Jenner’s interview, which was emotional, humane and often quite funny and charming, did all of that. And it demonstrated something more. Coming out may be a well-established ritual by now, but the process is powerful because it reminds us that while LGBT people may share many experiences of mockery, discrimination and violence, their lives are hugely rich and varied. Coming-out stories subvert expectations, political and otherwise, as often as they hit familiar beats. And coming out raises new questions as well as answering old ones.
There was one part of Jenner’s interview that was politically surprising in a way that grabbed headlines: Jenner’s coming-out as both a woman and a Republican. While Jenner was willing to give President Obama credit for being the first commander in chief to utter the word “transgender,” that was about the extent of Jenner’s admiration for Obama. “I’m more on the conservative side,” Jenner noted. “I’m a big fan of the Constitution.”
That revelation was in keeping with a larger political trend. As marriage equality inches closer to becoming the law of the land, and as some Republicans show a certain amount of movement on the issue, LGBT people who aligned with Democrats during the fight for access to marriage but whose views lean Republican on most other issues are becoming more visible. Two gay hotel owners recently made national headlines for hosting an event for presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz, who opposes marriage equality.
But if the idea of a prominent transgender Republican was the most attention-getting political element of Sawyer’s sit-down with Jenner, it was hardly the only element of Jenner’s coming-out that demonstrated just how much the personal experiences of transgender people challenge the desire for clear and fixed politics around gender and sexuality.
As Sawyer explained during the special, she used male pronouns to refer to Jenner, because that’s what Jenner had requested. GLAAD issued an advisory pegged to the interview explaining that it was a Do for journalists (and presumably other people who want to be polite to transgender people) to “use the name and pronoun a transgender person prefers.” A hard-and-fast rule would probably be easier for the rest of us — Jenner’s request for male pronouns specific to the interview doesn’t necessarily apply to other reporters or other circumstances, leaving some observers, including me, scrambling to figure out what’s most appropriate.
But a standard that’s not a standard at all is the point, on two levels. It forces us to engage more closely and thoughtfully with other people, rather than simply making assumptions based on their outward appearance. And asking rather than guessing will provide us with regular, if not frequent, reminders that not everyone understands or wants the same, neatly classifiable thing from his or her gender identity. If the movement for marriage equality is based on the message that gays and lesbians want to structure their lives the same way heterosexual people historically have, transgender equality is rooted in ideas that pose a much greater challenge to established orthodoxies.
Despite those challenges, transgender people also force us to confront difficult debates about gender. During Jenner’s discussion with Sawyer, Jenner described imagining God creating a child and saying “Let’s give him the soul of a female, and see how he deals with that,” and told Sawyer “My brain is much more female than it is male.”
Language like this is useful and powerful because it explains transgender identity as something fundamental and immutable. It also runs straight into ongoing conversations about whether there is one particular way to be a woman, or things that are essentially female.
These are difficult issues to parse. If we say there’s something wonderful and essential about a particular way to be a woman, we might be expressing how much we value these attributes (especially when masculinity gets treated as superior). But we also might be slighting women who don’t possess or feel connected to those attributes. And arguments about what sort of work and spheres are inherently male or female have historically been used to limit women’s work opportunities or to stigmatize women who don’t particularly want to be wives and mothers.
I hope Jenner finds the happiness that seemed distant during the 1976 Olympics and all the painful decades that followed. But building a world in which people like Jenner can be themselves as soon as possible will require more than an ABC special. The force of coming out is such that it can quiet internal turbulence, even as it sends earthquakes out into the rest of the world.