Diane Sawyer’s ABC television special on Bruce Jenner’s journey from “the world’s greatest athlete” to transgender woman was a remarkable piece of journalism. It took a sensitive topic reduced to crude jokes and lurid observations and restored its humanity. By asking Jenner intelligent yet uncomfortable questions, Sawyer elicited smart and moving responses that educated the nation about an issue it knows nothing about.
Jenner struggled with his gender identity his entire life. He did so through three marriages and a blended family of 10 children. In the 1980s, he took female hormones for five years and had facial surgeries.
If you watched the Jenner interview, you learned four very important things about what it means to be transgender.
Pronouns are important
My use of “him” when referring to Jenner was neither an accident nor an oversight. Sawyer informed viewers that for the time being Jenner prefers to still use “him” and “he,” and she used those pronouns throughout the interview. Jenner will change pronouns eventually. But as Sawyer pointed out, the choice of pronoun is very important and personal to transgender people. That simple designation — him, her, he, she — gives them power over their identity. As I wrote on Thursday, this is a cornerstone of dignity and respect for the trans community. “Her,” as Jenner calls his female self, is coming. Just not yet.
Cross-dressing and being transgender are not the same
As the Sawyer special noted, many cross-dressers don’t want to change their gender. This is the same point I made in the video I did in anticipation of Jenner’s announcement with the reminder that Rudy Giuliani had a penchant for cross-dressing when he was mayor of New York. His gender identity as male, however, is not in doubt. And now, no longer is Jenner’s gender identity. As he told Sawyer, “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman.”
“It’s not that I’m trying to dress up as a woman,” one of Jenner’s daughters said he told her when he told her he is transgender. “It’s that I’ve spent my whole life dressing like a man.” During the interview with Sawyer, Jenner said that he has had gender-identity issues since he was very young dressing up in his sister’s clothes. In more recent years, as an adult, Jenner said that he has gone out in public in women’s clothes and hosted private parties dressed as “her” at his home with close friends.
Gender identity and sexual attraction are not the same
Jenner told Sawyer that he is not gay and that he has never been with a man. He called himself heterosexual. Three marriages and six biological children attest to that. But Sawyer quoted a transgender writer who put what surely is confusing to a lot of people into useful perspective.
Sexual desire is whom you go to bed with.
Gender identity is who you go to bed as.
“I’m not stuck in anybody’s body,” Jenner said, pushing back against the thought that he is a woman stuck in a man’s body. “It’s just who I am.” When Sawyer showed Jenner a picture of himself on the box of Wheaties, he said, “That is me. That is her.”
Transition is none of your business
Transitioning from one gender to another is the most personal decision a transgender person makes. Therefore, asking that person intrusive questions, including whether they have had sex-reassignment surgery or any of the attendant questions, is as invasive as it is rude. Watch this 2014 clip of author and trans activist Janet Mock turn the tables on Alicia Menendez of Fusion by asking her to respond to the questions and comments she has had to answer on television about transition and being transgender.
Now, Jenner willingly told Sawyer, “As of now, I have all the male parts and all that kind of stuff.” But he made four pronouncements during the interview that drew clear lines. His sit-down with Sawyer will be his last as Bruce. He has chosen his female name. He said he hasn’t decided yet whether he would undergo sex-reassignment surgery. But he said that if he opted to do so, he would do it so quietly that no one would ever know.
Considering there will be a series on the E! channel premiering in July that will document Jenner’s transition, much of his transition will not be private. But he made it clear that he is doing the documentary as part of a larger effort to help the conversation on transgender issues. “I would like to work with this community to get this message out,” Jenner said. That series, like his sit-down with Sawyer, will go a long way in getting the message out. Oh, and don’t think Jenner is just doing all this as an extension of the reality-TV insanity that surrounds his Kardashian stepdaughters. When Sawyer brought this up, Jenner shot it down.
“You’re telling me I am going to go through a complete gender change and go through everything you need to do that for the show? Sorry, Diane,” he said he with a mix of exasperation and humor. “It ain’t happening. Okay?” That moment was like many during the two-hour interview. Humor and humanity mixed with heavy doses of uncertainty and a little bit of fear. “I’ve been thinking about this day forever,” he said at the start of the special. “It’s been really tough, but here I am. I’m still here.”
Jacob Tobia is a transgender writer I’ve gotten to know over the past year. Jacob prefers the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” I asked them for their reaction to the Jenner interview. Jacob had nothing but praise. “What I really identified with from the interview was Bruce’s vulnerability. Bruce was very honest about the fact that she is still figuring everything out about the implications of living life as a transgender woman,” they said. “As a young trans person, I can absolutely identify with that. My gender identity is still in development, and I’m only in the middle of my journey as a genderqueer person. Seeing such a prominent trans person be honest about her journey, her questions, her doubts and her discoveries was so important to me.”
What Jenner said and did was important to everyone. You know that LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. For 46 years, the nation has gotten to know lesbians and gay men as they came out of the closet to stand up for themselves, fight for equal rights and, during the height of the AIDS crisis, save their own lives. But the T in LGBT remained silent. With an athletic and cultural icon like Jenner coming out as transgender, the T is no longer silent. The conversation will continue to be uncomfortable and awkward. For many, it is one they won’t engage in or accept. I urge those folks to heed wise words from a totally unexpected place.
Jenner told Sawyer that his stepdaughter Kim Kardashian came around on his being transgender thanks to her husband, Kanye West. “And he says to Kim, ‘Look it, I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world and I am. I can have the most beautiful little daughter in the world and I have that,” Jenner said West said to Kardashian. “But I’m nothing if I can’t be me. If I can’t be true to myself, they don’t mean anything.”
Keep that in mind as our national conversation on transgender issues gets underway. It is one that must be had. And the nation will be better off for it.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj