I was a bit terrified when it was announced that Bruce Jenner was going to appear on 20/20 to talk about his (he has asked for male pronouns, presently) gender identity. Rightfully so, of course, considering the tabloid with purposefully horrendous photoshopped pictures, the news plucking at Bruce’s personal life as if he were a side show, and the paragraphs upon pages of harmful slurs in reference to him made the transgender community feel a lot less safe. 2015 had been previously dubbed “The Transgender Tipping Point”, yet by that same media the message that Bruce was mentally unstable and Angelina was abusing “Shiloh” rang within our community’s ear like a mantra. So I don’t think any of us were prepared for what occurred last Friday.
It was one of the most respectful, truthful, and progressively eye-opening interviews a transgender person was allowed to give. Ever.
There are some mixed opinions on what the effect of the interview will have. I’ve read people not downplay it, but hold more of “it is what it is” stance. Other’s were apathetic; since why should we, the transgender community, care so much about a rich white transgender woman celebrity, when the voices of those who struggle with acceptance, with abuse, finances, and most importantly, death are always stifled? An opinion on the issue that really resonated with my own was Trans activist and YouTuber, Chase Ross (uppercaseCHASE1)’s video discussing how this was the transgender community’s Ellen DeGeneres moment.
He talked about the Janet Mock interview where she also referred to Jenner’s interview as such. No one knew about gay issues before Ellen’s coming out, nor was there a lot of positively portrayed gay characters represented in the media as just characters instead of being the punchline. The trans community is at a similar point, and like what Ellen’s coming out did for the acceptance and normalization of the gay community, Bruce’s story will bring transgender individuals a similar situation. I don’t think I’m being too optimistic when I say, yes, I think it will. This is mostly due to how revolutionary the interview was in how well it was handled.
Diane Sawyer let Jenner speak freely of his story and did not once diminish his voice with her own commentary. It was a conversation instead of an interrogation. The correct information was given to the audience in a respectful, non-biased way instead of taking stereotypes of the trans experience and boxing us in to a “one size fits all” situation. Bruce Jenner was never a “manly man”. Chase mentions this within his own video, which had been the most important part of the entire interview for me, personally.
So often the media, even other transgender individuals, refer to what I deem this “one size fits all” narrative. That, as a child in their original sex, the individual was either the ultimate “butch lesbian” and “tomboy” or the epitome of “flamboyant” in a way that when they eventually did come out as transgender, everyone “saw it coming” since being hyper masculine and hyper feminine are the most obvious markers of one’s gender in society. Which, Bruce Jenner, the Olymic athlete, the “manly man”’s story proves wrong. Gender is much more complicated than that and being transgender is so much more than how we present, which is a fact that the transgender community has already known for ages and now society knows too.
There is no right or wrong trans narrative; there is only your own. It’s tough, its unique and most importantly it’s valid. Tons of narratives, in fact surprisingly most, like Bruce’s, you would never have guessed. This was the moment of the interview where I began crying; when Bruce’s first wife and other family members discussed their initial shock, then acceptance. Finally, my own story was being presented and recognized as being “trans enough”. Before I came out, I was the least likely suspect for being a transgender male. I wore make-up, scarves, I enjoyed (still enjoy) stereotypically “girly” things. I had been called a tomboy in jest before, since I was quirky and also grew up loving stereotypically “boy” things too. Not a single person ever found that suspicious, even though for years I was anxious in liking anything remotely “masculine”, even though I was what I would describe now as being feminine neutral. I wore “girl” clothes that seemed a bit more in-between to be more comfortable, I struggled with stifling more of my masculine traits. I viewed myself as sticking out as a sore thumb, a sorry excuse for your basic girl, but apparently I “passed” well enough. Yet, when I came out, I was met with shock.
That’s the thing about trans folk. Before we come out, a lot of us are great actors (ironically, I did theatre. It brought me the most comfort and peace within myself because I was able to escape myself). Like Bruce, I knew something was up from a young age. I didn’t know what it was, but I just knew being a boy seemed more familiar and natural to me than girlhood was. It wasn’t even anything to do with gender stereotypes; I wanted the bare chest, the short hair, the ability to be as rowdy and rambunctious as I wanted to be without being made fun of anymore. It was so intrinsically deep within my personality and I just knew. I had no word for it. I was sure I wasn’t gay (especially since the term lesbian just never sat right). But the catch was this; I didn’t want to admit any of it. It was too weird and I knew it would hurt a lot of people. So, like Bruce, I conformed as best as I possibly could. I did the absolute best with what I was given, until the word “transgender” first graced my computer screen in 2011 and I saw a way out.
Bruce’s pain is identical to my own and I’m sure, many others out there as well. Hiding our personal truth was so much easier than destroying those you love. Letting them believe that your acting was method so you wouldn’t feel like a stranger that they were responsible for creating. The hardest thing for many transgender people to overcome is guilt. Bruce didn’t want to upset the country he inspired, the ex-wives he had loved, those ten sons and daughters he cherished to no end. He waited 65 years through the dysphoria, the stagnant life shearing past him, every moment of self-hate for one act of selflessness. This is so important for us with unaccepting families, the us who cannot speak up for ourselves out of fear, the us who acted our lie too well that now no one believes us, because we are now visible. We now exist. My mom watched the interview and for the first time since I’ve been out, I didn’t get silence from her but a text, saying, “Trying to research Dr. from Children’s Hospital Boston that was on Bruce Jenner special…perhaps he could be a good resource. Love you.”
This was the most important to me, but there is so much more to this interview that was progressive. A Doctor assured that being transgender just happens. It is not a parent’s fault, nor does the way a child is raised have anything to with it. Trans people come in all ages, all forms of life, and all different gender identities. Not just the binary male and female, but genderqueer, nonbinary, androgyne, agender, Two-spirit and everything far and in between. Gender and sexuality are not the same; there are gay trans men, lesbian trans woman, and bisexual genderqueer people, along with, again, all combinations far and in between. This information might not get into everyone’s heads all at once, but it is out there and a better understanding of what it means to be transgender will come from it. What used to be baby steps are now becoming giant leaps towards society changing.
I know, personally, Friday even if nothing comes out of this interview and we’re all back to square one again, I gained another trans hero and positive influence. And a new mantra:
“I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am. But I’m not saying goodbye to me. This has always been me. [When you think of me], please be open-minded. I’m not this bad person. I’m just doing what I have to do.”