1972 Olympics, 1976 Olympics, American Broadcasting Company, athlete, Bruce Jenner, childhood, closet, conservative, denial, Diane Sawyer, exploration, fatal traffic accident, Gender, gender conflict, Gender Identity, gender issues, gender transition, GLAAD, interrupted transition, Jennifer Boylan, Jon Anderson, Kardashian, liberal, libertarian, Olympic Decathlon, Olympic gold medal, public perception, publicity stunt, Reality television, Renee Richards, sexual preference, Sleepy Hollow, supportive family, television, Transgender, transition year, Transsexual
I am usually a very reflective person, especially when it comes to something for my blog. So an immediate reaction is something relatively new for me. I have just watched the Diane Sawyer interview of Bruce Jenner. Here are my impressions.
First off, while Bruce continues to withhold the use of a new name and allowed and maybe even encouraged use of male pronouns, I am going to make a tricky straddle. Bruce clearly indicated a female identity at the core. So rather than use a last name and absent the knowledge of a first name, I will continue to use “Bruce” as this person’s name. But I will also use female pronouns (contrary to GLAAD’s guidelines). As I see it, the use of the pronouns was for the sake of the interview and Bruce’s supportive family members who naturally would have been using male pronouns during much of the taping process.
(In recognition of her status as a professional journalist, I will refer to the interviewer as Ms. Sawyer.)
I thought Bruce was sincere. The threads to her story are very familiar to anyone who has heard the life story of a transsexual. The details may vary but the basic theme is clear. Every child who is in the process of becoming an adult begins to learn how to fit into the world around him or her. What was different for Bruce and all transsexuals is that the world is telling you, even your body is telling you, that you fit into the world as one gender. But your brain is telling you that you are the opposite gender. Now how do you deal with that disconnect?
For Bruce, as it was for most transsexuals of our generation, it is a strange dance of exploration and denial. (Bruce is a little more than three years older than me and while Bruce Jenner was growing up in Westchester County, NY, my family moved about four miles away as the crow flies on the other side of the Hudson River.) What made Bruce’s journey different was raw athletic ability, physical strength and speed, and the determination to develop that combination of attributes to become a champion. Similar to the story of Kristin Beck, the Navy Seal who transitioned a few years ago, gender identity conflict that had no outlet in the 1950’s and 1960’s of Bruce’s youth, added fuel to turbocharge that determination. One produced a military hero, the other an Olympic gold medalist.
Early in the interview, Bruce mentioned the need to keep a sense of humor regarding the situation. And Bruce does have a keen sense of humor. But there were many poignant moments as well. (I do question the placement of that tissue box next to Ms. Sawyer instead of next to Bruce. Did they think that Ms. Sawyer was going to break down in the middle of the interview? Of course not: they wanted to emphasize Bruce needing to reach out for a tissue.)
The interview was conducted mostly in Bruce’s home in Malibu, but parts were taped near Bruce’s childhood home in Sleepy Hollow (nee North Tarrytown, NY) and the campus of the high school she attended where her athletic career began to take shape and show promise. Obviously it was edited in a way that reflects the lines between news and entertainment having been blurred long ago on the major networks. And we had to listen once again to a series of questions so that Bruce could explain that gender and sexual preference are two different things. Because Ms. Sawyer generally did a fine job in allowing Bruce to tell her own story, helping it along with insightful questions, I will give Ms. Sawyer the benefit of the doubt on the gender versus sexual preference theme of the questions. I attribute the need to ask these questions to the realization that large portions of the general public still are unable to grasp this difference, not Ms. Sawyer’s lack of understanding on the topic.
Contrary to an online headline that I saw a little while I ago when I was checking the map for the relative distance between my childhood home and Bruce’s, there were no blockbuster revelations in this interview. There has been so much build up prior to the actual program, it would be almost impossible for any program to live up to it. About the only blockbuster announcement that Bruce could have made was that she was not transgender and that there was another explanation. Fortunately, there was more than enough solid content during the program. This was not a repeat of Geraldo’s Al Capone’s vault fiasco.
The most interesting bit of information I heard was the revelation that Bruce had started taking female hormones in the mid 1980’s. But at some point, due to understandable fears, concerns about what this would do to her family (especially her children) and questions about what God thought about this matter, that earlier road to transition was cut short. While interesting, it was not surprising. Renee Richards had a similar backtracking experience during her life’s journey (albeit for different reasons). This has also happened during the journeys of some transsexuals I know personally. And I know how many times I took tentative small steps down the road of transition only to let fear turn me back.
