At first, you might not recognize the woman on the cover of the new Vanity Fair. I didn’t, for a second. The text certainly isn’t helpful—just one line, “Call me Caitlyn.” Who is Caitlyn? Then you really look at the face and realize it’s the person who the public has known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic medalist and Kardashian patriarch who recently came out as a woman.
This process of recognition is, of course, part of the point. Jenner is, for the first time in public, dressing herself in women’s clothes and going by a woman’s name. The explanation for why is inside Buzz Bissinger’s long profile of her, but the simplicity of the cover says that you aren’t owed an explanation. Many transgender people have spoken about the desire to be seen for who they are, not who they used to be. I always think about the lyrics to the title track on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the first album that Against Me! put out after singer Thomas James Gabel announced herself as Laura Jane Grace: “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress. You want them to see you like they see every other girl.”
For Jenner in particular, this is a difficult goal: Bruce was a celebrity for a long time, one who’s become only more famous since announcing herself a woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20. Like the reality-TV universe that so many people know her from, a Vanity Fair cover story with Annie Leibovitz’s photos is at the same time an exercise in glamorization and humanization—making her tale both more epic and more specific. Some people are complaining that she’s creating a spectacle, but it’s hard to see how it could be any other way, nor why that’s inherently a bad thing given the circumstances.
As a cast member on a hugely popular TV show, Jenner faced a few options when trying to face her inner torment. One was to do nothing, a notion that Jenner dispatches when telling Bissinger, “If I was lying on my deathbed and I had kept this secret and never ever did anything about it, I would be lying there saying, ‘You just blew your entire life.’” Another was to try and hide it as if it were a shameful secret rather than just who she was. And the third option was to treat it as the media event it would inevitably be. In doing so, she immediately became a sociopolitical figure, informing many people about a minority struggle they may not have ever tried to understand before. Jenner’s oldest four children believe, in Bissinger’s words, that she may end up being “the most socially influential athlete since Muhammad Ali."
Those children, though—Brody, Casey, Burt, and Brandon, all born before Jenner married her third wife, Kris—do not want to participate in her reality-TV show. They support Jenner’s transition, but Bissinger documents the discomfort they have with the manner in which she has announced it, objecting especially to the fact that Jenner’s E! program will be produced by the same people behind Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Brandon Jenner, 33, fears it could be a “circus”: “They're gonna make a show about the Jenners versus the Kardashians," he says, and it’s hard to miss the fact that Bissinger’s story comes close to doing the same. E!’s head of programming, Jeff Olde, replies by saying, “We will not resort to spectacle ... We understand the power and responsibility to be able to share this story.”
The story really is extraordinary; Bissinger writes that it’s the most remarkable thing he’s ever worked on as a journalist. Some of the details are heartbreaking. As a gold medalist touring the country giving motivational speeches in the 70s, Jenner wore panty hose and a bra under a suit; Jenner’s second wife expressed sympathy but says they broke up because “I married a man”; Jenner underwent some medical procedures to look more feminine in the late 80s, before giving up on the process for several decades. Many personal relationships have been strained—Jenner’s adult children’s contend that their father was too-often absent—and it’s impossible to know how much gender identity played a role.
There’s no doubt that Jenner’s public persona, the politics around transgender people, and the delicate familial dynamics involved will be affected by the cover and the story. It’s important to remember, however, that those will be side effects, and that Jenner’s decision was made despite all these considerations, not because of them. “I'm not doing this to be interesting,” Jenner told Bissinger. “I'm doing this to live.” During the short video accompanying the Leibovitz photos, Jenner talks about how her old life was filled with lies. No more, she hopes. “As soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I'm free.”
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