Nearly 17 million people watched last Friday as Bruce Jenner came out as transgender during an interview with Diane Sawyer following months of media speculation. What many expected to be a sensationalized television event turned out to be a respectful, low-key exchange. The former Olympian emotionally recounted how his gender identity has long been a struggle, saying “I’ve always been very confused with my gender identity. For all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” although he has chosen to use a male pronoun for now. Both Jenner and Sawyer deserve praise for their sensitive handling of this controversial issue, and this interview should serve as precedent for how the media should handle future transgender issues.
Bruce Jenner identifying as female is particularly significant given he was the embodiment of an alpha male — a strong, masculine all-American hero throughout the 1970s and ’80s. More recently, Jenner has gained fame as the supportive, occasionally befuddled reality show father. Because he has been a familiar figure to most Americans for nearly 40 years, his gender identity change seems to have overwhelmingly invoked sympathy rather than disdain — it would be difficult to characterize him as anything other than compellingly honest. He repeatedly discussed his hopes to make a difference and “work with this community to get this message out.” As a face for transgender people in the United States, Jenner is incredibly valuable, and it appears as though he fully intends to make the most out of the platform he has been given.
In the past, television commentators have mostly fumbled their handling of transgender issues. Katie Couric notably drew criticism after an interview with actress Laverne Cox, in which Couric fixated on the status of Cox’s “private parts” over anything else. Sawyer, in contrast, treated Jenner in a empathetic way that allowed him to control the telling of his own story. Hopefully, this marks a positive shift in the way media treats issues related to sensitive topics like gender and sexuality. Interestingly, a recent Fusion Magazine poll indicated that approximately 50 percent of millennials agree that “gender is a spectrum, and some people fall outside conventional categories.” NYU and many other universities boast a myriad of programs and resources for transgender students, a crucial tool for helping young people comfortably transition into new environments. This is further proof that the tide is changing — more and more people understand that gender is
For all of Jenner’s humility and charm, he should not be expected to work as a devoted trans advocate. In his own words, he is just a person who wants to “have a free soul and great friends. I want to enjoy life. It’s that simple.” That is all there is to it. Thanks to Jenner, 17 million people know that now.
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A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 29 print edition. Email Annie Cohen at [email protected].