The Olympic gold medalist turned reality star has come out as transgender. Just in time to promote a new reality show.
Let’s be clear about Bruce Jenner and how his coming out is different and what being “brave” means. (“He/him/his” being his choice of pronoun.)
Like (apparently) everyone, I watched The Interview on 20/20 with Diane Sawyer, although I watched it later after reading the tsunami of opinion about it on the internet. Or I assumed I watched The Interview because frankly what I saw was totally different from what everyone else described. From the glowing celebrity tweets and interviews I was expecting Meryl Streep levels of goodness and strength. Instead what I saw came off more Valerie Cherish. Fifty years of constant celebrity tends to mold one’s sincerity and I wondered if the “real” Jenner was the one gloating over how his athletic rival got fat and he didn’t. (Which, really? You’re going through internal conflict about your body but you want to dish about other people’s bodies?)
Jenner’s coming out as transgender is the perfect storm for gleeful internet dissection as it encompasses several tropes guaranteed to get everyone in a lather. Celebrity, female/male dichotomies, LGBT civil rights, politics—it’s all here. Bruce Jenner’s personal story may or may not touch on these hotbed issues, but who cares? What’s apparently important is how it can be molded to fit everyone’s agenda. Every community wants to be a Plus One with Jenner while he’s in the spotlight getting attention.
So yeah, the media results have been kind of a shitstorm. And oh, how the world loves a shitstorm.
Even so, something resonated with me, a White, cis-gendered, gay male. Something about this was familiar: It brought to mind another unexpected celebrity revelation from long ago, the news of Rock Hudson dying of AIDS. Granted, the circumstances are thankfully different, Jenner’s news isn’t remotely on par with the tragedy of Rock Hudson. But in terms of Celebrity News No One Saw Coming, Jenner’s reveal is also right at the top. Neal Patrick Harris gay? Big yawn and a “Quelle surprise.” Olympian gold medalist Bruce Jenner a woman? Stop, drop, and roll.
I was in the trenches at the beginning of the AIDS plague when Hudson died in 1985. In fact, it was the year I was first diagnosed as HIV-positive. So hearing stories about Hudson flying off to Paris for new treatments, or his appeals for help to his alleged friends like First Lady Nancy Reagan were viewed with a “Good for him.” Would that I or my friends could afford to participate in new treatments, or ring Nancy to lobby on my behalf (or callously refuse as she did). But Hudson gave a face to the disease for most of the world. His predicament garnered some much-needed sympathy from the public while around the public, people were actually dropping like flies, unable to get the most basic treatment.
Likewise, Jenner’s celebrity and this infamous interview gives the world a face to gender variance. He has already garnered sympathy and attention from the public—for his televised interview from his home in Malibu—while, yet again, around the public trans people are struggling and often literally fighting for their lives.
So while we can have feels for Jenner and coo about how brave and noble he was and is, Bruce Jenner is not going to lose his job by coming out as trans. Bruce Jenner is not going to find himself living on the street or not having money to eat because he is trans. Bruce Jenner is not going to lose his house or a place to live by coming out as trans. Bruce Jenner is not going to fear for his safety every day by coming out as trans. Bruce Jenner is actually making money through his announcement by promoting his upcoming reality show.
Has his transition been difficult? He says it has and it would be for anyone. Indeed that moment you tell the world that you recognize your Secret—being gay or a woman or a man or anything you felt separated you from the world around you—is a battle won. His questionable and self-professed allegiance to the Republican Party—a group that consistently shows little regard for his personal identity—to me shows he’s still wrestling with his stance amid the media shitstorm. Will he embrace his chance to become a champion for trans people? There are certainly more than enough people willing to coach him on how he should live now.
But Bruce Jenner doesn’t need our help, he will be fine. He’s fortunate to have financial success. He has a family who—for a multitude of reasons, including their own image preservation and financial investment—seems to support him. He has an upcoming television show. He has a house in Malibu where interviews will no doubt be given again. Assuming he speaks for everyone is being blind to the real struggles of trans people, the people who are brave not because they want to be but because they have to be.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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