Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner coming out as transgender during a 20/20 interview on ABC Friday night has reinvigorated the national conversation on what it means to be a man, woman or decidedly other in the modern world.
“For all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” Jenner, who requested to still be referred to as “he,” said during the interview. “People look at me differently. They see this macho male, but this female side is part of me, it’s who I am.”
News of Jenner’s true gender identity, not to mention the stalwart support of much of the Kardashian family, is another drop in the ready to burst bucket of transgender exposure and acceptance in American pop culture.
When Laverne Cox, my personal superwoman, spoke about her experiences as a trans actress and activist at the Jorgensen Center for Performing Arts last Wednesday, her every pause was filled with uproarious applause. With upwards of 2,000 Huskies in attendance that evening and, according to the New York Times, over 16.8 million viewers of Jenner’s ABC interview the night it aired, it really is starting to look like the transgender tipping point.
The first transgender celebrity to enter many college students’ cultural consciousness was probably Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and Sonny Bono, who went public about his female-to-male transition in 2009. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how far we’ve come since then. While Chaz went to media himself about his transition, he told CNN that it was traumatic having his personal struggles “splattered all over the checkout lines” when he was outed as a lesbian in 1990.
“The people that have been outed are not necessarily the ones that come out as role models. I think what we’ve seen is that when someone is outed… it makes them retreat to the closet for a time,” he told CNN in an interview years later. “I think as a community we’ve seen what the difference is and the value in people who make the decision to come out on their own because they don’t want to be hiding anymore.”
Chaz wasn’t ready to share his sexuality with the world when the media outed him in the 90s and, similarly, there have been rumors swirling around Jenner’s gender identity since as early as 2012. Tabloids have scrutinized everything from his earrings to his ponytail, bringing in transgender surgeon Marci Bowers to analyze Jenner’s decision to shave down his adams apple even after he insisted it was for purely cosmetic reasons.
Just because Radar and People magazine were right doesn’t make what they did okay. For me, the prospect of being outed as non-binary alone is terrifying (too late, that just happened). Having your every stylistic decision and affectation questioned on a national scale is an unimaginable level of pressure to put on a person already juggling their own inner turmoil.
On the individual level, at least, things seem to be improving. While Chaz described his mother as going “ballistic” when he first came out to her, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have unquestioningly embraced their eldest child Shiloh’s wish to be called John and wear the same stylin’ suits as their other sons. Lana Wachowski, co-director of “The Matrix Trilogy” and “V for Vendetta” with her brother Andrew Paul Wachowski, has continued to make explosive films like “Cloud Atlas” and “Jupiter Ascending” since transitioning in 2008. Even Jenner’s children are standing by him, with his son joining him on screen during the interview last Friday.
The big takeaway from the past week is not just that transgender people have already done it all — from winning Olympic gold medals to making award winning Hollywood films — but that they could be anyone. As Rainbow Center director Fleurette King said during the opening of Laverne Cox’s speech at Jorgensen, being an transgender ally is not just about admiring the beauty of a distant few but about taking steps to improve the social climate of your life.
“Would Laverne Cox feel comfortable on this campus? I want to leave you with that question,” King said in way of a challenge.
At a school with as prevalent a transgender community as UConn’s, and with as low a common denominator as those responsible for vandalizing LGBT art exhibits throughout the semester, this isn’t something happening in magazines or on the other side of a screen. The transgender movement, as epitomized by the experiences of Jenner, Chaz and Cox, is happening every day, right here on campus.