A fellow mother of tweens said to me today, "I was driving the kids to school this morning, and just as I was concentrating on a difficult traffic merge, one of them asked, 'Who's Bruce Jenner?' Ugh, I had no idea what to say! So I just said, 'An Olympic athlete' and changed the subject."
In other words, she chickened out.
Never mind that I recently co-authored a children's picture book, I Am Jazz, which provides a basic explanation of what it means to be transgender. For years I have been urging parents and teachers to start having honest, age-appropriate conversations with kids about LGBT people and families. Not because I personally have any horse in that race -- no one in my immediate family identifies as LGBT -- but because I have a vested interest in raising compassionate, loving children; and because the LGBT community is here to stay. The slow and steady progression of marriage equality and transgender visibility means that our children will be seeing openly-identifying members of the LGBT community people everywhere they go. We do kids a huge disservice by pretending they don't exist (and we put teachers in the unconscionable position of having to ignore the LGBT students and families already in their schools).
So how would I have answered the question?
I would have said (and HAVE said, to my own three kids), "Bruce Jenner was a very famous Olympic gold medalist. But now he's famous for another reason. Now, at 65 years old, he's finally telling the world the truth about who he is: He has the heart and mind of a girl, even though his body is shaped like a boy. Interesting, right?
"When he was younger, Bruce never knew that other people felt this way, and he was confused and ashamed for wishing he'd been born with a body different from the one he got. But it turns out there are other people who feel this way and there's even a name for it: transgender.
"Today, doctors understand that being transgender is just the way some people are made -- it's like their brain and their body got mixed messages when they were growing in their mom's belly -- and the good news is that now we have medicines and even operations that, if someone like Bruce Jenner wants them, can make their bodies better match the way they feel inside. But this isn't always necessary: usually a transgender person feels much better by just being able to change their name and wear the clothes and pick the hairstyle that feels right to them.
"I'm not sure you'll ever actually meet someone who's transgender -- it's kind of rare -- but I hope if you ever do, you will treat that person with kindness, knowing that it probably hasn't always been easy for them; with respect, meaning that you don't ask any invasive questions that YOU wouldn't want to answer; and with an open heart, accepting them for who they are on the inside, not what they look like on the outside -- just like we do with everyone else."
Ta-da! No muss, no fuss, no anxiety attack.
Here is what I would NOT have said: anything about sex, or sexual orientation. These topics would only confuse the conversation, as they are fundamentally separate from gender identity (in other words, we're talking about who Bruce Jenner IS, not whom he wants to sleep with).
At the end of the day, dodging the question just means that our kids are going to hear about Bruce Jenner from someone else; most likely an ill-informed classmate on the playground. Better we show respect for our kids by keeping it simple and speaking the truth, just as Bruce Jenner has finally and admirably done.