, I think he would be very good for women’s issues,” she added. ”I don’t think he’s out there to destroy women or takes things away or do any of that kind of stuff.”
As Trump pivots toward the general election, he may be forced to re-calibrate some of his more controversial positions from the primaries if he hopes to be competitive in November. One of those positions – which could cause him more problems from the right as opposed to the left – was his take on the recent North Carolina “bathroom bill,” which, among other things, prohibits transgender people from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
During an appearance on NBC’s “TODAY” in April, when pressed on the issue, Trump said: ”North Carolina did something that was very strong and they’re paying a big price and there’s a lot of problems. And one of the best answers I heard was from a commentator yesterday saying, ‘Leave it the way it is right now, there have been very few problems, leave it the way it is.’”
When asked specifically about Jenner, Trump said he would be comfortable with her using any bathroom she chooses at any of his real estate properties. That comment ignited a mini-firestorm. Trump’s then-rival, the socially conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, attacked the front-runner for his “PC police” position. Jenner herself waded into the issue, sharing a video of herself going to the woman’s room at Trump Tower in New York City.
Ironically, Jenner expressed an affinity for Cruz early on, even going so far as to say she would volunteer to be the senator’s “trans ambassador,” but her viral video from Trump Tower seemed to imply that she had soured on the Texas lawmaker.
“By the way Ted, nobody got molested,” she quipped after exiting the bathroom in the clip, in a direct reference to fears Cruz stoked while campaigning against equal rights for trans people.
During a visit with low income LGBT students of color alongside New York Times columnist Nick Kristof this month, Jenner extrapolated on her views. “There are three Republicans who have been arrested in men’s bathrooms for lewd behavior,” Jenner told Kristof. “So, you know, maybe we should kind of ban the Republicans from going in there!”
Later, Cruz insisted, “The real danger is not people who are transgendered. It’s people who are predators.”
As far as Jenner is concerned, Taylor concedes that she is an imperfect messenger. “I think that across all these issue privilege plays a role, and certainly Caitlyn Jenner is one of, if not the most, privileged trans celebrity,” he said. “Certainly her experience is not the same as a trans woman of color who has a significantly higher probability of being physically assaulted or murdered.”
Taylor added, “On any social issue there will always be a spectrum of opinion. We need to have messengers from all sides of that spectrum. Although Caitlyn has a tremendous amount of privilege, it does give us an opportunity … it can have a positive impact.”
“If we’re going to change the world, if we’re going to live in a society that treats LGBT people equally, we also need conservatives to care,” said Taylor. He believes that there is a real chance that Trump won’t waver on his “bathroom bill” position because he’s demonstrated that bucking the GOP establishment has been a net positive for him. Still, he’s not confident that “what he says today won’t be the opposite of what he says tomorrow.”
The stakes for trans people in America right now were illustrated vividly by a NYC subway video that went viral earlier this week, featuring a passenger hurling vicious, profane insults at a trans woman who began filming her after a steady stream of harassment. According to Mic, the woman delivering the tirade rose and struck the trans woman (identified only as Pearl) shortly before the video cuts off.
Hillary Clinton has since offered the trans woman behind the camera an apology and her support. ”This all-too-high prevalence of violence and hatred faced by the transgender community — today, in 2016! — is a rebuke to all of us,” the former secretary of state wrote on Facebook on Thursday.
Meanwhile, with even progressive discrimination ordinances around the country often not taking trans concerns into account, this election will be crucial for a community that is still battling for mainstream acceptance and understanding. This is an area where Jenner could be constructive. For instance, while sports stadiums have public accommodations, they too by-and-large don’t address the specific needs of the trans population.
“As a former athlete, and member of the trans community, Caitlyn Jenner can be a voice for equality that other people can’t be,” said Taylor. “She should use her platform and her privilege with a purpose.”