The impact of Bruce Jenner’s coming out

April 28, 2015

Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation, argues that we can recognize both that Bruce Jenner is very different from most transgender people and that Jenner's coming out is significant.

IN A better world, CeCe McDonald, the fierce Black transgender woman who was imprisoned for killing her attacker in self-defense, would be a media spokesperson for trans issues. But we do not live in such a world.

Instead, nearly 17 million people tuned in April 24 to watch Diane Sawyer's interview with Bruce Jenner--the 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medalist, Wheaties icon and member of the Kardashian reality TV circus--come out as a trans woman.

Bruce, who for now chooses to use his given name and male gender pronouns, is white, wealthy, Republican and a willing participant in a years-long spectacle of TV commercialism that promotes vacuous consumerism and an obsession with the parasitic lifestyle of the Kardashian family, a troupe famous for their own celebrity.

What are those of us fighting for trans liberation to make of this?

Many trans people are outraged by the corporate media's focus on someone who is white and of great wealth, fame and considerable privilege--a stark contrast with the lives of the vast majority of trans people, more than 40 percent of whom have attempted suicide in response to society's open hostility, violence, discrimination and daily humiliations.

Bruce Jenner talking with Diane Sawyer
Bruce Jenner talking with Diane Sawyer

Transgender poverty and unemployment rates are many times the average for gender-conforming--that is, cisgender--people. Eight trans women, most of color, were murdered in the first two months of 2015, and there was no TV interview or front-page coverage of them in the mainstream media.

Prior to the interview with Jenner, members of the Trans Women of Color Collective understandably feared a "media circus" that culminates in "a freakshow for cisgenger and non-transgender people."

But in stark contrast to most televised depictions of trans people, it wasn't a freak show. In fact, the interview expressed a sensitivity that the New York Times equated with a public service announcement.

Anecdotally, it appears to have compelled some people to reconsider their prejudices. One nurse friend writes of a co-worker who has expressed anti-trans hostility in the past, yet who was, after watching the interview, moved to express warm thoughts about the bravery of trans people on social media.

Several friends have written on Facebook about healthy conversations with parents who had never thought twice about trans lives. Time will tell what longer-term impact the interview has, this much is clear: Despite the media's preference for spectacle, the interview was a rare sympathetic portrayal of a trans person.

IN A thoughtful Washington Post column, Zoey Tur, a white trans woman journalist argues, "Trans people need an icon. But Bruce Jenner is the worst possible choice."

It's tempting to agree, but it's not that simple.

First, mass media rarely depict the lives of ordinary people, and Americans have long accepted this as a TV given. Let's face it: even the recent media focus on Black trans actress Laverne Cox is hardly an exploration into the life of an everyday trans woman of color. Cox is famous, makes a comfortable living and can pass as a conventionally beautiful woman--hers is not the common experience of Black trans women.

Second, some critiques seem to miss the broader potential for public enlightenment about trans lives. Jenner, "the man who once embodied the muscle and glory of America," as Sawyer described him, provided millions of viewers with no prior experience of transgenderism a trans person's view of the pain of living a lie--40 years of it in the spotlight.

Will the media attempt to portray Jenner's personal travails as the quintessential trans experience? No doubt, but the question for leftists is how we take advantage of moments like this to educate people who are paying attention to the issue, many for the first time.

Well over a third of the U.S. population is over the age of 45 and can remember Jenner as the muscled sports icon with a telltale pageboy haircut and self-deprecating sense of humor. Prior to his crass Kardashian cash-in, Jenner was quite likeable and remains an admirable figure of masculine athletic excellence among a substantial swath of the population.

Many on the left may be disgusted by Jenner's recent TV exploits, but it seems impossible to ignore the fact that his earnest, soft-spoken and tearful conversation with Sawyer--despite her at times cloying commentary--has opened a door for many of the uninitiated to hear a broader conversation about trans lives. The interview itself included facts about trans poverty, suicide and the legal hell most must navigate.

The fact that his own elderly mother and even the insipid Kardashian clan have embraced Jenner's transition is hardly inconsequential.

SOME SOCIAL media commentary among trans activists dismissed Jenner's coming out entirely. The South Asian trans artist collaborative DarkMatter posted to Facebook, "Last night a white wealthy person named #BruceJenner came out as a conservative Republican. The end."

Trans woman of color journalist Ashley Love posted that Jenner's interview was "exploiting the sensational privileged heterosexual white male/mid-life transition narrative." These attacks on Jenner the trans woman have a radical veneer, but no radical content.

However, these comments do express the pall that hangs over the focus on Bruce Jenner's coming out for many leftists. There seems to be a notion that any sympathy expressed for a white trans person of wealth and celebrity must take away from marginalized people who lack fortune and fame.

It's as if society has the capacity for only so much acceptance for an oppressed minority, and therefore it must be conserved for those who need it most. The left ought to reject this zero-sum-game mentality in which the gains of one are perceived as a loss to all others. History proves otherwise.

When Hollywood movie idol Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985 after keeping his illness a secret and remaining closeted about his homosexuality throughout his whole life, public perception of gays and AIDS began to shift and hundreds of millions of dollars in Congressional funding was released.

Hudson's death "gave AIDS a face," as TV star Morgan Fairchild commented at the time. It's profoundly unfair, even tragic, that under capitalism, it can often take chiseled good looks, fame and fortune to humanize a disease like AIDS or open the door to a public discussion about transgender lives, but the fault is the system's, not the individual's.

For years, the left has rightly taken on the naked racism of the Republicans against Barack Obama, despite our own hostility to Obama's policies and administration. We'll never live to see a revolution if we accept the oppression of some, even the rich. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin put it this way: "Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected."

What's more, the human capacity for acceptance and empathy for others' suffering is not like oil reserves that reach a peak, beyond which it dwindles to nothing.

What James Baldwin said of the exposure that comes from reading can be true of media generally: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."

There is a public discussion right now among tens of millions of people about transgender lives. Leftists have an opportunity to introduce the unKardashian realities of most trans lives to a listening public. Let's do it.

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