Bruce Jenner interview generates discussion
Former Olympian’s journey fuels questions about gender identity
On Friday night an estimated 16.9 million viewers watched Diane Sawyer interview former Olympian and Wheaties cover boy Bruce Jenner. They stayed glued to their TVs waiting for an answer to the many questions surrounding him. The 65-year-old, thrice-married Jenner has held many “titles” — dyslexic, Kardashian patriarch and dad, but this interview was about his most controversial identity yet — transgender woman.
The two-hour broadcast brought the issue of transgender identity home. There are an estimated 700,000 trans men and women in the United States says UCLA’s Williams Institute. And U.S. researcher and transgender activist Lynn Conway estimates there are about 140,000 trans men and woman in Canada. But according to a GLAAD study, 92 per cent of U.S. residents report not knowing anyone transgender. But that’s changing. “More and more people are being introduced to transgender people in their own families,” says Mara Kiesling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, “This interview may have provided a first opportunity (for them) to meet a trans person who they at least sort of know.”
From its first moments, the raw honesty of the interview was apparent, especially after Sawyer asked: “Are you a woman?” Jenner paused and then answered: “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman.”
Not surprisingly, #BruceJenner was the top-trending topic on Twitter Friday evening. The posts ranged from disgust to praise, while the Jenner and Kardashian family members voiced support and love. “Bruce Jenner is a very sick man, the man is confused, he needs help, he is a disgrace …” read one. The vast majority of those posting supported Jenner, such as this one: “Unbelievably proud of and happy for Bruce Jenner. What a strong and wonderful individual.” For those mystified by gender identity there was simple advice on Twitter: “Learn about it.”
Despite two hours of answers, many questions remain. Here’s a short list of some of the most frequently asked questions: Q: What is the best way to respond when someone tells you they are transgender? A: While Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender media, praised Sawyer, he also explained: “This is not the model for what to do if someone in your workplace, school, or church comes out as transgender.” He said it’s “inappropriate” to ask highly personal questions about surgery and other medical procedures, their sexual orientation, as well as their personal history. Instead, offer support: “Thank you so much for telling me. I’m glad to know that you can be yourself now. How can I be a friend?” A warm embrace is rarely out of place.
For friends and family who are close, ask questions as the person is willing to answer them. Preface them like this: “Is it OK if I ask …?”
Then, there’s simply the importance of listening. Q: What pronoun is correct for Jenner now? A: Jenner did not ask to be called by a new name or a new pronoun, so for now Bruce is Bruce — and Bruce is still “he.” “As a general rule,” Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Transgender Rights, explained: “It is best to refer to a transgender person both now and in the past with the pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity. Most trans people feel that their identity has always been the same, even if they could not always share that identity with others.”
Expect Jenner’s name and pronoun to change in the future, and with that so should our references to him. Q: If Jenner remains attracted to women after starting to live as a woman, doesn’t that make her a lesbian? A: This gets to the confusing intersection of sexual orientation and gender identity. Orientation is about who you are attracted to, but gender identity is about your internal sense of yourself as male or female (or in between). Trans people are those whose gender identity doesn’t match their body, and they may be straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual (or “asexual” as Jenner noted). Although Jenner said emphatically, “I’m not gay,” I took that as not being attracted to men. (“As far as I know I’ve never been with a guy.”)
Trans woman Jenner, if attracted to women, would be considered lesbian. But as Jacob Tobia, a trans activist, reminded me: “Transitioning is a challenging process, and it can take time to figure things out.” Q: Is Bruce Jenner still “Dad” to his children? A: One of his sons asked, “‘What do you want us to call you?’ And he just interrupted me and said, ‘I’m Dad. You can call me Dad. I will always be your dad.’ That was just a huge relief.” Author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is trans, has written that her kids call her “Maddy, a blend of “Mom” and “Daddy.” Jill Soloway, who created the TV show Transparent, refers to her trans parent as “Moppa.” No one answer fits all. Q: What if I just don’t get it? A: That’s OK, and in fact is one of the reasons Jenner cited for not coming out sooner. The thing to do is to say, “I don’t get it, but I still love you.” Don’t criticize or mock. And ask for some time to get used to the news. Jenner’s daughter Kylie did just that in a tweet during the broadcast.
Before signing off, Sawyer asked Jenner one more question: “So to everyone watching, if you could say to them, ‘When you think of me, please be ...’ “Jenner’s response: “Have an open mind and an open heart. I’m not this bad person. I’m just doing what I have to do.”
Exactly. Thank you, Bruce Jenner for showing us such courage both on the track — and now off it.