Bruce Jenner, the Hottentot Venus and Me

Over the last year, I have been asked many times about Bruce Jenner.

Those around me are aware that I am a therapist and activist working with many transgender individuals, and who lectures about these issues publicly. What's more, I identify as trans* and genderqueer myself, so it is understandable that, when speculation arises about an individual in the public eye possibly being trans*, people in my circle turn to me.

"What about his hair?" people ask. "His body seems to be changing and he's so secretive. Have you seen his nose?" "Was he wearing nail polish?" "What about how his family is treating him?" And lastly, "Are those... breasts?"

I have thus far kept my mouth firmly sealed shut.

I can't help but consider history. The "Hottentot Venus" was a stage and sideshow exhibit; for several years in the early part of the 19th century, Saartjie Baartman, a woman and slave born around 1789 in South Africa and sold to a circus showman, was paraded around London and France for the captivation of the masses. She was displayed naked except for a beaded skirt, though accounts say she sometimes wore a skintight bodysuit. She was different; she was a big woman with a particularly large bottom and labia, as well as dark ebony skin, still uncommon throughout Europe except in slaves... the sum of which only accentuated that her shape and mannerisms were utterly unlike those of the prim, Caucasian women of Europe. She was compared occasionally to an orangutan rather than a woman. Saartije, or more accurately Saartije's body, was the exhibit.

She was scrutinized by anyone with the price of admission. Every inch was subject to public ridicule, open for public discussion. She had become an exotic, fetishized object valued only for her ability to fascinate.

In the end, her celebrity gone, she died poor and in obscurity.

And my own story feels relevant. I transitioned many years ago in college. I was acutely aware that those who had known me as "Larry" could witness I was changing, and though I never hid, now my classmates were gossiping. One September I was approached in the cafeteria and asked if I'd had surgery that summer. I was stunned; I suddenly realized I no longer retained control over information about my identity, or even about my body, in a way that wasn't the case for other. I wondered if I could ask about what was hidden within the asker's pants in response. "You show me yours, and I'll show you mine," I wish I had replied. Somehow I recognized it wouldn't be equally okay.

As humans we seem to have a need to question that which we do not understand. The "strange" thing we see can make us uncomfortable; it does not conform to our interpretation of the world, so we are intrigued and feel compelled to peek. We may simultaneously shove the strange thing away. "It" is other than "us," -- odd and different. "It" is bizarre. Perverse. Often unacceptable.

And as gender is a fundamental way we categorize individuals, when we encounter an individual who does not easily fit within the box that matches the gender they were assigned at birth, we have a natural curiosity, a desire to figure out, and an intuitive need to talk.

Bruce has now made a decision to share his transition publicly, a choice that required a great deal of courage. I have nothing but sympathy for his history of suffering, and I applaud his taking charge of his own narrative. On a much lesser scale, I made the same choices and now talk openly about myself when I speak in public, though it is unclear how much of a choice Saartje could make for herself.

Regardless, questioning and possibly altering one's gender is agonizing and deeply personal. It can rend your family apart, cost your career, relationships and significant amounts of money, even if you are fortunate to have the financial and social privilege to undergo the changes. The process can take years, an entire lifetime.

Everyone who transitions does so somewhat publicly, though not all of us have cameras focused on our every move. When we speak of Bruce, hopefully we can remember that Bruce is, at heart, a person, and give him the dignity he is due.