Note: Per GLAAD, this article uses the name and pronouns Jenner prefers at time of publication. Actually, this article uses no gendered pronouns to demonstrate how easy it is.
This needs to be said first: Anyone who discussed Jenner’s possible transition in the media for any reason before April 24, 2015 is part of the problem. That includes trans people. The “teaching moment” could wait, the scolding of the press could wait. The mocking or slamming of Jenner for how this transition is unfolding on TV could wait. That was all just feeding the trolls, and the trans people doing it were essentially engaging in self-promotion. But now that we have an announcement, let the games begin!
This needs to be said second: Coming out as gay, lesbian, or bi can certainly be stressful and challenging, but transgender people face an extra layer of challenges because we often change our appearance, name and other fundamental ways we interact with others. If a trans person enjoyed any amount of pre-transition notability, the process is even more difficult. Arguably, no one as famous as Jenner has ever announced a gender transition, so there’s intense scrutiny not only from the press, but from the trans community concerned about what effects the announcement and upcoming reality show might have. Any trans people who think they can second-guess what Jenner should or shouldn’t do based on their own transitions under far less famous circumstances don’t know what they’re talking about.
How famous is Jenner? Since we live in a society where our collective memory ends at page two of TMZ, and because I was nine years old in 1976, let me try to explain the significance of Jenner for those who aren’t sports fans or ladies of a certain age. America’s bicentennial was an orgiastic celebration of all things America, and it felt needed. We’d just come out of Vietnam. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for Watergate and was bumbling through the rest of Nixon’s term. Inflation was spiraling out of control, and gay rights was in that hedonistic sweet spot between being de-listed as a mental illness and the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
Jenner became America personified after winning the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. It’s hard to overstate how that win restored pride in our country that everyone could rally around. Here’s this clean-cut, charismatic, yet humble superstar athlete who embodied everything we wanted to be as a nation.
Jenner’s ascent as a media celebrity came quickly after. Perhaps my favorite was this fabulous turn in the Village People schlockfest Can’t Stop the Music:
However, the late 1970s also ushered in a massive political backlash against transgender people, driven in no small part by the transition of ophthalmologist-turned professional tennis player Reneé Richards. By the time Ronald Reagan’s 1980s were underway, the gay community was in crisis mode, and trans people found it harder and harder to get health services.
Jenner is part of what I call the Lost Trans Generation: those who had to endure regressive “gender clinics” that tried to control access to trans health services. These clinics turned away most applicants; the most regressive of these was in Toronto, now called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. They turned away up to 90 percent of all applicants, allowing them to select for the types they wanted to serve. An entire generation suffered in silence because they lacked the acceptance and resources. Most people who transitioned in the 60s through the 80s disappeared after transition, going “stealth” rather than dealing with the nonsense that out trans people had to endure.
It wasn’t until the dawn of USENET and later the world wide web that trans people were able to regroup and begin the arduous road toward the level of acceptance we enjoy today. We currently live in an internet bubble of transitions which will not happen again. It’s very similar to the coming out bubble that happened with gays and lesbians earlier. Gay, lesbian, and bi people now routinely come out in middle school or high school, where the median age for transition is still probably somewhere around age 40. That will drop precipitously from here out, but for now we will see more and more folks who put off transition and coming out until it was a little more safe and acceptable.
Trans people have every reason to worry about safety and acceptance, especially famous trans people. The media has a terrible track record with speculating on the transition status of notable figures, and then putting them through the wringer once they transition. They gleefully speculated on Chelsea Manning as the legal case moved to trial, and they continue to use Manning’s transition to score political points. Other lowlights include when Vanity Fair contributor Steve Garbarino badgered The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino about transition rumors in 2000:
I tell him I have heard that many transsexuals regret it or simply go mad… I say to Cimino, “So you aren’t a pre-op transsexual?” He puts his hands up in disbelief and smiles a rare smile, as if to say, “What did I just tell you?”
Then came the disgraceful 2006 Rolling Stone piece by contributor Peter Wilkinson, speculating on The Matrix co-director Lana Wachowski and publishing rumors so lurid and defamatory that Rolling Stone has sent the piece down the internet memory hole, unavailable on their site.
It’s a pattern familiar to anyone who followed the Jenner speculation this year. The feeding frenzy in the Jenner case was just as repugnant. Everyone was waiting for the one publication willing to cross the line, and when In Touch obliged with their PhotoShopped cover, that was the flimsy excuse everyone else needed to start openly speculating about Jenner. They could claim they were writing about the cover, but they were in fact using that as an excuse to badger everyone who knows Jenner, and even those who don’t, with questions about the rumors behind the cover. All those scumbags should give In Touch a cut of their ad revenue, since they’re all part of the same parasitic swarm.
Each trans person who was a public figure before transition has chipped away at the monolithic idea of what it means to be trans. Entertainers and authors like Chaz Bono, actors like Alexis Arquette, and musicians like Wendy Carlos or Laura Jane Grace have each done a remarkable job of transitioning in the public eye. It’s Jenner’s transition, and we need to respect that. Many people who recently transition and find themselves in the spotlight quickly run afoul of the community because they say or do the “wrong” thing. While it’s true that a public transition carries a certain weight and responsibility, no one is obligated to toe the trans community’s company line on what they can or cannot say. Jenner is in an interesting situation where money and fans are not really an issue, so I imagine we are going to hear some refreshingly candid things that many of us wouldn’t dare to say because of the possible political or financial consequences.
I personally feel the most interesting thing about Jenner’s announcement is that it confirmed the longstanding speculation that our newest trans celebrity is a conservative Republican. Kim Kardashian had outed both parents as such at the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but we’d never heard it directly from Jenner until the Diane Sawyer interview.
When gay and lesbian people began coming out as Republicans or conservatives, it was a sign that we had reached a new level of mainstream acceptance. I am delighted that we now have more and more out conservative transgender politicians and celebrities, even if I don’t agree with many of their positions. Pretty much any extended family has a mix of political beliefs and parties, and we need to learn to find common ground regardless of our differences.
Is this media frenzy a good thing or a bad thing? Mostly good, I think. No one person is going to make or break a movement this big. Whatever happens, I didn’t think I could ever be more proud of Jenner than I was when I was nine. I was wrong.
Andrea James is a writer, director, producer and activist based in Los Angeles.