If you haven’t heard of the Kardashian family, then you must not own a television – and you probably haven’t picked up a magazine or checked your Twitter feed in the last decade either.
Even if you’ve only hate-watched “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” on E! while flipping channels, you’re undoubtedly at least marginally familiar with the absurd goings-on of Hollywood’s First Family – nearly all of which has been rooted in hetero-normative hookups, marriages and divorces.
That is, until recently. Multiple media reports, including stories from credible outlets, indicate that the family’s married-in patriarch, 1976 Olympian Bruce Jenner, is preparing to transition from male to female, potentially making him one of the most high-profile transgender figures American popular culture has ever seen.
Now, to be clear, the decathlete-turned-reality TV star has not publicly acknowledged his transition, even as his stepdaughter Kim nonchalantly spoke about his “journey” and his mother said in an interview with the Associated Press that “it takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing.” For that reason, this column and other articles are still referring to Jenner with male pronouns.
We have to be sensitive and smart about the way we discuss this. As J. Bryan Lowder writes in Slate, “There is nothing inherently salacious or juicy about someone’s being trans.” That’s why it is discouraging to see tabloids like In Touch pounce, using his celebrity status as an attempt to spin salacious drama for a profit. Stories about transgender people too often revolve around the physical aspect of their transition, ignoring the psychological and societal aspects that are equally, if not more, important.
Media failures aside, Jenner’s story brings reassuring potential. Despite an increased presence of transgender people in pop culture — Amazon’s “Transparent,” for example — the story that hasn’t been told is an honest one about what it is really like to make a transition in this gossip-obsessed culture.
I’m talking about real life — not just portrayals conceived by the largely cisgender writers, actors and producers who decide what makes it on air and what doesn’t. And if he chooses to do so, Jenner could be the person to fill that void.
Jenner’s national name recognition as a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics combined with his modern notoriety as the straight-laced stepdad on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” gives him a crossover appeal that transcends generations in a way that most of today’s popular cultural figures do not.
Jenner has the opportunity to bring unprecedented visibility to some alarming problems. An extraordinarily disproportionate percentage of homeless youth identify as LGBT — about 40 percent, according to a new report compiled last week by the Center for American Progress. For transgender youth specifically, the numbers are even worse. Homeless trans youth reported a median of 52 months away from their parents – that’s 23 months more than their counterparts who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to a 2008 study in New York.
At a time when it finally seems that the marriage equality issue is all but resolved, transgender people and the struggles they face are finally coming to the forefront, after being largely ignored by mainstream media for years.
For example, earlier this year, Ohio transgender teen Leelah Alcorn took her own life after her parents prohibited her from undergoing transition treatment, instead opting to send her to right-wing Christian conversion therapy.
After her death, Alcorn’s mother spoke with CNN in a telling (and frustrating) interview that underscores the need for a strong public figure who can fight back against bigotry: “We don’t support that, religiously,” Alcorn’s mother said in reference to her daughter’s desire to identify as female. “But we told him that we loved him unconditionally…People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
Protests and vigils took place in D.C. and across the globe as Alcorn’s story gained international attention.
One problem here is that there are few high-profile trans role models out there who can send the message, merely by living and breathing, that it is possible to be a proud, happy transgender person.
Granted, public transgender figures like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and, even before them, Chaz Bono, have earned well-deserved praise for being outspoken on transgender rights and visibility.
And even Jenner’s story comes with its hurdles. A reality series by E! – the likes of which the network has not yet confirmed – could be problematic if handled inappropriately. Since few details have been formally announced, most LGBT rights leaders have declined to share their views.
But nonetheless, the same adage used in the same-sex marriage movement applies here: The best way to achieve acceptance and equality is through increased exposure.
If Jenner is planning to transition, his fame could be put to good use in expanding the visibility of transgender Americans’ lives.
Justin Peligri is a student at George Washington University.