The Most Public Gender Transition Ever?

If this broadcast is done well, focuses on the humanity of trans persons and doesn't degenerate into an oversexualized portrayal of a gender transition, with salacious emphasis on surgery and makeup lessons, then it could be a significant net positive. But that's a big "if."
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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 08: Bruce Jenner is seen filming his reality show on October 20, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by JB Lacroix/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 08: Bruce Jenner is seen filming his reality show on October 20, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by JB Lacroix/GC Images)

For those of us of a certain age who once exulted in his success and never thought we'd see him again, this is a surprise homecoming. For those of us who hid behind a cloak of exaggerated masculinity and now have another woman of our generation who did the same, only far more successfully, this is a revelation. For those of us who've been working over the past two decades to make gender transition more feasible, this is a validation. But for those of us who've worked to make being transgender far more than the act of gender transition, this may very well be a regression to an age we had hoped was behind us. This is the apparent coming out of Bruce Jenner, once the world's greatest athlete, orchestrated Kardashian-style.

One thing is for sure: If this gender transition is broadcast, as the Kardashian public-relations firm has leaked that it will be (and the caveat is that we are assuming Jenner is coming out, even though he personally has not yet spoken on the subject; therefore I will continue to refer to him as "Bruce," with male pronouns), the percentage of Americans who know of a trans person, either in person or through the media, will skyrocket. Right now that percentage is hovering around 10 percent. As I've written in the past, we've passed both cultural and politico-legal tipping points in the past year. This will be another big one, with millions of "likes" and tens of millions exposed globally over a short period of time. So if this is done well, focuses on the humanity of trans persons and doesn't degenerate into an oversexualized portrayal of a gender transition, with salacious emphasis on surgery and makeup lessons, then it could be a significant net positive. In that case Jenner will take his place alongside other trans media celebrities, like Christine Jorgensen and Renée Richards, who made the public aware of our existence by a willingness to be in the public eye.

But that's a big "if." The worst "back to the future" aspect of this upcoming reality series is that even if done well, it will, to some degree, take us back to an age when trans women were routinely sexualized. When the emphasis is on bodily changes, surgical reconstruction, wardrobe changes and the like, which are a major part of an actual gender transition, the core existential issues are minimized. Unlike the recent Golden Globe-winning series Transparent, it's unlikely that the focus will primarily be on relationships, and even when it deals with relationships among family and friends, it will necessarily be doing so against the backdrop of the actual physical transition. Having moved past that in the public sphere this year, with the emergence of a generation of trans women who have been emphasizing their humanity rather than their sexuality, we are at risk of sliding back into the morass of the titillating "sex change."

I understand that the activist community has no right to tell Jenner how to lead his life or come out. It's a common phenomenon of American capitalism and the celebrity culture to have the most intimate of experiences broadcast live and then sit back and watch the profits flow. The LGBT community has struggled to deal with all the plaintiffs who filed marriage suits when the community at large felt it too risky for them to do so. While that has turned out well so far and promises to reach a positive climax in a few months, the outcome was never foreordained, and the victory at the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor in 2013 happened by only one vote. We will have to deal with the consequences of this very public transition, whether we like it or not.

It's important to note that most public transitions have not gone well. Two of the best-known in the community, Christine Daniels/Mike Penner, with her tragic end, and Susan Stanton, with her fall from CNN exposure and poster-girl status, are a warning that transitioning is difficult under the best of circumstances. In public, where there is only a limited amount of control that can be exerted, the risks are far greater.

Let's remember that Jenner is 65 years old. He obviously did not feel comfortable coming out until now (and even now has not made any announcement, leaving the LGBT press and blogging corps as the only media not yet covering this "coming-out tease," out of respect), so I have a hard time believing the public transition is going to go as easily as he might hope. But we've created a world in which he can conceive of doing this, and I wish him well in making it work to his satisfaction.

One of the more fascinating aspects of recent trans history has been the role played by different generations. The postwar generation, led by the likes of Diego Sanchez, Mara Keisling and Riki Wilchins, worked in relative obscurity for decades, making it possible for a younger crowd to step forward. Laverne Cox, Mia Macy, Vandy Beth Glenn and Jazz Jennings, among others, have become the public face of the movement. Most recently, though, we have the children supporting the parents, with Jill Soloway creating Transparent as an homage to her own trans parent, and now we have the Kardashians stage-managing the transition of their parent.

I mentioned that the LGBT press is not covering the story, in spite of the fact that it's moved from the tabloids to the mainstream media, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. LGBT media folks have a long tradition of not outing gay or trans persons unless they are in a position of authority and power and use that power to damage the community. Jenner has the power and informal authority but, having done nothing to cause any damage, has left us generally silent and on the sidelines.

However, while the coverage has moved from salacious to respectful, at least in the mainstream, some of the language being used is problematic. One reporter in USA Today framed it as a "transition to a woman," rather than something like a "transition to live out his real female identity." The article is entitled "Is Transgender Community Ready for a Close-up?" Well, we are, if it's done respectfully, with a sincere effort to understand what being trans really is, and with consideration for the depth of our lives. Jenner's mother gave a long interview where the phrase "transitioning into a woman" was again used. His mother, 88 years old, was exceptionally sweet and supportive, not unlike many older Americans (which runs counter to the polling that shows that the least accepting demographic is the over-65 crowd).

This journey for Jenner, who has always craved the spotlight, can help educate in a manner that makes the community's work easier -- if the proper language is used, and if Jenner has studied up enough to have a sense of the history of the movement over his lifetime. He may very well have; I didn't begin transition until nearly a quarter-century ago, but before then I devoured everything I could find on the topic (in the pre-Internet age). Today it's much easier for him to access the history and appreciate how far we've come and the challenges that still loom, and it's quite possible he too has devoured everything in secret over the decades. He's fortunate that he need not worry about employment or housing discrimination, and given his celebrity, it's unlikely that he'll have a problem in any public accommodations either. I doubt any woman will demand he leave the women's bathroom. I hope he's sensitive to making the case that while his celebrity greases his path through life, for others it's anything but easy, as the three murders of trans women already in 2015 attest. Just last night, at the Creating Change conference in Denver, with many thousands of young LGBTQ persons in attendance, trans activists stormed the stage to protest another fatal police shooting of a local queer Latina.

And as a bonus, Jenner can be very helpful in clarifying to the sports authorities around the world that being a post-transition woman means you are physically like your cisgender sisters, not like the cisgender men. Even someone who was once the world's greatest "male" athlete will no longer have the physique or physiology characteristic of men. Ironically, the cisgender women who competed in the Cold War Olympics and took high doses of steroids were more like men physiologically than any trans woman would ever be, and they were allowed to compete with the women.

So I choose to be hopeful and believe that while he profits from his managed public transition, the rest of us will as well. Maybe he'll even donate some of his profits to programs like the Trans Justice Funding Project or the Transgender Law Center, and his mother should be encouraged to join Nicole LeFavour and her colleagues to testify to her Idaho state legislature, which needs a dose of the love and acceptance she has for her child.

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