“Should I take the ponytail out?” a teary eyed Bruce Jenner asked, letting his hair down for the camera.
In an emotional two-hour interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer on Friday April 24, Jenner, who referred to himself using male pronouns throughout the interview, came out as transgender and detailed his lifelong struggles with gender identity.
“For all intents and purposes, I’m a woman,” Jenner told Sawyer. “People look at me differently. They see you as this macho male, but my heart and my soul and everything that I do in life – it is part of me. That female side is part of me. That’s who I am.”
Although there was a great deal of build up to the ABC 20/20 special, the interview was tasteful, focusing on Jenner’s journey as a transgender person and promoting understanding of transgender issues, rather than fixating on whether or not he had undergone gender reassignment surgery.
The interview gave the nearly 17 million people who tuned in not only the scoop on Jenner’s story, but a crash course on the importance of pronouns to transgender people, the high rate of suicide among transgender people, and the lack of anti-discrimination protection.
When it comes to Jenner, there is a generational divide. For younger people he is the patriarch of reality TV’s favorite family the Kardashians. For older generations he is the all-American athlete who won a gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Both of these roles put him in a place to use his celebrity status to normalize the concept of being transgender for people who don’t understand or may be on the fence about transgender rights. Some are even suggesting that his coming out may have a similar effect Ellen DeGeneres coming out as a lesbian in 1997 did for the now-widespread acceptance of homosexuality in America.
Not that Jenner is the first prominent transgender figure. Actress Laverne Cox, who stars in “Orange Is The New Black,” had a cover story in Time Magazine in which she discussed transgender movement and her own struggles with gender identity. But Cox has been out as a trans woman her entire career, whereas Jenner came out well after rising to fame.
Jenner’s story joins those of other transgender people who have made the news in the last few months, including Jacob Lemay, whose parents let him transition from female to male when he was only four years old, and Leelah Alcorn, who took her own life in January after writing in her suicide note that her parents were not accepting of her gender identity.
Because of their relatively small size compared to other sexual minorities, little is known about America's transgender population. A well-regarded 2011 study by UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute found that about 0.3 percent of American adults are transgender, compared to the 3.5 percent of Americans who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Americans hold overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward transgender people, but much of this negativity evaporates among those who know or work with a transgender person: A survey this month by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the United States, found that 66 percent of those who know a transgender person expressed favorable feelings for transgender people, compared with 13 percent who did not.
The survey also revealed a significant increase in the number of Americans who said they knew a transgender person: 22 percent said they did, up from 17 percent last year.