Where Does Bruce Jenner Stand in Trans History?
At the time that this article was written, Bruce Jenner has not indicated any desire to change his gender pronouns or name, and so we will be using his birth name and male pronouns.
Unless you’ve been avoiding literally any media outlet for the past month, you’ve definitely heard about, and probably watched, the interview that Bruce Jenner did with Diane Sawyer. Within the first few minutes of the two hour interview, Jenner confirmed that he identified as a woman and would be presenting as such after the interview and onward. He also confirmed that he would undergo gender-confirmation surgery in order to change his gender legally to female, the process of which will be covered this summer in an E! docu-series.
There have been many mixed reactions coming from everywhere, in and out of the trans community. Diane Sawyer herself immediately addressed the suspicion that Jenner is just drumming up for media attention for the Kardashians, to which Jenner responded, “Diane, do you have any idea what I’ve been through all my life? And they’re going to say I’m doing this for publicity, for a show?” On top of that, many people are citing this cultural moment as a great step for trans visibility. Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black star and huge advocate for the trans community, was asked about her thoughts on the interview and spoke of the importance of visibility, “I think a lot of people tuned in expecting to see a spectacle and they saw a beautiful human being — a person who’s a parent who cares deeply about their family and what my visibility over the past year has taught me is that visibility does matter, it can save lives…” Having role models in media for trans people to look up to has been huge in supporting the community socially.
However, Cox brings up an issue that many trans women of color have also been voicing, by saying, “but visibility still doesn’t save a lot of trans lives a lot of those who are still committing suicide, still being murdered at disproportionate levels, still experiencing job discrimination, housing discrimination, health care discrimination.” Many people forget the practical issues of discrimination when thinking of the trans community, especially when it comes to trans women of color. Mainstream media has a tendency to focus on the physicality of trans people, the ‘transition’. We saw it last year with Katie Couric’s insensitive genitalia questioning when she interviewed Cox and Carmen Carrera, and even in Jenner’s interview, though it was handled more tactfully.
Trans history is much longer and tragic than its recent limelight. Trans issues first became more publicly known when Christine Jorgensen became the first person to medically transition in the 1950s. In August of 1966, trans oppression was highlighted in the Compton Cafeteria Riots, where trans people of color were denied service in the original Compton’s Cafeteria. The restaurant was one of the few places that they safely could meet up in public, but the space became unsafe when cops began arresting customers. The Stonewall Riots started shortly after in New York. In 1998, Rita Hester, a trans woman of color, was murdered, starting a community outcry for acceptance, and through that the Trans Day of Remembrance was created. Through out all of this time, hundreds and hundreds of trans lives were taken, and it’s not until 2008 that Allen Andrade was charged with a hate crime for killing Angie Zapata, a trans teen in Colorado. It’s this history of the trans experience that gets lost when the emphasis is put on the physical manifestation of gender.
For many trans people that don’t have the luxury of celebrity, day to day living is more of a struggle than the act of transitioning. The year of 2015 has already seen the death of almost a dozen trans people, and yet there is little public outcry. The last survey, done by The National Center for Transgender Equality, on trans and non-gender conforming people was conducted in 2012 and contains a sample size of only 6,450 people, a fraction of what the actual trans population is estimated to be. The fact that we don’t even have an accurate and up to date account of the trans community shows how little importance is placed on their well being. In the study, 41% of trans people attempt suicide, with 60% experiencing physical and sexual assault in their life times. People of color make up a majority of those statistics, with the report stating, "People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African American transgender respondents faring worse than all others in many areas examined."
The attention that Jenner’s coming out has garnered can definitely be credited with media trying to normalize the trans experience, but Jenner’s experience is not the reality of most trans women. The movement, which was pioneered first by people of color, has been largely whitewashed by media. The coming out stories of people like Jenner, and Andreja Pejić are exciting and important to tell as they have been circulated all over the internet, but both very lucky cases of white trans women and hardly capture the full picture of what the trans community deals with.
So can Bruce Jenner take the helm as heralding a new cultural moment of acceptance for trans people? As wonderful as it is to see a trans person in national headlines, Jenner is not the only trans person that needs our support. He has access to wealth, good health care and a supportive family, a dream for many trans folk. He is brave, and we congratulate him on finally being able to express what he has always felt to be true, but we also take this moment to remember that his success story is not the common narrative for trans people all over the world.
For any trans folk feeling victimized or suicidal, you can call the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860 in the US or (877) 330-6366 in Canada to find support