After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
While transgender people may still be relatively low-profile in the U.S., Jenner himself isn’t. At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, he won the gold medal in the decathlon for the United States, setting a world record and becoming a national icon overnight. A new generation of Americans knows Jenner from his presence in the Kardashian reality-television empire, thanks to his 1991 marriage to Kris Jenner, the mother of Kim Kardashian, and her sisters Khloe and Kourtney (Bruce and Kris Jenner announced they were divorcing last year). The irony of Jenner’s highly public life and deeply private struggle wasn’t lost on him. “The one real, true story in the family was the one I was hiding that nobody knew about,” he told Sawyer. “The one thing that could really make a difference in people’s lives was right here in my soul, and I could not tell that story.”
Perhaps the show’s most emotional charged moment came when Jenner discussed his struggle hiding his true gender identity from his family and the public. During the interview, Jenner said that his lowest point came during a visit to a doctor’s office last year while he sought a tracheal shave, a form of cosmetic surgery in male-to-female transitions. The paparazzi had been alerted to his visit and ambushed him outside the facility. After the invasion of his privacy and subsequent media speculation, Jenner told Sawyer that he considered committing suicide.
Jenner's announcement comes at a time of increasing visibility for transgender people. Laverne Cox, a black transgender actress who has depicted the struggles of trans inmates on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, made the cover of Time last May. The caption read, “America’s next civil-rights frontier.” As Sawyer noted, many U.S. states lack anti-discrimination laws to protect trans rights; and anti-transgender legislation, including a proposed bill in California that would fine trans people for using the “wrong” bathroom, is not uncommon.
In many ways, Jenner’s experience as a transgender person is atypical. He told Sawyer that he didn't begin to transition until after the family’s TV success allowed him the money to afford it. In addition to financial security, Jenner has a loving family and a supportive social circle. Some of his children joined him during the interview, while the rest gave statements or tweets in support of him.
Many others are not so fortunate. Transgender men and women often report facing the risk of ostracism, harassment, and worse for simply existing. Many lack legal protections in the workplace and elsewhere. Although transgender people represent a small fraction of the population, some estimates suggest there is at least one trans homicide a week in America. Transgender people who are non-white or from disadvantaged backgrounds are especially at risk. A 2014 survey found that nearly 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once. In December, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old girl whose parents tried to convince her to reject her gender identity, killed herself by walking into traffic. In response, President Obama invoked transgender rights during his State of the Union address in January and called for a national ban on conversion therapy last month.
A two-hour special with Diane Sawyer may only be able do so much to change a national conversation. But now Bruce Jenner, already an object of pop-culture fascination, is the most famous openly transgender person in America. That alone could mean a cultural turning point.