This past Friday marked my 9th week on estrogen, which has been an interesting journey to say the least. I have noticed increasing changes in the shape of my face, in the growth and development of my breasts, changes in my behavior, in the way I think, in the way I process the world around me, and in the way I feel things emotionally. I have felt my skin become smoother and my hair growth change, slow down, or stop altogether. I have been becoming, systematically week by week, increasingly female. I’ve watched as strangers around me begin to have different reactions to me and start to give me that, “is that a man or a woman?” look with increased frequency. I have also seen the scowling looks and judgmental expressions of strangers who see me breaking gender norms in simple ways like unashamedly sporting my colored toenails and/or fingernails in public, wearing a headband intended for females at the store, or, god forbid, wearing makeup without shame or fear. I have experienced a great many things since I began my journey into the dark and widely unsearched realm of gender transition some 7 months ago.
It was with all of those experiences that I went into watching the ABC interview with Bruce Jenner with a reluctant sense of excitement. I, having seen the effects of female hormones on a person, both personally and through my exposure to other transwomen, already knew without a doubt that Bruce Jenner was going to announce his transition (as an FYI, I’m keeping with the chosen pronouns of the interview). More than just seeing physical indicators, I saw something in the way he carried himself, in the way he’d allowed his hair to grow out, in the way he wore earrings, and in the way his eyes told a much deeper and sadder story than even the interview would reveal. I knew the sadness in his eyes because it is a sadness that so many of the transgender community experience and understand all too well. It is the sadness that comes from years of knowing that what’s on the outside is wrong, painful, and sometimes downright suffocating. It is the sadness that comes from having to live a double life, of having to ashamedly hide your true self from the world and those closest to you because they cannot truly understand. It was the sadness of never getting to just be the person you’ve always known you were on the inside because of the perspectives and expectations of others. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Bruce was going to tell the world, once and for all, that he was really a she, and had been all along.
As I watched him try to stifle the tears and the fear of finally outing himself, I felt a deep sense of resonance with him. I knew all too well how difficult it was to finally open the door to that closet and say goodbye to it forever. I know from personal experience that his closet was probably a safe home, a kind home, but always too small of a home to truly live or breath freely in. I felt strong emotions pass through me, therefore, as a timid, fearful, and worried Bruce Jenner finally accepted that it was time to forever leave that all too familiar closet and admitted for all the world to see that he was a woman, and had always been one. Both my wife and I cried tears of sadness and joy for him as he did this, and those tears would not be the last as we watched the 2 hour special.
Through the course of the interview I felt ups and downs as Diane Sawyer traveled into Bruce’s past with him and analyzed it piece by piece. I felt so many similarities to my own story, and found so many commonalities of experiences with Bruce that it was almost difficult to watch at times. I remember the first time I snuck into my mom’s closet and put on some of her clothes, just like he did. I remember feeling those powerful and yet, deeply confusing emotions that accompanied the experience. I remember not really understanding why I was doing it but knowing deep down that I truly wanted to do it. I recall going to such great lengths to conceal my cross dressing proclivities that I, like Bruce, would even specifically remember where the clothes had been hanging so that I could put them back exactly as they were before. I also recall experiencing, and even still experience to this day, a tendency to be shy and fearful of social interactions because I didn’t/don’t truly fit in with everyone else. The list of commonalities goes on and on, too, and were I ever given the opportunity to meet Bruce Jenner in real life, I expect we would share a great many tragic stories of a repressed gender identity and would possibly both feel a bit less alone in the world. I don’t expect that that shall ever happen as he is a famous (and reclusive) TV/sports personality and I am but a lowly writer.
Regardless of the nearly impossible odds of us ever meeting in real life, I feel as though I know Bruce Jenner in ways that I never expected, and while I do not mean for this to sound pretentious, I believe that any transwoman who watched that interview knows Bruce on a deeper level than any of the other viewers. His plight, while different in specifics, timing, and location, was a rather typical experience for a transwoman born in his era. Many of his trials and tribulations have been experience by a great many transgender individuals over the years and I am deeply grateful for his willingness to so openly talk about his repressed gender identity. I am grateful that while ABC and Diane Sawyer seemed to operate on a transgender 101 level in their discussion of transgender topics, their efforts were well executed. I am thankful that they made the point, again and again, to explain that sexuality is separate from gender identity because that is one of the biggest misperceptions that cisgender people make. More than that, however, I appreciated that they expanded the discussion of transgender topics to encompass a greater spectrum of understanding and experience than just Bruce Jenner’s life and story. I believe they could have done a great deal more on that front than they did, but am thankful that they made the effort that they did. All was not roses and rainbows, however.
