Caitlyn Jenner talks about her life at Chicago House fundraiser
By Grace Wong
Nov 13, 2015 at 7:00 AM
Wearing a wrap dress, pumps and silver jewelry, Caitlyn Jenner took the stage at a Chicago House fundraiser luncheon Thursday to share her coming-out experience as a transgender woman.
"Maybe this is the reason that God put me on this earth, to tell my story, to help other people because this is bigger than anything," Jenner said. "The Olympics, it's a game, we play the game, we win or lose. This story is about life."
Jenner detailed her experiences to a rapt audience that cheered, laughed and was quiet as if on cue. Jenner talked about throwing herself into sports so she did not have to face her gender identity struggle, raising her family despite that struggle and living life after she finally decided to transition.
Not everyone who came because of the event was a fan, though, as evidenced by a handful of protesters gathered outside.
Chicago House's Speaker Series is the nonprofit's annual fundraising event that aims to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the services Chicago House provides to those with HIV/AIDS and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The TransLife Center, launched by the group in 2013, offers help to transgender people needing housing, employment, legal, medical and emergency services.
"We have the nation's most comprehensive services to those who are in the transgender community," said Stan Sloan, CEO of Chicago House. "The increased visibility of the trans community is really helping to propel it forward, but Caitlyn kind of takes that to a whole new level, so the more that we can have people understand what trans people are facing, the better that we will be able to face the really extraordinary poverty rates, rates of violence and the real factors that affect the women and men who live with us at the TransLife Center."
Jenner, in her life as Bruce, broke the world record in the decathlon as a U.S. Olympian in 1976 and was dubbed "world's greatest athlete." She came out as a transgender woman in April and received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in July. She also stars in her own reality TV show, "I Am Cait," about her life post-transition and the transgender community.
Other prominent LGBT activists have been featured at previous luncheons, such as Laverne Cox, an actress on the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black." Sloan said the minute he heard that Jenner might be transitioning, he began reaching out to invite her to speak at this year's event.
"This literally is her first time ever to keynote anything," Sloan said.
Although Jenner's audience inside the Hilton Chicago hotel was warm and receptive, protesters outside were not as pleased, saying that Jenner did not represent the reality transgender men and women face and that Chicago House discriminated against transgender people of color.
"Make the services and make this movement and this plea for trans tolerance intentional and direct for the people who are facing the violence every day on the streets, the people who are being discriminated against on the basis of their gender and their race at the same time," said Monica James, 43, of Englewood, who held a sign that read, "Liberation not miss-representation."
"She can't speak to those struggles," James said. "It defaces the real truth behind transitioning."
Sloan argued that Jenner was still learning, and any celebrity figure potentially faces criticism.
"She's a lightning rod," Sloan said. "You can't have that level of fame without having some kind of controversial notoriety that goes with it. The important part is to help her to grow and to help her evolve so that she can be the best representative possible for the communities we serve."
When Jenner left the hotel, she stopped to talk briefly with James while ignoring the people who crowded around her trying to take selfies. James said she was a community activist and could not find a job because of her gender and race.
"I would love to see you have a job," Jenner told James. "I love you."
Jenner walked to a black van and flashed a peace sign before the doors closed.
"I understand her saying that and having her perspective, but that's just one perspective," James said. "Now we're asking them to come and get the rest of our perspectives and then make a comprehensive package of how we're going to try to merge these people into mainstream society with equal rights and equal benefits."
Adam Polak, 24, of Florissant, Mo., who attended the luncheon, said the points the protesters are arguing were not the focus of Jenner's speech because she was speaking more from her own experience.
"I don't think that she's really a political activist," Polak said. "I don't think that's where her roots are. I think that's a role that she was given by all the publicity she's got, so that's both a good thing and a bad thing because she's not really representative of the community, but at the same time it's a leg up; at least it's some kind of representation in the media."