In 1976, after Bruce Jenner won the decathlon, he transitioned into the role of a sports mega star, the (as many commentators called him) World’s Greatest Athlete, gracing the covers of many magazines, newspaper, and yes, even the Wheaties cereal box.
I remember that cereal box well. I was eight years-old in 1976, and although I didn’t have the words to name it, I knew that in some fundamental way I was different from most other boys my age. I saw Jenner’s image in the morning and was fascinated. To me, he personified all that was male: chiseled features, handsome face, and those well-defined muscles. He was definitely a sex-symbol, one of the first public figures I secretly drooled over.
Or maybe at eight I wasn’t drooling, but I was certain that I felt differently about this paradigm of manhood than Mark, who was sitting next to me at the breakfast table.
Forty years later, Jenner is again in the public eye, this time gracing the cover of Vanity Fair as a sexed-up babe named Caitlyn. What strikes me about this photo is not just that she is buying into a certain version of what it means to be female, which may or may not fit for all women. Rather, it is also that once again, this individual is the extreme: hyper-sexual, completely stereotypical, a sex-symbol. Except that this time, it’s the exact opposite of Wheaties Bruce from 1976.
I spoke with Colette about the Vanity Fair cover this week, and she pointed out that nobody really looks like an Annie Liebowitz photo, particularly one on the cover of a popular contemporary magazine. “Good for her,” she said. “If you look that great at 65 and they’re willing to splash you over the cover of Vanity Fair, more power to you.” Perhaps, she went on, what women should be focusing on is the fact that, for the first time, a 65 year-old woman, who happens to look really great, is gracing the cover of the magazine. Why not fight for more representation of older women (cis- or transgender) on the cover. Where’s Helen Miren? Susan Sarandon? Meryl Streep?
I also spent some time this week watching the interview that Bruce gave to Diane Sawyer on 20/20. What I heard and saw was an individual who struggled for years—a lifetime really—grappling with the issues of gender identity. He described how, after placing 10th in the 1972 decathlon, he trained every day with the singular goal of winning the gold in 1976. He discussed how he was also determined to prove his own manhood, as if becoming strong, athletic, and a medal winner would somehow convince himself as much as others of his essential male-ness.
I heard in that interview an acknowledgement that, of course, it ended up proving nothing, at least to himself. The struggle to understand his essential gender identity lasted years and years, and was fraught with fear, depression, and anxiety. What should he tell the women he loved? Would he lose the love of his siblings and parents if he expressed the inner feelings of discomfort with his male identity? If he lived his life as a woman, would he risk hurting, and perhaps even losing, his children?
Over the course of ninety minutes, Jenner does make a few comments that seem to reinforce traditional, perhaps outdated stereotypes. He mentions that his “brain is much more female than it is male” and that he wants to wear nail polish until it chips off. But these are isolated moments in a long conversation about his experiences as one human being struggling to come to terms with this elusive concept called gender. I was moved by his story of struggle and survival as he ultimately found a path to an authentic life in an obviously imperfect, sexist (homophobic, racist, and on and on) society.
I’m sure many women—like yourself—look and Caitlyn’s photos and cringe, thinking “Really? After all these years, this is what it means to be female?” But the (then still Bruce) Jenner in the interview was describing a process of trying to figure out how to come to terms with his soul as a human, and how that could be expressed.
He was—and still is—a work in progress. He made repeated references at that point to “she,” the woman he would become publically in the near future, and yet started the interview by telling Sawyer that, for all intents and purposes, he was a woman. He offered to dine with Sawyer as “she,” but would only do so off camera. He promised to speak with Sawyer again in a year, recognizing that it would be a year of many changes.
Adding to all the uncertainty were distinctions about sexual orientation versus gender identity, the fear and uncertainty involved in discussing these issues with his ten children, and the deplorable harassment he received in the last several years at the hands of paparazzi and comedians. All of this because the experiences and histories of transgender individuals are only now something that many—perhaps Sawyer and her audience, along with a great many in the LGBT community—are beginning to understand.
As a gay man dealing with my own struggles to come to terms with my sexual orientation over the last 40 years, I identified with the language that Jenner used in that interview. I recognized his struggles with depression, his tentative steps to accept his difference (he was on hormone therapy for 5 years in the 1980s), his relationships that ended in a great deal of hurt for a series of women, and the relief and freedom found in acceptance.
It seems to me that Jenner and other transgender individuals have a great deal to teach us. We all need to be thinking and discussing what it means to be male, what it means to be female, what it means to be human. Without the willingness of the Jenners and Laverne Coxs and our friends and neighbors to try to explain the crazy territory of what gender identity means (not gender expression and not sexual orientation—all three of these are separate characteristics), we will never come to a new place of understanding, a new place of acceptance.
This week the Supreme Court will most likely release its opinion in the case it heard this spring on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Many court experts expect that there will be at least some form of victory for same-sex marriage. Of course, it is my firm hope that is the case. My worry, in the aftermath, is that the wonderful discussion we have been having in society around sexual orientation will fade if civil marriage rights for all individuals regardless of sexual orientation are affirmed. There is still so much understanding that needs to happen, still so many misconceptions, so much hate. Just as with Jenner, we need to keep having that difficult discussion, not closing ourselves off into our respective camps.
I think before we close the doors on identity—whether it be sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression—we need more people like Jenner who are willing to open doors. My hope is that Jenner will use her public platform to bring more attention to issues of gender in our society. The Caitlyn Jenner I have seen thus far is doing just that. I hope she does more than just appear as a sex symbol on the cover of a magazine, but given who she is and the way her journey through life has unfolded, I’m not surprised that was her first appearance as “she.”