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Op-ed: The Jenner Special Was Trans Experience as Spectacle

Op-ed: The Jenner Special Was Trans Experience as Spectacle


While the Bruce Jenner special was sensitive and educational, it still reduces transgender issues to the spectacle of celebrity transitions instead of discrimination, intolerance, and violence.

It was a few years back that my partner and I were in a restaurant and as I headed to the bathroom, a man came up to her and breathlessly declared, "That's Bruce Jenner!" She assured him I was not. He again insisted I was. She in turn reassured him that as my partner of 13 years, she would know if I was secretly an Olympic decathlete. I returned from the women's room to find her convulsed in laughter.

As Bruce's appearance has been changing -- the eyebrows, the hair, the impossibly smooth skin -- this became the first of many times I've been mistaken for him. I'm starting to toy with just signing autographs or posing for pictures instead of fighting it. Alas, no one has yet mistaken me for Heidi Klum.

I don't see the resemblance, but I do see a certain set of features that we have in common -- white, square face structures, long jaws, and a certain feminized rangy, masculinity. So I have felt a certain kinship with Bruce's transition and watched closely to see how and when it would develop as the clues and pictures continued to trickle, drip by drip. This had to be the worst kept secret in history (aside from Ricky Martin being gay).

I kept rooting for Bruce to do it right. I'm sorry to say I've found the whole thing appalling, much like Chaz Bono's coming-out, which was an endless parade of Chaz -- and sometimes Chaz and Cher -- and not a peep about those of us in the lower 99 percent.

I get it when cisgender people need to reduce us to little more than our transition, because our changes seem shocking and strange to them, and they need to feed this perception. So I pretty much expect the cisgender industrial complex to sensationalize our public transitions and make them over into shallow media spectacles. What's upsetting is when we are complicit -- and in both these cases, willfully.

My editors at The Advocate originally asked me to use Bruce's interview with Diane Sawyer as a "teachable moment" to help media learn how to cover trans people. But I see it as more like a teachable moment for the transgender celebrities (yes, we have a few) in how not to participate in our own exploitation.

Before I get a lot of hate mail, let me say up front that yes, the Sawyer interview was sensitive and even educational and Bruce was dignified, even vulnerable at times. And there were lots of blurbs and narration explaining the trans experience.

So perhaps it's stodgy of me to want us to finally make the transition to "hard news" and stop being demoted to personal interest stories with sidebars, especially when our most public figures -- who are a position to shift the standards of coverage -- are complicit in our trivialization.

Even these "sensitive" portrayals play to the lowest common denominator of cisgender audiences -- that we must never be more nor less than our genital status. That is always the main focus. In this setup, we explain ourselves patiently, offering up intimate thoughts, private childhood moments. We struggle to prove our womanhood to them; they sit in judgment. They poke, prod, and examine while we testify, explain, and plead. We do everything but spread our legs for their consideration.

One had the sense watching the last year's elaborate dance with news media to hype Bruce's transition -- with all its careful feints, non-denial denials by family members, and endless "Is he or isn't he?" flirtation -- that it was all designed by the Kardashian media machine and Jenner's soon-to-be ex-wife, Kris Jenner, to pump up the audience for Keeping Up With the Kardashians, of which Bruce is a costar.

If that seems hyperbolic, Kim K. already gave an exclusive interview to Today to discuss the Sawyer special. And of course, Bruce has a docu-series on his new life that begins airing in July.

We ought to be relieved that when the topic of surgery came up, Bruce told Diane, "I'm not shooting any of this, I'm not filming anything, to me it's very degrading." But I wouldn't bet money against it. The maw of the Kardashian media machine is bottomless and empty, and constantly hungry for more. It's like a black hole from whose intense gravity field nothing, not even light, can escape. And if Bruce thinks it's going to allow this real-life sex-change moment to escape its orbit, he'd better think again. I can already hear Diane Sawyer's "sensitive," "educational," "groundbreaking" real-time interview as Bruce goes under the knife and emerges from (what is now being called) "gender confirmation surgery."

Perhaps like Katie Couric and her colonoscopy, Bruce will remain awake and narrate the whole procedure for cisgender viewers as it's happening. Personally I'd rather spend that kind of up-close time with Katie's colon, but that's just me.

Bruce is adamant that this transition will uplift people. It's wonderful that Bruce thinks this very public transition is going to do great things for transgender people; even nicer if he actually made clear that he checked in with some transgender organizations, just to see what's goin' down in the hood. Because we are not infotainment. We're more than just the fact that, Holy cow! They actually change sexes! It's like the early media stories about gay people, which were always framed as sensitive attempts to normalize the unthinkable. "This is John. John is a homosexual. This is his lover, Alan. Here they are making eggs. 'John, when did you first realize you were a homosexual?'"

There comes a point where "sensitive" and "educational" coverage becomes its own ghetto, because you're never allowed to be more than that, no matter how much it's puffed up with educational sidebars for low-information viewers. We're beyond that.

Has the media ever done an extended media piece on actual transgender news? No. Because we're not considered "hard news." So what we get instead is this infinite series of puff-piece, personal interest stories inevitably anchored by someone changing sexes, supposedly redeemed by a lot of educational asides. Every time we allow cisgender perceptions to reduce us to nothing more than that, we trivialize our lives and set the movement back.

It's a civil rights issue, folks. We don't need cisgender America to judge or understand or accept us. We need them to give us our rights. It's not really about our transitions, it's about what they do to degrade and destroy us when we do. It's about our kids stepping in front of speeding tractor trailers to stop the pain. Has anyone ever seen a two-hour hour show devoted to the plight of transgender youth? Or transgender women being raped in prison? Or transgender people being thrown out of jobs? No. We won't see that kind of real news coverage until we demand it.

I'll say it again, our lives are not infotainment. Bruce, Chaz -- ever heard of Janet Mock or Laverne Cox? That's how it's done.

RIKI WILCHINS is a writer, author, and speaker focusing on transgender issues.

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