Bruce Jenner’s televised coming out as a transgender woman last Friday was one of the most surprising non-surprises in recent memory. The Diane Sawyer 20/20 special had been teased for months (Jenner’s “revelation” all but promised), and his gender identity had been the subject of speculation—oftentimes prurient and transphobic—in the tabloids and mainstream media for much longer. (Jenner has requested the continued use of male pronouns until a future annoucement.) So when Jenner sat on the cream-colored couch, let his hair down, and told Sawyer “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” it wasn’t much of a shock. The surprises only came later.
First, as most observers within the trans community and beyond have agreed, the interview that followed the inital statement was impressively handled. Sawyer’s questioning, while a little now explain that one to me again, Bruce folksy, was respectful and compassionate, and the show’s producers pulled away from Jenner at a number of points to offer crucial context on the larger trans experience. This latter gesture smartly anticipated criticisms that Jenner’s wealth and privilege—manifested most clearly in his ability to retire from society for a time in order to complete his version of transition before reemerging as what he called “her”—make him a misleading representative of that experience, which is more often characterized by struggle and danger than by careful management. As Parker Marie Molloy pointed out in Upworthy, that misperception among viewers is still a risk; but all-in-all, the special was refreshingly sensitive and surely enlightening to millions of Americans.
This week we’ve seen the requisite talk-back and the lesson-taking. Predictably, some people doubled-down in their transphobia and others expressed unabashed support. (ThinkProgress’s Zack Ford has a useful breakdown of the bad reactions.) More interesting to me, though, are those who seem to be genuinely grappling with a human experience that they hadn’t considered before. Comedian Steve Harvey sounded this note in his comments to Hip Hollywood:
Everybody says it’s the bravest things they’ve seen, that’s the politically correct thing to say. I can’t wrap my mind around it at all, zero. I have no concept of what that means. Nothing negative, he has every right to live his life the way he wants to, but I can’t come in the house and make that announcement to my wife, to my children …
Obviously these are not exactly supportive words, but it’s heartening that Harvey and many like him are now at least trying to wrap their minds around the trans experience and understandings of gender that remain alien and challenging to many people. Indeed, as I noted on a discussion of the Jenner interview on this week’s Slate Culture Gabfest, compared to gender, sexuality is a cakewalk. Almost everyone knows what it’s like to be attracted to another person, but the lived experience of Jenner and other trans folks forces cisgender people to rethink some basic, almost unconscious assumptions that most of us rely on every day. Of course, we don’t need to “understand” transgender identity to advocate for legal and social equality, but trying isn’t a bad thing, and the Jenner interview seems to have spurred many people to start on that journey. I did not expect that.
Another thing I didn’t expect was the rapidity with which the “transgender tipping point” has moved from a delicate, best-practice-generating discussion regarding how to talk about an abstract “issue,” to an insistence that, like any minority group, trans people are not a monolith. Jenner’s admission that he’s a Christian Republican and wants to lobby John Boehner on the community’s behalf was in some ways more shocking than anything to do with his gender identity. Even if you think he’s naïve about the compatibility of T and the GOP, Jenner’s firm belief that they are harmonious is a reminder that one identity need indicate nothing about another. And though I still question the impact of its vague framing, Amy Schumer’s recent interview with trans adult performer and writer Bailey Jay had a similar function, introducing us to a self-possessed individual who, despite GLAAD guidelines to the contrary, is happy to take questions about her body and her sexuality. In both cases, cisgender folks like me are being challenged to take our trans acceptance further, past the initial of step of respecting a basic identity and on to the harder work of interacting with “trans” in a specific, individuated, and ultimately more human way.
That the trans awareness and civil rights movement has progressed this far this quickly is awesome, and hopefully even more trans voices will be brought to the fore in the wake of Jenner’s interview. To be sure, a celebrity telling his very specific story will not solve all of the considerable challenges and threats that everyday trans folks face—but it’s not nothing. And that this particular interview already seems to be doing so much good is the best kind of surprise.