No, this will not be the last word on Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner. How could it be? Her reality TV show doesn’t premiere until next month.
Instead, this is an effort to consider, midway through the Jenner media decathlon, the deeply personal mystery and complex politics of transgender identity, amid the wider evolution in public acceptance of legalizing gay marriage.
Where will we end up? Not in a Jenneresque victory pose, though we have two versions to choose from: 1) The 1976 Olympic gold pose, a chiseled 26-year-old Bruce Jenner waving a tiny American flag in victory on a track in Montreal, 2) The 2015 pinup pose, a sultry 65-year-old Caitlyn Jenner, flashing cleavage on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair.
Where we think we’ll find ourselves is in a quieter place of empathy and support for Jenner, for the transgender community, for those struggling to reveal their true selves and for anyone having a hard time making sense of Jenner’s complex journey from male to female.
There’s a reason that Caitlyn Jenner’s story presents an immediate challenge to many people. She isn’t a family member or close friend. She isn’t a private citizen making a risky choice to come out to the world as transgender to help others. She is a media figure, a professional personality known by many as the dad on the reality entertainment series “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” There is an aspect of circus and manipulation to anything a member of the Kardashian clan does for the cameras.
But circus aside, we do know this person, don’t we? Many of us retain an image dating to the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. That’s when Jenner took gold in the decathlon, a two-day, 10-event endurance contest whose winner by tradition claimed the title “world’s great athlete.”
We don’t yet know Caitlyn Jenner, but we know Bruce Jenner very well, and the contrast between Jenner the male athlete and Jenner the female TV star is so extreme that we’re left boggled.
On YouTube you can find a TV clip of Jenner from the Games. It’s one of those ABC-TV hagiographies depicting the athlete as mythic figure. Legendary sportscaster Jim McKay narrated, in a dramatic reading for the ages, as Jenner on videotape flew by on the last turn of the 400-meter race, muscles taut, face grimacing, hair flying:
“Strong though he is, just as lean and hard and well-trained as he could possibly be, still, this is the face of a tired, breathless man, reaching for reserves not used until now. And that’s the purpose of the decathlon — to test the total man, body and spirit, to the last ounce of energy.”
Yes, that was Bruce Jenner: “The total man, body and spirit.”
How odd it must have felt for Jenner to be seen by the world as the definition of masculinity, and then to look in a mirror and see … the opposite?
You get a clue to Caitlyn Jenner’s emotional state — the relief and the leftover sadness — in a one-minute promo for “I Am Cait,” her upcoming show. You get a strong dose of the new reality, too: There she is on the screen, Caitlyn Jenner, wearing a bathrobe and applying makeup, the embodiment of mature femininity, as she speaks:
“How many people go through life and just waste their entire life because they never deal with themselves, to be who they are?”
There are an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. but no definitive number because there is no census count nor even a specific definition. Many people keep their identity secret. Others struggle. What’s clear is that not everyone identifies with their birth sex. Facebook provides more than 50 options beyond “male” and “female” for users to describe their gender identity, from “gender questioning” and “neither” to “androgynous.”
The science explaining transgenderism points to biology but is complex. The phenomenon is becoming easier to grasp because more people are willing to explain publicly what it feels like to be in conflict with your gender and recognize the solution is to change your identity.
On Reddit.com, a transgender contributor wrote:
“It’s just a bunch of small things slowly cascading into realizing that, hey, maybe trying to shower with your eyes closed so you don’t have to see your body isn’t normal. Maybe trying to hide your name from people online, not out of security, but simply so they have to call you your assumed name isn’t normal. Maybe staring longingly at the other gender’s clothes in clothes stores isn’t normal.”
The reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s declaration has largely been accepting, though far from universally so. Sexual identity is at a crossroads as the country moves toward giving legal recognition to gay marriage and broader protection against discrimination based on sexual identity. If you aren’t comfortable with gay marriage, you’re likely to be utterly bewildered by transgender politics and maybe affronted by the concept.
Caitlyn Jenner is such a lightning rod as a celebrity that she gets attacked on all sides. From the right, columnist Heather Wilhelm called Jenner a freak — a “Gender Centaur,” specifically — and said those who complimented Jenner’s new look were “naive souls.” On the left, writer and filmmaker Elinor Burkett resented Jenner’s transition to female because Jenner didn’t earn the right by experiencing a lifetime of sexism, threats to her safety and menstrual cramps. “People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women,” Burkett wrote in the New York Times, “shouldn’t get to define us.”
Man! — OK, wrong expression — Wow! Not very sympathetic.
We’re all on a journey here. Now that gender identity is a recognized concept, and transgender people have found their voices through the media, the cultural, legal and political realities are getting sorted out. Should transgender personnel be allowed to serve in the military? Should insurance companies be compelled to cover reassignment surgery? Do we all know the right pronouns to use?
Another question some ask: Do we really need to embrace this trend, too? Can’t we please just ignore it?
Society has struggled like this before. There was a time when intermarriage between faiths and races was taboo, when homosexuality was illegal, when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the rule. Then the culture shifted and what seemed wrong or abnormal became accepted, and normal.
For most of recorded history, a man who believed his true identity was female locked those feelings away. Now we’re in a moment of cultural discovery about another frontier in sexual politics. This moment will pass and transgenderism will seem different, but not so strange.
That’s where we are, but maybe not where everyone is. No one is required to declare that Caitlyn Jenner is a hero. No one is required to watch her show. Some will watch and chuckle at the former Olympian in a dress. But do call her Caitlyn, because that’s who she is.