The most heartwarming part of the program was to see the level of support that Bruce has gotten from her family. Every one of the ten children who have come to know Bruce as “Dad” evidenced some level of support, as did her first two wives, her sister Pam and her mother.
I have to admit that I have no interest in the types of tabloid shows that have made a fortune for the Kardashian-Jenner clan. I am well aware that a lot of the fame that has been enjoyed by them has been a combination of shrewd promotion, the fact that sex sells and that the Kardashian women are recognized by the public as sexy, attractive women. But I will also freely admit that their stock rose considerably in my eyes when I saw them join with Bruce’s older children in unfeigned love and support for Bruce.
I was also pleased to see the notion dispelled that if someone is transgender, they must be liberal, and that trans allies must be liberal. Bruce admits to being a conservative Republican. Her mother is very conservative. A brief clip of Jennifer Boylan was when she quoted her elderly conservative Republican mother responding to Jennifer’s coming out with a verse from 1st Corinthians 13:13 – And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (I believe the NKJV verse or something similar was used.)
Yes, I have had conservative Christians reject me. But I have also had a number of them accept me, to my surprise and delight. I have been accepted by NRA members, libertarians, people who describe themselves as being to the right of Rush Limbaugh and so on. Just as there is a certain segment of the population who does not easily fit into neat little boxes labeled “male” and “female”, it is not so simple to predict or categorize which people will prove to be trans allies and sympathetic to our coming out stories.
An interesting fact brought up by Ms. Sawyer is that over 90% of survey respondents say that they know someone who is homosexual, but only 8% say that they know a transgender person. Bruce’s story underscores the fact that most of us are so good at hiding until we begin to emerge, that far more than 8% of the population in fact knows a transgender person. They just don’t realize that they know one.
One of the most interesting dynamics in terms of Bruce relating to her family concerns the few times when Bruce was caught or when Bruce admitted at least some level of her gender exploration to a family member. Rather than these events opening the floodgates of discussion between Bruce and family members, Bruce’s gender issues quickly returned to the closet and once again, the elephant in the room was ignored, sometimes for decades.
Bruce wants her life to make a positive difference. It remains to be seen to what extent that can and will happen. Bruce Jenner, Olympic gold medalist in a prestige event and hero of the Cold War in the athletic arena would have had plenty of capital in the court of public opinion to cash in. But that capital has seen plenty of tarnish from her heavy involvement in reality television soap operas that spill over into all of the media coverage of her life in recent years. I agree with Bruce that it is absurd that all of this is a publicity stunt. The fact that a significant number of people believe it is true highlights the perception that needs to be overcome.
And yes, the specter of an even bigger elephant looms over Bruce’s situation. It is a specter that could only receive the briefest mention due to legal issues. I am talking about the fatal car accident that Bruce was involved in after the interviews were taped. If Bruce eventually is found guilty of a serious crime such as involuntary manslaughter, her possible platform for good for the TG community will prove to have a trap door to the basement.
The impression I came away with from the end of the program is that Bruce intends to live the next year of her life in a low key, out of the limelight manner as much as possible. Her invitation to Ms. Sawyer to come back in a year and see how well she did would imply that the world will not know a lot about her movements and actions over the next 12 months. But between pending legal matters, aggressive paparazzi and journalists, and even well-wishers and people from the trans community who want a piece of her, a low key life may prove far easier said than done. But the intent is wise. Bruce will need this time of her life for learning and discovery, whether self or comportment or further reaching physical changes. I hope she can achieve that time for herself.
Would I love to meet Bruce Jenner? Of course! Our paths are likely to have crossed on occasion: perhaps on the Tappan Zee Bridge, in some shopping center, or at a sporting event. Because I was the manager of the Cornell cross country and track teams for four years (1970-74), are degree of separation is very small. Jon Anderson (Class of ’71) personally challenged me to stay as manager for all four years. (I made it, Jon!) Anderson, the next to last American to win the men’s division of the Boston Marathon, was Jenner’s teammate on the 1972 US Olympic track team.
Bruce has enough to deal with in her life right now. I will not add to it. If perchance she reaches out to me for any reason, I am here, just as I have been here for a handful of trans people who have reached out to me in the past year. I am not a trained counselor and do not hold myself out as such. I minister to people as a friend with the insight gained through my own journey and study of spiritual matters.
A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother. – Proverbs 18:24