Here’s a panel from Mad Magazine’s parody of the 1970s “Incredible Hulk” TV show, which appeared in issue No. 204 in 1979:
Wait long enough and everything becomes ironic. Last Friday, April 24, after months of gossip, speculation, and some rude and unkind jokes, Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News. It’s a big deal.
The viewing audience was told Jenner prefers to use male pronouns until he begins presenting as female in public. That’s what I’ll go with here.
Jenner is not the first famous transgender American; there’s a small crowd of them now. But he’s the most well-known by far, especially within that small club who transitioned after they were already famous. Apart from Jenner, I can only name three: Alexis Arquette, Lana Wachowski and Chaz Bono.
It’s silly even to call these three “famous” compared to Jenner. I’d bet everyone who reads this will have to look up at least one of those names. Bruce Jenner has been in the public eye for decades, and is better recognized than anyone else I’ll mention in this post, including Diane Sawyer. He’s known as an Olympic gold medalist, businessman and TV star. That’s why his journey has garnered such intense scrutiny. We’ve never seen this scenario play out on this level before.
It’s true; Jenner has every advantage one could wish for. He is white, wealthy, surrounded by supportive family (even his ex-wives have been spirited cheerleaders), and resides in the most progressive state in the nation. His transition will be smooth sailing from start to finish.
He won’t have trouble meeting transition-related medical or surgical needs. He won’t be hassled by a county judge when he goes to complete his legal name change. The TSA will never single him out for a humiliating body cavity check if he tries to fly while his identity documents don’t match his appearance. If his children were still minors, their other relatives wouldn’t try to take them from his custody, citing his gender dysphoria as the sole and sufficient reason.
All those horrors have happened, and continue to happen, to less fortunate transgender people—especially the ones who are women, or impoverished, or nonwhite minorities—or who are all three. Follow the links. After the interview aired, while Lady Gaga and other celebrities were tweeting their praise to Jenner for his “bravery,” Ashley Diamond, a black transgender woman, continued to languish in the Georgia men’s prison system, where she has been mocked and misgendered by other inmates and corrections officers, denied hormone therapy, and repeatedly raped. In the unlikely event Jenner must do prison time for the fatal accident he caused back in February, it’s a certainty his straits will never become as dire as Ms. Diamond’s. The two may as well live in different universes.
Life isn’t as bad for all of us as it has been for Ms. Diamond, but it’s bad enough, for enough of us, that to call Jenner brave is like praising my cat for all her hard work in curling up on a warm cushion and sleeping all day. It’s not right that we’re so taken with him, so impressed, when so many others are forgotten or maligned or thrown away to die.
And yet, that’s exactly why Bruce matters so much. Yes, of course the public should care more about transgender people who aren’t white or famous or rich. But they don’t. That’s human nature. We sympathize better with others we perceive as being like us. For the white, middle-class majority, that’s someone like Bruce Jenner.
Because he’s like them, they can’t dismiss his transition as some bizarre, foreign otherness; something only “those people” do. He’s bringing gender dysphoria into the suburban house next door.
The male image of Bruce Jenner is in people’s heads. Soon it will be joined by the female image. People will be forced to reconcile one with the other, and to comprehend that all the things they appreciated about the previous version are still there in the update.
Everyone goes through this process when a friend or relative comes out as transgender. Now, through Bruce, everyone who hasn’t had that experience will have it by proxy. And when they realize it’s okay for him to be transgender, they’ll realize it’s okay for everyone else as well.
This is what we’re striving toward: a society in which being transgender by itself isn’t remarkable, and we can earn distinction instead through our unique achievements. As author Jennifer Finny Boylan says, we’ll know the fight for acceptance is over when “[W]e are as boring as anyone else.”
Vandy Beth Glenn is Georgia Voice’s copy editor. She is a writer, a transgender woman, civil rights pioneer. She lives in Decatur. Read her blog at vandybethglenn.com/blog and follow her on Twitter at @RedVelvetCakes.