Both the transgender world but also the mainstream have widely reported on the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, world-famous Olympics decathlon champion, and stepfather to the Kardashians, thanks to a very well-planned ‘marketing stunt’, with a ‘teaser’ interview back in April and now the release of a biographical article on Vanity Fair. Add to that Jenner’s new world record, established at the age of 65: more than a million Twitter followers in 4 hours (US President Barack Obama only got his millionth follower after 5 hours), and you can see that all this has been extremely well managed.
Critics might simply shrug it all off as a publicity stunt; Jenner was too close to the infamous Kardashians to have experienced the thrill of being in the limelight. But that is a way too simplistic explanation: after all, Jenner had her moments of glory way before the Kardashians were born, in the 1970s, when she was an American hero due to her Olympic feats. She’s always been used to be in the limelight, long before there were any Kardashians. She has always been admired for her persistence in doing what she does best — back then, it was athletics — but, more importantly, she has always been known for setting an example.
And this is, I believe, what she is doing right now.
Female homosexuality probably got world-wide recognition back in 1997 when Ellen DeGeneres came out as lesbian on Oprah’s show. By then, Ellen was already well-known; her own show was on the fourth season. Such a public endorsement of female homosexuality by a public figure who had no problem in assuming her sexuality in front of TV cameras was probably one of the reasons why, almost two decades later, the US finally legalised same-sex marriage at the federal level (even if many states still refuse to apply the law). It made lesbianism socially ‘acceptable’. Obviously in the 1990s homosexuality was ‘commonplace’ in the sense that discrimination laws were already in place and homosexuals were publicly known and assumed; but it often requires a very public figure to put minorities in the limelight and show that they are perfectly normal people in a crazy world. Ellen was probably not the only one, but she definitely contributed to the public acceptance of female homosexuality. After all, her shows are perfectly ‘normal’. Just because you have a specific preference of whom you sleep with doesn’t mean you cannot be a professional on a high-profile TV show aimed at the mainstream. That’s what the public learned.
Transexuality, especially late on-set transexuality, is another story. There have been many relatively public figures popping around and catching the attention of the mainstream media, most notably Laverne Cox. More than merely ‘cannon fodder’ for jokes on the tabloid media, people like Laverne became idols of the LGBT community, and specifically of the little-represented T community, who capitalized on their celebrity status (and good looks!) to attract the public’s attention to the reality of transgenderity, and how transgender people function normally in our society — if they’re given the chance.
Nevertheless, I think that Caitlyn goes a step further. In Brazil, the limelight is on the famous cartoonist Laerte, who admitted to crossdressing some years ago (while also publishing a series of cartoons starring a crossdresser as main character), and finally came out as a late on-set transexual, and became the spokesperson for transexuality in Brazil — especially for those transexuals who, unlike Roberta Close, weren’t born with a deliciously curvy body good enough to be shown on Vogue, Playboy… or Vanity Fair.
But Laerte is not known outside the Portuguese-speaking countries. Very likely, other countries also have their own spokespersons — celebrities who came out and used their public image to give voice to transexuality — but their action is limited to their countries, or at least to those countries with the same language.
A world-class celebrity needs to come from the Anglo-Saxon world, since — no matter how much we might dislike the idea! — it’s Anglo-Saxon culture, most especially North American culture, that is spread everywhere in the world.
Caitlyn fits this role admirably well. But she is going one step further: not unused to fame and the constant media exposure, she is launching her own talk show on TV, and she is doing it to show how horrible the lives of transgendered people are.
This is most certainly a first in the history of TV. Yes, of course we have tons of documentaries, and even fiction movies, that show the same. But they have little impact. They are not mainstream productions, and if they pop up on TV, they are not shown on prime time. Books about the lives of transgendered people hardly appear on bookstores. The life of Roberta Close and other transexuals (almost all of them early on-set MtF transexuals, showing off their gorgeous bodies) certainly catch the attention of the media, but they never show much detail: they are portrayed as oddities, borderline freaks who somehow look good enough on pictures to be able to sell some tabloids and perhaps go to a talk show or two.
Caitlyn Jenner has this amazing opportunity to do something about the image transexuals have in the mainstream – much more so than Cher’s son, who, although he also enjoyed basking in the limelight of his mother’s success and fame, never really made a serious difference. Jenner is different. She knows what she’s doing, as the well-staged campaign to ‘come out’ in the media shows so well. After some months of speculation about how she would look like, she came out transformed as a beauty that, at 65, shows that age doesn’t make a difference if you wish to cross the gender barrier. She shatters the image of the very young and gorgeous transexuals from Thailand who unfortunately are so often linked to sex workers; she challenges the degrading image spread by the mainstream news (including, unfortunately, some researchers following Blanchard’s theories) that transexuals are poor, uneducated, and unable to lead successful lives; and she shows quite clearly how often late on-set transexuals need to wait decades upon decades until finally ‘coming out’, after living their lives trying to fit into stereotypical gender roles with which they don’t identify themselves, even though they work so hard at keeping a façade, a pretense… a lie, in Caitlyn’s own words.
Perhaps I’m too optimistic about the impact that Jenner might have in society, educating the public about what transgenderity really is. Perhaps her talk show will not go beyond one season, as the mainstream public quickly gets tired of watching horrible story after horrible story. Perhaps Jenner’s success in coming out is just limited to 15 minutes of fame, and the tabloids, looking for stories that attract a wider audience, give up on following her. Perhaps Jenner will have some difficulty in getting a constant stream of transgendered people willing to tell their stories to a world-wide audience; after all, many wish mostly to be kept alone, and live their lives in ‘stealth’, trying to ‘pass’ as well as they can muster, and avoiding to attract undue attention – if that is the case, Jenner might not be able to follow up on her TV shows for lack of people willing to be interviewed.
At this stage, we cannot predict the outcome – it’s way too soon for that. Nevertheless, it takes courage to be at least willing to give it a try. And for that, I’m personally deeply grateful to Caitlyn Jenner, and wish her all the best with her new role — both as a woman, but also as an activist.