In what was billed as her "first keynote since accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPY's," reality television celebrity and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner spoke before a capacity audience at the 7th Annual Chicago House Speaker Series held in the Grand Ballroom of the Chicago Hilton Nov 12.
In his opening remarks, Chicago House CEO Rev. Stan Sloan recognized the event's sponsors, alongside attending elected officials including U.S. Rep. Jan Schakwosky, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and Chicago Commission on Human Relations Commissioner Mona Noriega.
Project Coordinator for the Chicago House TransLife Center Channyn Lynn Parker asserted that it was important not to forget the critical work of the two-year-old comprehensive support and programming initiative which Jenner had visited the previous day and met with some of its residents.
Parker said that, "particularly trans women of color [face] an oftentimes dehumanizing cycle of discrimination coupled with the threat of violence and alienation."
"Since the beginning of the year 2015, more than 21 trans womenparticularly trans women of colorhave been murdered in the United States alone," Parker noted. "If you are transgender and living in the U.S., you are 400 percent more likely to be living in extreme poverty. Fifty percent of trans-identified women are forced to engage in survival crimes which include sex-work and other street-based economies. A staggering 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide compared to the average 1.6 of the general population."
Jenner was joined at the event by cast members from her I am Cait reality television program including Kate Bornstein, Candis Cayne, Zackary Drucker, Chandi Moore and Jenny Boylan.
Following a short video highlighting the work of Chicago House, Jenner was introduced by Chicago House and GLAAD board member and ESPN journalist Christina Kahrl who also served as moderator for the event.
Calling it "another first," Jenner began an approximately 30-minute speech by recapping the story of her life.
"I gave my first speech 45 years ago to a high school in Iowa," she said. "I did it for years and years and I would always stand up there and, because of my identity, I would do little things to make me feel better. I didn't have to think about the presentation. I would look out at the audience and I would think to myself 'these people don't know anything about me. There is so much more to me than 48 hours in 1976'" [when Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon at the Olympics].
"I'm a spokesperson for my story," Jenner added to applause. "It's the only thing I can tell."
In reviewing the first season of I am Cait, Jenner said she and her fellow cast members have "opened up a conversation that it's OK to talk about trans issues. It's part of society. It's part of humanity."
Looking back over her childhood, school years, career and personal life, Jenner said that she used "diversions" and noted that achievement in sports was one of them.
"I kept working harder and harder and, to be honest with you, when you take it to that level eventually making it to the [Olympic] Games, there is so much that goes into why I have the drive, the hard work and dedication," she said. "I put in more hard work and dedication than anybody else in the world. It's because I had so many more things to prove to other people, to the world and to myself that 'this is who I am'."
Jenner likened winning the gold medal and then retiring to the "loss of my security blanket."
"I never had to deal with myself about who I am as a person, as a human being on this earth," she said.
She added that she had planned to transition before she turned 40 but that it just wasn't the time.
"For the next 23 years I raised the best damned family there is," she said. "I moved back to Malibu and I said to myself 'oh no, here I am, right back where I started dealing with the same issues I was dealing with when I was 8 years old. What the hell am I going to do with my life?'"
Jenner asserted thatfor the next two-yearsshe tried to avoid rumors spread by the tabloids. "The paparazzi were hounding me every place I went. I would wear the same clothes every day so they would take the exact same picture."
"One time I was driving and I had my nails polished," she said. "I knew the paparazzi were there. I always kept my gloves in the car, so I just threw my gloves on. The things that we go through. It's just ridiculous. It's horrible."
Following the publicity surrounding a tracheal shave procedure, Jenner wondered "how can I tell my story to make a difference?"
She began with her children. "God's looking down and he's making little Bruce. Let's make him a good looking guy, let's make him intelligent, let's make him really athletic. And then God chuckles a little bit and says 'let's give him the soul of a female and see how he does'?"
"Maybe this is the reason that God put me on this earth, to tell my story," she added. "To help other people. Because this is bigger than anything."
The event concluded with a Q&A between Jenner and Kahrl.
Outside the Hilton, half-a dozen protestors gathered led by activist Monica James.
"The name of our protest was Liberation Instead of Miss Representation," James told Windy City Times. "We know that there is a serious problem with women of color transitioning being accepted and received within the community and with their family. Trans women of color are more than 49 percent more likely to be infected with HIV. They are more likely to be attacked and assaulted on a daily basis than the average woman. That's a crisis."
"We are seeing people that are taking the violence that these women are being subjected to and exploiting it for their own personal gain," James added. "We are not attacking Caitlyn Jenner. But what I am attacking is the fact that Caitlyn Jenner is not a good representation for the struggles of the lives of trans women. If they are going to use anybody to bring some light, safety and resolution to this community of women, it has to be someone who has made the struggle."