Keeping up with Bruce Jenner

Bruce Jenner was the celebrated American athlete who won the grueling decathlon in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He was hailed as the world’s greatest athlete, the icon of American masculinity. He went on to become a media star, lately appearing as the famous Dad in the long-running celebrity-driven reality television show “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”

This month, the magazine Vanity Fair features Jenner on its cover, wearing a corset. “Call me Caitlyn,” the title says.

Two months earlier, in what he calls his final appearance as Bruce, the 65-year-old Jenner sits down for a two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC television. He reveals he is tired of living a lie as a man. In a gesture that is perhaps meant to say it all, he loosens his ponytail at the start of the interview, and shakes his long hair free. He says he is ready to fully embrace the woman he has always felt he is.

“Are you gay?” Sawyer asks. Jenner wags a finger at her and says the question confuses two different things. He is changing his gender identity, he clarifies, but not his sexual orientation. He remains sexually attracted to women, he stresses, prompting another “confused” question from Sawyer: “Are you lesbian?”

To which Jenner responds with conviction: “No, no!” Sounding skeptical, Sawyer follows up with a blunt question: “Is this a stunt to promote a new show?”

Indeed, all this orchestrated media presence seems to be a prelude to the airing of a new reality show that will introduce the new Caitlyn Jenner. I gather that the show will chronicle the saga of the transitioning Caitlyn, as she copes with the tacit expectations that a curious public brings to the experience of communal voyeurism. Jenner candidly admits that she expects the media attention to draw viewers to her show. “I have housing payments to make,” she curtly explains. But, that should not detract from the journey toward authenticity on which she is embarked, she says plaintively. Were it otherwise, she adds, it would not be possible to reverse what she has done if the show came to an end. She is taking hormonal injections and has undergone “facial feminization” surgery.

I am quite sure Diane Sawyer fully understands what Jenner is saying, despite the many times she asks her questions with feigned incredulity. I could sense that she does this mainly for effect—articulating the astonishment and perplexity of the average viewer in order to bring out the sharpest retort possible from the subject. That kind of interview is always a winner. One can imagine the millions who watched it. I caught it on YouTube and, ignoring the initial repulsion I felt over the bizarre self-promotion, I came away educated and entertained by the candor and courage that ran through the fast-paced exchange between Jenner and Sawyer.

The interview brings out the complexity of an aspect of social reality that has remained in the shadows of modern society. There are people who feel profoundly uneasy, unhappy, and bothered by the lack of fit between their gender assignment and their gender identity. The technical term for it is “gender dysphoria.” “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” the champion decathlete tells Sawyer. “My brain is much more female than it is male.” Conventional society tends to mock this condition, treating it as an aberration that needs to be cured and set right in spite of the person.

I used to think it was just one of those cultural fads that filtered down from the developed countries to the least developed ones, or from the well-off classes to the underprivileged sectors. My attitude began to change in the early 1980s after Mang Gerry, a messenger in our office, one day approached me for advice about a daughter who he said had been giving him problems.

She had always been “tomboyish,” he began. But she was going “too far,” dressing up and carrying herself “like a man.” It became clear to me that they had had recurring quarrels over this, but the night before was different. He had been drinking, picked on her again, and beat her up so badly that it brought out the whole neighborhood. The poor girl locked herself in a room, and, sobbing desperately, began slashing her breasts with a pair of scissors. “I was shocked,” Gerry said. “What should I do?”

First, I told him, you have to talk to your daughter, and beg for her forgiveness. Don’t ever hurt her again or bully her about her situation or make an issue out of it. She’s your child: Accept and love her as she is. Second, stop drinking.

Still, it bothered me that maybe I had processed the whole thing cerebrally, offering counsel like a distant professional. Would I do as I preached if the one involved were my own sibling, child, or grandchild? This question stayed with me for a long time, and while I have not had to face it close to home, I was pleased to be able to overcome ingrained prejudices and empathize with Gerry’s daughter.

I would be a hypocrite, however, if I said I have wiped out all such prejudices from my thinking. They do linger, but I always try to seriously confront them. Recently, my granddaughter Julia, a mid-school student at Miriam, surprised me by her choice of topic for her English essay: “Silently Serving: Transgender People in the US Military.” She showed me a well-researched 7-minute PowerPoint presentation of the issue, arguing for the long overdue lifting of the ban. After complimenting her work, I smiled at her, and teasingly asked, “Are you?” She smiled back knowingly, and replied, “No, Lolo, I’m not.”

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