A whopping 16.9 million viewers watched Diane Sawyer interview former Olympian and Wheaties cover boy Bruce Jenner on Friday night. 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 trans identity home. There are an estimated 700,000 trans men and women in this country according to UCLA’s Williams Institute, a research center that studies gender and sexual orientation, but according to a GLAAD study, just 8 percent of Americans report knowing anyone transgender. But that’s changing. “More and more people are being introduced to transgender people in their own families,” said Mara Keisling, 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 on Friday evening. The posts ranged from disgust to praise, and members of the Jenner and Kardashian families 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 tweeting supported Jenner, such as this person: “Unbelievably proud of and happy for Bruce Jenner. What a strong and wonderful individual.”
For those mystified by gender identity (“Lol, I’m still so confused about Bruce Jenner.”) there was simple advice on Twitter: “If it’s a foreign concept, learn about it.”
Despite two hours of answers, many questions remain. Here’s a short list of some of the most frequently asked questions:
What is the best way to respond when someone comes out to you as transgender?
Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender media, praised Sawyer for how she phrased her questions, but he said, “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, sexual orientation, or 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 never 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 okay if I ask . . .?”
Then, there’s simply the importance of listening, which Sawyer excelled at with Jenner, allowing him the opportunity to tell his own story.
What pronoun is correct for Jenner now?
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, it is best to refer to a transgender person both now and in the past with the pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Transgender Rights. “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 too, should our references to him.
If Jenner remains attracted to women after starting to live as a woman, doesn’t that make her a lesbian?
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 his not being attracted to men. (“As far as I know, I’ve never been with a guy.”) If attracted to women, Jenner, a trans woman, would be considered a lesbian. But as Jacob Tobia, a trans activist, reminded me: “Transitioning is a challenging process, and it can take time to figure things out.”
Is Bruce Jenner still “Dad” to his children?
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 show “Transparent,” refers to her trans parent as “Moppa.” No single answer fits all.
What if I just don’t get it?
That’s okay, and in fact, it 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: “Understandingly, this has been very hard for me. You will hear what I have to say when I’m ready to but . . . this isn’t about me . . .” Jenner explained to Sawyer that he has had a lifetime to think through his coming out. His loved ones and others, though, have had much less time.
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 on the track — and now off it.
Nick Martin contributed to this report.
What did you think of the Bruce Jenner interview? Let me know in the comment section below. E-mail questions to stevenpetrow
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