Caitlyn Jenner’s run for California governor is about celebrity, not transgender equality

“I’m in,” Caitlyn Jenner announced on her website last week. With that, the former reality TV star indicated she plans to run for governor of California in the highly charged recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. If elected, Jenner, a Republican, would be the first transgender governor of California and the highest ranking trans politico in the nation. For proponents of equality, isn’t this what we’re hoping for? Alas, not so fast: We have learned (more than once) that mere celebrity isn’t what it takes to govern, especially in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century.

I first wrote about Jenner in 2015, when she sat down for an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer and told nearly 17 million viewers that she is a woman. Until then, we had known her as an Olympic gold medalist and a Kardashian stepdad (Jenner had been married to Kris Jenner, who stars with her family in “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”).

I applauded Jenner’s courage, especially since, as I wrote, “transgender people continued to be attacked and killed in shocking numbers.” Two years later I noted, “She has done an enormous amount to raise transgender visibility in this country.” Visibility is often key to acceptance.

Making a muddle of her cause

But Jenner, 71, has shown herself to be more about celebrity than equality, and it’s an understatement to say that she has made a muddle of both. She told Ellen DeGeneres in 2015 that she was lukewarm about marriage equality — but later changed her mind. She supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, even though Trump and the GOP consistently and resolutely pushed an anti-LGBTQ agenda. Later, when she saw the harm being done to the queer and transgender communities, Jenner did an about-face. Too little, too late, Ms. Jenner.

After her announcement last week, few hurrahs could be heard from LGBTQ advocates on Jenner’s behalf. Equality California, a LGBTQ advocacy group, tweeted, “Make no mistake: we can’t wait to elect a #trans governor of California. But @Caitlyn_Jenner spent years telling the #LGBTQ+ community to trust Donald Trump. We saw how that turned out. Now she wants us to trust her? Hard pass.”

Caitlyn Jenner on Sept. 07, 2019, in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo: Jerod Harris, Getty Images)

Hard pass, indeed. This lack of enthusiasm pales in comparison with the 2020 elections of Maryland’s Sarah McBride as the first trans person elected to a state Senate seat and Stephanie Byers of Kansas, who became the first trans Native American to win a seat in a state legislature. Both were qualified candidates first, trans people second, and had the support of the LGBTQ community.

Not only has Jenner never held elective office, she has barely even voted (nine times out of 26 statewide elections since 2000, the records show). She didn’t vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election that made Newsom governor, nor did she vote in the 2016 election that delivered Trump to the White House.

Gavin Newsom recall: California recall effort could end Newsom’s career or make him a Democratic hero

David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, told Politico last week that Jenner’s voting record “is in keeping with the tradition that celebrity over participation matters more than anything.” It’s hard not to notice that the website announcing her candidacy has no policy positions, no substance, nothing — only “Shop” (for “Caitlyn for California” branded merchandise like wine glasses and beer pints) and “Donate” buttons.

Speaking of celebrity, have we not had “enough of reality stars running for positions, running our government,” as Sunny Hostin, co-host of ABC’s “The View,” said on the show last week? “It really didn’t work out so well for the past four years.”  

Scrap prehistoric views of gender

Still, Jenner has lessons to teach us. After her announcement, Michael Knowles, a conservative political commentator, purposely misgendered Jenner — sneering that “it would be absolutely hilarious if the first female governor of California were a man.”

Like many of his fellow conservatives, who continue to live with prehistoric views on gender, Knowles’ tweet displayed his complete lack of understanding of gender identity.

Misgendering does cross party lines. Another “View” co-host, left-leaning Joy Behar, repeatedly used male pronouns — “he” and “his” — in talking about Jenner on the program Friday. At least Behar apologized, telling viewers, “I had no intention of mixing them up, and I tried to correct it immediately.”

A note to all when it comes to transgender etiquette: Use the name a trans person chooses as well as the corresponding pronouns. This is about respect, plain and simple.

Dignity above all: Trans students aren’t a ‘hotly contested issue.’ They’re a reality and deserve respect.

At a time when GOP legislators in more than 20 states are pushing bills aimed at curbing trans girls’ ability to play school sports and receive gender-affirming medical care, the former Olympian could be a champion for trans rights. Instead, she has said very little about these harmful efforts. To her minimal credit, she has opposed so-called bathroom bills designed to humiliate trans people — also primarily pushed by her Republican Party. Again, too little.

McCuan, the political science professor, says Jenner’s candidacy cements the idea that the Newsom recall election “becomes not a place to move ideas, but a place to move personalities — or move a career.” That’s a lesson Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan, both actors who were elected to the state’s top office, knew well.

Caitlyn Jenner also knows this script, which means she should not be counted out. But she should not be voted in, because celebrity is no replacement for experience. To paraphrase Knowles: I think it would be absolutely fantastic if the first female governor of California were a transgender woman. But not this one.

Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books. His new book, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old,”  will be published in June. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow

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