Bruce Jenner’s public coming out as transgendered serves as a particularly dramatic event in the growing public awareness of trans issues, which began in the wake of the death of the trans teenager, Leelah Alcorn in December, 2014. The popular response to his interview with Diane Sawyer has been overwhelming, flooding social media and sparking movements of solidarity as far away as Australia.
However, while its high-profile nature makes Jenner’s coming out so powerful for raising awareness, it also comes with an attendant problem: Jenner is fast becoming emblematic of the US trans community in general, and by extension, that of the rest of the Western world. In light of this, there are a number of important features about Jenner’s case which need to be born in mind.
The first of these is something not immediately evident to people who are not trans (‘cisgendered’). There is a common narrative which our society uses to understand transgenderism: that of a person of gender x stuck inside a body associated with gender y. This was the narrative that Jenner used to explain his situation in his interview, and is a narrative that is employed by a lot of other trans people too. However, there is also lot of variation between trans individuals with regards to how they think about their relationship to gender. Some even oppose Jenner’s narrative, based on the idea that it tries to turn trans individuals into ‘broken’ cis individuals, and obscures the inherent problems with the notion of gender itself which trans people present. This is not to say that the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ narrative is wrong in all cases – merely that many people feel that it does not adequately capture their situation. Gender is a very complex and varied phenomenon, and we need to accept a reflective complexity and variety in our accounts of it.
The high-profile nature of Jenner’s case means that the average person, who has never had to think that much about gender in a systematic way, will draw their understanding of transgender phenomena primarily from it. Consequently, Jenner’s narrative becomes framed as the only one in the public mind. This makes it difficult for trans people who are less certain about its adequacy. More dangerously, it also reinforces the popular view that this is the only proper narrative, which is then used to restrict people’s access to vital medical treatment. We need to bear in mind that Jenner is just an individual accounting for their situation in one way, and while that way may be adequate for him, it is not universally adequate.
Secondly, Jenner's problems only represent a small subset of the issues faced by trans people in the US - and the easiest subset at that. For example, he is rich enough to be able to afford the medical treatment he requires. He has never had to do sex work, with the dangers and stigmas this presents - or been arrested for it and condemned to rape and worse in a male prison. He is not subject to daily violence, and the chance that he is going to be murdered is far lower than for trans women of colour... I could go on.
Consequently, the fact that Jenner’s case is so influential in defining how the public think about trans issues is troubling. In defining the situation of trans people in the US in terms of the interior, emotional issues of a person like Jenner, we lose sight of the wider, more serious, material and political problems faced by the majority. These are rooted in other issues such as race and wealth, which have always traditionally been ignored in favour of the limited problems faced by rich white people. It is really important not to let the situation of a group become defined by the situation of its most privileged members – particularly when this obscures the responsibility a society has to reform itself.
Society works by presenting the diverse experiences of groups of people like the trans community as homogenous. This makes it easier to account for these groups in popular narratives. The good effect of this that it allows for a society in which people have some sense of understanding one another, facilitating greater empathy within that society. However, part of this process necessarily involves erasing certain aspects of these identities. When taken as paradigmatic of trans experience, the aspects which Jenner’s case erase are some of the most fundamental and important ones.
*note: I have used male pronouns when referring to Jenner throughout this article, in line with his request during his interview. I don't know if this was because he just didn't want to have to deal with the media constantly fumbling with the proper one or not, but just take me in good faith.