I've now had three days to think deeply on the content and significance of the Bruce Jenner interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News this past Friday night. My initial thoughts were published in the Washington Blade early Saturday morning, and I expressed a synopsis of my current thinking on HuffPost Live this morning. Now to flesh out a little more detail:
My most important takeaway is the dignity projected by both Jenner and Sawyer over the two hours. Speaking with cisgender friends this past weekend, they were all impressed by the way Jenner controlled the interview and told his story from the heart. Historically the interview flow is interrupted by intrusive questions, tainted by a scrolling background of flamboyant queens from a gay pride parade, or a crawl screaming "was once a boy!" "Dignity" was the signature tagline of the marriage equality movement in Maryland, and dignity has finally come to media representations of the trans community. I'm sorry that some of my colleagues refused to watch, believing it would either be a typical Kardashian circus, which it was not (even Kanye West impressed a lot of people who were never fans), or that they felt their community work was more important in that moment. I believe their work made the Jenner moment possible, but that the interview elevated their work exponentially as well. Even the sports talk shows following the interview were uniformly supportive. You can't buy that kind of "public service announcement" which transcends the salacious to which we've been exposed until now.
While people are already beginning to speculate about his upcoming documentary series, and the potential pitfalls of that endeavor, I have a growing feeling that no matter how tawdry that production is, this moment will not be undone. 17 million people watched that interview, and millions more will see parts of it online. If he allows some degeneration into Kardashian spectacle, that won't detract from his dignity and decency Friday night and the respect with which Sawyer treated him. A documentary series may also educate tens of millions of Kardashian followers who wouldn't have bothered to watch the interview.
I was taken by Jenner's decision to do this interview in male mode, while still living as a man. I don't know if he chose to do that deliberately, to deflect attention from his makeup, hair, or wardrobe, but it was a brilliant move. We all know the sexist manner in which women are dissected whenever they appear publicly -- their choice of clothing taking precedence over their words. When I spoke publicly after the Macy decision covering trans persons under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in 2012, I started off by saying that I am no longer a 4th class citizen, as a trans woman; that now I am a second class citizen, along with my sisters, subject to the same sexism and misogyny they've all suffered for decades. By removing any attention to sartorial presentation, Jenner was able to focus on his personal narrative, and he did so brilliantly.
The personal trans narrative of my generation follows an historical arc very similar to the Jenner one. This story has been told so many times (though not heard by many until last week) that within the community we refer to it, jokingly, as a "yata -- yet another transsexual autobiography." While there has been a steady stream of them since the 70s, this is the one that has already had the most impact.
That impact will grow because he told his story simply and clearly, without nuance and complication. And that's so very important, since his story was accessible to tens of millions because it was told simply, from the heart, in words and experiences everyone could understand. Yes, he's a wealthy white person who's also Republican and calls himself Christian, but that's all beside the point. His story of simple humanity, of love and family, resonates, and will continue to do so.
He inadvertently taught America about the difference between gender identity and gender expression. By presenting himself in male mode, without the distractions of attire and presentation I mentioned earlier, and speaking so eloquently about being aware of his female gender identity since childhood, he separated the concepts of gender identity and expression. Clearly stating that this would be the last time we see "Bruce," he uncoupled the woman he is, for "all intents and purposes," from the woman he will present as in the near future.
This is no small contribution to the national dialogue, because while we work to pass legislation, argue court cases and change the culture on behalf of all variations of gender non-conformity, it is only in the specific context of gender identity that the trans experience is clarified. And by dodging questions about his sexual orientation, he effectively distinguished sexual orientation from gender identity for the American public as well. One might think most people would understand the difference today, but that is not the case, and Jenner did us a great favor by refusing to engage deeply on the topic.
He sounded as if he hasn't figured out his sexual orientation yet, which is quite common at his current stage of transition. Asking him if he's gay, since he admits he likes women, confused him, because he answered the question from his older male perspective, and was not yet able to see himself as he will be living being sexually attracted to women and identifying as a lesbian. We have to be careful in distinguishing between pre-transition and post-transition when we ask that question about orientation, because the answer will be different.
Not only did he distinguish his identity from his attraction, in so doing he desexualized gender identity from the long-believed concept of transsexual -- that trans woman transition gender and undergo surgery simply to have penetrative sex with men. I've discussed this many times, but Jenner's presentation probably had more impact that all of the panels and presentations the trans community has given over the past 20 years on the subject. It's just so hard to get America's mind off sexual intimacy and its mechanics, but having heard some of the feedback over the weekend, Jenner seems to have been quite successful. Every small step away from the lies from both the Right and the Left -- that trans women are either extremely gay men running in fear from their homosexuality or surgically constructed women created for the sole purpose to undermine feminism, or that all are porn stars or hairdressers -- is progress.
By presenting the man who was once an icon of American masculinity and an object of hero worship as a woman who kept her secret close for nearly 60 years, whose internal struggles were sublimated by an obsessive focus on athletic performance and acceptable social stereotypes, Jenner's struggle both subverted those stereotypes and made a plea to all about the importance of leading an authentic life. One can be a woman yet become the world's greatest male athlete. How about that, Nikolai Avilov, Jenner's Soviet 2nd runner-up? You got beat by a woman, and today you're able to laugh about it from Russia (no hotbed of pro-trans sentiment. You might want to consider leaving -- now).
Jenner repeatedly stated that his life had been a lie, and who wants that? When I transitioned I apologized to my friends and family for having defrauded them, for having lacked the courage to speak my truth back in the day. Jenner told us all that during the years of Kardashian reality television, his was the only truth, yet one he kept secret. I look into his eyes on the Montreal Olympic podium in that Bicentennial year from the vantage point of my current life, and I see the agony of defeat in what should have been his life's ultimate triumph. Now, 40 years later, the thrill of victory was his, through his tears and with the support of his family, while sitting in his (and America's) living room with Diane Sawyer last week.
Jenner said he was afraid of "disappointing people." Bruce, have no fear -- you didn't. You transcended the tawdry, and informed millions of Americans.
You "kicked butt."