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Jenner ABC interview sparks debate, Chicago trans women respond
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-04-24

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[Updated April 27]

When a former Olympic champion and reality television celebrity who asked for the present to be referred to as Bruce Jenner and with male pronouns described growing up and living as a transgender individual during an April 24 prime-time 20/20 special on ABC estimates placed viewership at close to 17 million people.

The Hollywood Reporter called it the "most social Friday telecast of all time' which "drew 972,000 tweets from 403,000 unique authors."

To questions from interviewer Diane Sawyer, a candid and patient Jenner charted an emotional and physical journey that started when he was 8.

"I've been thinking about this day forever and what I should do with my life, how I should tell my story, how I tell people what I've been through," Jenner began. "It's been really tough."

As the interview progressed, Jenner was at times tearful while at others determined to maintain a sense of humor that included mock outrage at those who have labeled the decision as a publicity stunt.

"I'm me. I'm a person. I'm not stuck in anybody's body. It's just who I am," Jenner asserted. "I am a woman. That's very hard for Bruce Jenner to say. Why? I don't want to disappoint people."

Jenner's story of pain, confusion, fear, hiding and running from a gender identity that conflicted with society's expectations—particularly of an outwardly masculine archetype—was unique, given the measure of celebrity and the media spotlight that accompanied each chapter. However it also contained themes all too familiar to transgender individuals.

Throughout the interview Sawyer provided viewers with brief educational segments concerning transgender issues including basic terminology, the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity, and the discrimination, homelessness, suicide rate and violence experienced by trans individuals as well as the horrific numbers of transgender individuals of color murdered in the United States and worldwide.

While Sawyer stated that viewers were seeing Jenner's "last television interview as Bruce," the person for the moment known as "Her" stated that the world is about to change—and not only personally. "What I'm doing is going to do some good," Jenner said. "We're going to make a difference in the world with what we're doing."

Response from national LGBTQ advocacy groups came within hours of the interview and appeared to agree.

"We hope that after hearing Jenner's story, people will want to learn more about the issues and challenges facing their transgender friends, co-workers and family members," GLAAD stated in a press release. "Stories like these will help create a world in which everyone can express their gender identity without fear of discrimination and violence."

"When any high-profiled figure comes out as transgender, it can help highlight the challenges transgender people face every day all across the nation, National LGBTQ Task Force Project Director Kylar Broadus stated.

Speaking for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Executive Director Michael Silverman wrote, "Jenner's fame as a champion athlete and television star guarantees that this story will be heard around the world."

However there were commentators who felt the struggle of trans-individuals of color was not adequately addressed by Jenner or ABC— a conversation further eradicated by the frenzied media coverage which focused only on Jenner both prior to and following the interview and not on the impoverished lives, physical and judicial violence forced upon an ignored and increasingly marginalized population.

Furthermore there were sentiments that Jenner's wealth would offer opportunities for physical safety, any desired medical intervention and the kind of financial, friendship and familial support so many in the transgender community are not afforded. The word "privilege" became a recurrent theme in articles and discussions.

The website Black Millennials wrote "Bruce Jenner is white and a prominent fixture within the massive Kardashian-Jenner media bubble, thus providing Jenner immeasurable access to safety, security, and fair media representation — privileges not afforded to most trans* people, especially those with Black skin."

In a Guardian OpEd, transgender writer and photographer Meredith Talusan noted that "many transgender people can neither 'pass' nor afford to have surgery to do so — and trans women deserve kindness and respect whether they're perceived by others as cisgender women or not."

Tulusan wondered whether Jenner achieving "conventional beauty" with all means available would have "the potential effect of diluting his power as the public face of the many trans women who struggle to live up to society's ideas of how to express our gender in order to be treated with respect."

Members of the Chicago transgender community who spoke to Windy City Times about Jenner and ABC's handling of the interview expressed a mixture of encouragement and caution.

"I've got [feedback] from people saying the Jenner was operating from a place of privilege and didn't represent anybody but I'm of the school that believes that each trans experience is unique," Chicago activist Alexis Martinez said. "You can't tell white or black people how they should feel about their transition. Everybody's circumstances and the pressures on them are different. They're never easier for one race of people versus another. It's relative. I think that privilege exists and it's a very real thing but every conversation that begins with 'privilege' stops all conversation. I think that's misleading and intellectually dishonest."

Columbia University Assistant Director of Diversity Recruitment Initiatives Precious Davis stressed that having a conversation about privilege is essential. "The thing about privilege that is most important to know is the access and the navigation of places that other people automatically cannot navigate. The playing field is not equal. There's a safety to which Bruce Jenner has access to but that doesn't mean that he has not been privy to abuse and harassment. Those cross over many intersections regardless of privilege. But there are ways to navigate who [Jenner] wants to be without the trappings. A young trans women of color doesn't have any choice in the matter of finding her truth. Bruce came out on a national platform and many trans women of color aren't allowed that platform. The social service workers, the people who work with homeless youth or trans people with HIV aren't given that platform. So this white cisgender male automatically gets the biggest platform in the world to tell his story. What's really important to me is that is doesn't shift the dialogue as to where the trans community has come just through the sweat on our backs."

The more resonant aspects of Jenner's experience were dependent upon each individual's history.

"Bruce Jenner was an Olympic hero for my generation," Martinez said. "He said that he didn't want to disappoint people. I've experienced that myself. The pressure from my friends and my family not to go further with my transition pulled me away from it. The pressure is unbelievable and unless you experience it, you really can't judge another person. My heart went out to Jenner. I felt a lot of compassion."

Advocate and writer Meggan Sommerville launched a fight in 2012 against her employer Hobby Lobby after they refused to allow her access to the women's restroom. She said that the Jenner interview was as difficult for her as it was refreshing. "It was an emotional rollercoaster for me to watch it. I grew up with Jenner in the same culture. I identified with the pain of hiding for all those years. The pain that you go through to hide who you are is tremendous. As a public figure he had to speak for himself and not let the tabloids control what's being said about him."

For Davis the most compelling part of the interview was not so much the individual but the supportive reactions of Jenner's family. "It is the actual everyday realization of a family network and how those people interact within the system of privilege," Davis asserted. "We're seeing so many different kinds of prejudice and bias when it comes to transgender people coming out so to see people with such care and compassion was remarkable and commendable. How you accept someone's coming out is something that should prevail throughout this."

Sommerville agreed. "[Jenner] having a family that is extremely supportive is going to help a lot of people at least take the next step," she said. "It's going to help a lot of still closeted transgender people have the courage to come out. There are people who are going to be encouraged by this. Even if it's a few baby steps, [the interview] has furthered the conversation about what it means to be trans, the issues that trans people face and the stress that so many people go through."

Jenner acknowledged that wealth will be beneficial in the days ahead but also maintained a desire to use those benefits to help the transgender community in any way possible.

"Because Jenner is in the public eye, there's a whole bunch of things that Jenner could do for the homeless, or for those who are having trouble transitioning," Martinez said. "I would welcome any kind of help that Jenner could bring to housing or education."

"I think the best way for Jenner to help is creating access and resources that empower young marginalized trans people," Davis said. "It's important that we dispel the stigma that young people face in employment, housing and education. Supporting young people through educational resources individually empowers someone to succeed economically and that will prevail over a lifetime."

Along with Jenner's upcoming documentary on E television, the debate and the conversations will continue. For the present, Jenner had one simple request: "Be open-minded."


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