Television has played an important role in normalizing the experiences of gay men and lesbians in America. “All in the Family” led the way with an episode in the 1970s when the bigoted Archie Bunker finds out that his good friend Steve, a former football linebacker, is gay. It took 25 more years for television to introduce its first gay main character, with “Will & Grace.” Now gay and lesbian relationships are a regular part of life in TV sitcoms, taking key roles in “Modern Family,” “Scandal,” and numerous other sitcoms. In a similar way, the transgender community is finally having its moment. “Transparent,” a series about a family with a transgender father, won two Golden Globes this year and “Orange is the New Black” has made Laverne Cox a high-profile advocate for the transgender community.
But that positive trajectory could be derailed tonight, when ABC is scheduled to air its much-hyped two-hour special with Bruce Jenner, the patriarch of the Kardashian clan. Tabloid coverage has led us to believe that Jenner, a gold-medal Olympian turned reality-TV celebrity, will come out as a transgender woman in her interview with Diane Sawyer. Just as the transgender experience is beginning to be normalized in American culture, it will be swept up with the ultimate symbol of abnormality and dysfunction: the Kardashian family. If what the transgender movement seeks is acceptance; association with the Kardashian circus is the last thing it needs. While television can help normalize the lives of marginalized people, it also can exploit their hardships and reinforce stereotypes, reducing their lives to mere entertainment.
Jenner has already shown that her public transition is more about promoting herself than promoting the transgender community. Signs of Jenner’s physical transformation have trickled out in paparazzi photos and scenes from “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”: her lengthening hair, manicured nails, and most recently, her appearance in a dress. Though she had a major platform in her reality television show and celebrity, Jenner stayed quiet, leaving her transition in the hands of the media. By letting the tabloids make up their own story and sensationalize the transgender experience, Jenner has allowed it to become a cartoon. Now, she’s finally speaking up – just in time for May sweeps TV ratings season.
The daily experiences of transgender people are not reflected in the spectacle Jenner has drummed up. In recent months, as Jenner was filming a new reality show, there have been a series of distressing stories coming out of the community: transgender children committing suicide, transgender women being killed, and transgender inmates suffering human rights injustices in prison. In Georgia, Ashley Diamond, a 36-year-old transgender woman who has been forced to serve her sentence in a men’s prison, has been denied a request to transfer after being raped multiple times by other inmates. Across the country, so-called “bathroom bills” are being proposed to criminalize transgender people’s use of public bathrooms. And in 78 countries, it’s still illegal to even be transgender.
Particularly disturbing are the high rates of suicide that transgender people are suffering. More than 40 percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, according to researchers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. That rate climbs to 60 percent for those who have been turned away by a doctor, and even higher – 69 percent – among those who became homeless because of discrimination. Transgender youth are especially vulnerable, frequently turning to drugs and prostitution to survive. Then there are the horrors of conversion therapy. Take, for example, the tragic story of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl whose religious parents forced her to see therapists who sought to “fix” her gender identity. She committed suicide in December by walking into the path of a tractor-trailer truck. Citing Leelah, President Obama this month called for an end to such “therapies” – a public figure speaking out in just the way the transgender community needs.
Certainly, Jenner has experienced suffering of her own. I sympathize with the repression she must have felt over the decades as a high-profile male sports icon. It takes a lot of strength to survive in the spotlight while traveling one of life’s most difficult paths. I agree that, just by coming out, Jenner can inspire transgender people living in the shadows to accept themselves. She can become a symbol that living a lie is no life at all.
But in being a public spokeswoman for the transgender community, Jenner is imperfect. So far, Jenner’s transition has served only to strengthen existing stereotypes of the trans community. Everything about the Kardashian family’s public image centers around shock and dysfunction – the very image the trans people are trying to shed. To be a true idol for the transgender movement, Jenner will need to break with her reality-TV image and acknowledge the struggles of all transgender people. She needs to put the interests of the community above the interests of the Kardashian brand. Jenner is, after all, a champion – and a champion is exactly what the movement needs.
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