There were many portions of the interview that seemed questionable, and other portions that I felt detracted from the overall experience by upholding common cisgender assumptions about being transgender. While post-filming production made a strong point to discuss the difference between sexuality and gender identity, the initial interview by Diane Sawyer was painfully reminiscent of common cisgender misperceptions. She asked, I believe, no less than three separate times about his sexuality and seemed genuinely confused by his assertion that he was attracted to women. It was almost as if she went into the interview believing that all transwomen were attracted to men, and it wasn’t until they’d finished filming and began post-filming production and voice overs that she bothered to research into the subject. Why they felt it was important to keep showing her questions about his sexuality (even when they made voice over remarks about sexuality/gender identity differences) is beyond me, but I couldn’t help but feel that this just furthered the stereotype and common misperception that transwomen are always attracted to men and that it is appropriate to so blatantly ask about a person’s sexuality.
While I understand that this was an interview and that Bruce Jenner opened the door for prying questions, I am worried that some of the content of Diane’s questions have bolstered the commonly held misperception that it is okay to ask deeply personal questions of a trans person simply because they are transgender. It is a very common result of cisgender privilege (whether it is known or not) that being transgender often means you have no right to privacy and no right to become upset when asked deeply personal or prying questions. I don’t make a practice of dubiously questioning each one of my cisgender friends/coworkers about their sexual preferences simply because they are cisgender and I feel entitled to know. Can you imagine the reactions I’d get if I did that? I probably wouldn’t make many friends, would I? The point I’m trying to make is that while it is okay to ask questions when the answerer has given permission to discuss such sensitive and personal subjects, that doesn’t mean that every transgender person you meet is going to want to discuss who they want to sleep with, let alone the dysphoric experiences they’ve had over the span of their life. Many of them probably don’t want to talk about their gender identity at all and just wish people would get over it already. It’s important to remember that transgender individuals are not strange specimens to be examined under the microscope of cisgender privilege, and I sincerely hope Diane’s interview doesn’t give the impression that that behavior is okay or acceptable unless otherwise stated by the individual in question. When in doubt, ask if it is okay to ask about it before you kick down the door of social graces and demand to know if we like to play with penises, vaginas, or both.
The final part that got under my skin a bit was the question about whether or not Bruce was doing this so that they could promote viewership of their reality show. This question got under my skin for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the disrespect that was shown to a person in a deeply vulnerable position. While I can understand the worry that the interview itself was offered for the sake of publicity, the idea that a person would undertake the painful, difficult, and commonly misunderstood process of gender transition for publicity reasons is just ludicrous. The question bordered on wildly inappropriate and was disgracefully tactless given the vulnerability that Bruce was showing with his willingness to discuss something so deeply personal and painful. Dennis Rodman wore a dress for publicity sake; notice, however, that he didn’t spend 18 months on female hormones (which wasn’t the first time in Bruce’s case) and undergo medical procedures to feminize the body. Transition isn’t a publicity con and the fact that Diane felt pressure to even ask such a question just goes to show how desperately we need proper mass education on transgender issues.
Overall, however, I believe the interview will do a great service to raising awareness of the transgender plight and will only further the trans revolution’s cause. Millions of people who have likely never thought about trans issues will now be discussing and thinking about them this week as they return to work and gather around the water cooler (so-to-speak). That is a huge step in the right direction, but we have to keep the momentum going. We have to keep pressuring the television networks to continue offering up information about transgender issues. We need to keep spreading awareness of the oppressive environment our trans children face as they enter into school, work, puberty and adulthood. We need to keep mourning our lost trans youth who turn to suicide rather than face the daunting task of living in such a hostile world. We need to publicly stand up to the injustices trans people all around the world face, not the least of which are the political injustices of transphobic laws and bills. In the U.S. we need to plead with our lawmakers to make gender identity a protected class so no one who is trans will have to choose between living as their true selves and holding a job, or having a home. We need to pressure the health system and the insurance companies to provide more comprehensive health coverage and education for the millions of trans people all around the world.
Let’s take Bruce’s widely watched coming out interview and use it to fuel the fires of change we are all longing for. Let’s make sure he fulfills his stated desire to help others like him by openly confronting the transphobia we have running rampant in our society through education and visibility. Let’s break down the walls of gender norms that have boxed so many of us into expectations and roles that don’t fit us by encouraging our children to pursue their dreams, regardless of their sex. Let’s stand up to fear by giving love, respect, and acceptance to those who have a non-conforming gender identity. Let’s conquer oppression by lifting each other up and coming to the aid of those in need. Last of all, let us never forget all those trans people who’ve departed this world because of suicide and transphobic murder, so that their deaths will never be in vain as we work to make tomorrow a better place than yesterday. Thank you, Bruce, for your courage and your example. I hope you will continue to stand proudly as the woman that you are, so that others may be brave enough to follow in your example.