On Caitlyn Jenner’s Coming Out as Transgender
(Note – at the time of writing, Jenner explicitly stated in the interview that she was still using male pronouns, however this has since been updated to reflect a respect for her name and identity).
On 24th April, Caitlyn Jenner ended media speculation by giving an interview to Diane Sawyer with ABC, announcing to the world that she is a transgender woman. As of 6.00 am Saturday 25th April GMT 2015 the full interview is still elusive (in the UK), with this 15 minute poor quality excerpt the longest I could find. Some high quality, short clips are found here. However I’ll be commenting on and synthesising the various reports and clips on and from the interview available so far.
We still identify as female. And that’s very hard for Bruce Jenner to say. ‘Cause why? I don’t want to disappoint people.
There’s a range of different things we can learn from this interview. The first thing is that a lot of people don’t appreciate what a big deal medical transitions are for trans people – emotionally, physically, and in most of the world, financially. Jenner literally laughs off the fact that some ‘sceptics’ suggest that this coming out could be a bid for attention, related to her part in the reality TV series Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Are you telling me I’m going to go through a complete gender change, okay, and go through everything you need to *do* that, for the show? Sorry Diane, it ain’t happening!
In addition to this, Jenner revealed she accessed hormones and facial surgery in the 1980s – being trans is not something new to Jenner herself, putting such ignorant cynicism to rest immediately. Her transition was ceased in 1990, after meeting her later wife of 23 years, Kris Kardashian. And in terms of ‘why now?’, she states unequivocally how she couldn’t hide this any longer. Jenner also made the points that fears over hurting her children meant she lost her nerve with her first attempts with medical and social transition, and that she and Kris might’ve still been together (they divorced in December 2014) if she had been ‘able to deal with it better’.
Which brings us to another important point that Jenner clarifies – how her sexuality has nothing to do with her gender identity. That identifying as a woman does not mean that she is attracted to men. Sawyer slowly walks through the logic of this – ‘if you are assigned male… and you become female… but you like women… are you a lesbian? are you a heterosexual… who…?’ Brenner cuts her off brilliantly, saying ‘you’re going back to the sex thing and it’s apples and oranges!’.
Whilst not discussed, it raised the question – how does a person’s gender identity relate to the sexuality of their partner? The answer is that it doesn’t, because whilst sexuality labels are most often used to signpost who a person sleeps with, these *labels* are also about identity. For instance, not all men who have sex with men identify as gay, and this is very important to recognise, in terms of both respect, and when conducting studies on sexual health. As a further example, if a person assigned male at birth comes out to her wife as a transgender woman, this doesn’t retroactively ‘turn’ the wife into a lesbian (assuming she was straight in the first place, and not bisexual for example…!). Also if the wife is still attracted to her transgender partner, still in love with her, that doesn’t mean she’s attracted to other women. It is an example of a straight-identified cisgender woman in what could be viewed as a lesbian, or same sex relationship… even if neither person, given their histories, identifies as a lesbian. But as long as one grasps the initial point that sexuality and gender identity are independent, and that labels aren’t gospel and depend on the person and situation rather than being a ‘neutral’ expression of ‘fact’, the rest can be negotiated from there.
For brevity’s sake, I don’t want to focus on the reactions of Jenner’s family, or the story of Jenner’s youth and athletic successes. The negotiation of significant personal issues is never easy, and the horrific marginalisation and ‘joke’ status that transgender people can still be relegated to isn’t up for debate. Jenner’s wealth and celebrity privileges don’t negate that coming out was a very brave thing to do, and she also makes it clear that she wants to do some good and help people by being open about her transition. She makes the point that her foothold in the reality television world gives her a powerful tool with which to raise awareness, even if not becoming an expert activist overnight.
The Twitter responses to the interview using the hashtag #BruceJennerABC have been overwhelmingly positive, though as S. Bear Bergman poignantly put it, “wondering who else should get 2 hrs on prime time TV?” whilst linking the list of unlawfully killed transgender people on Wikipedia, undoubtedly a list that under-represents. It was also pointed out by Kate Bornstein how the interview didn’t mention non-binary identities at all. Whilst not necessarily part of Jenner’s experience of gender, such a powerful opportunity for visibility and education could have benefited from greater breadth of reflection on the multi-facetedness of transgender lives. Jenner’s fame, wealth, and success position her as amongst the least vulnerable of transgender people, who collectively are still in dire need of protection, representation, access to services, and understanding. Let’s hope that Caitlyn Jenner inspires increased and better quality allyship.