Bruce Jenner's transition to Caitlyn: Why this celebrity transgender event is different

Musician Chaz Bono, tennis player Renee Richards, and Hollywood director Lana Wachowski have made public gender transitions. Why is Bruce Jenner's transgender shift different?

(Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair via AP)
This photo taken by Annie Leibovitz exclusively for Vanity Fair shows the cover of the magazine's July 2015 issue featuring Bruce Jenner debuting as a transgender woman named Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover is raising the visibility of transgender issues to mainstream America, which could mean relief for non-celebrities in the transgender community who suffer abuse and discrimination. 

This week Caitlyn Jenner (the former Bruce Jenner) made her gender identity, new name and appearance public on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. The appearance came on the heels of a two-hour TV interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer on April 24, in which 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.”

The Williams Institute, a gender studies and sexual orientation think tank at UCLA's School of Law, estimates there are 700,000 transgender people (or 0.2 percent of the total population) in the United States.

Yet some experts say the issues facing the transgender community are only just being introduced to middle-America via Ms. Jenner’s transition.

“It’s a historic moment in the press world, having someone transgender on the cover of such a prestigious magazine, but on top of that, someone people knew publicly before transition is a huge milestone for educating people as to who transgender people are,” says Sylvain Bruni, president of Boston Pride in an interview,

Mr. Bruni points out that while other celebrities such as Chaz Bono, tennis player Renee Richards, and Matrix film trilogy co-director Lana Wachowski have transitioned publicly, “The big difference is that pretty much everybody knew of Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce Jenner, an identified male, an Olympian, in the collective consciousness in the US. She was the epitome of what a male athlete was, and the whole idea built around her that basically cemented an image and it is such a difference now in terms of physical appearance and who she really is, that it has more impact.”

Jenner was the face of the Wheaties “Breakfast of Champions” 1977 TV commercial celebrating his decathlon triumph at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Laura Durso, director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress says that the increasing of visibility of transgender Americans thanks to Jenner and other celebrities is vital to moving transgender rights initiatives forward.

“We have the cover of Vanity Fair, but transgender people lack significant rights in most of the country and experience really, truly, heartbreaking levels of poverty, housing instability, and violence against the community,” Dr. Durso says.

In a 2009 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, some 13 percent of respondents were unemployed, nearly double the national average at the time of the survey.  Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said that they experienced an "adverse job action"  –  meaning that they did not get a job, were denied a promotion, or were fired.

The survey also found that 97 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job. Fifteen percent of transgender people surveyed lived on $10,000 per year or less – double the rate of the general population. 

Bruni agrees adding, “There is a huge gap between Caitlyn who is wealthy and has access to the press and those living in poverty, abuse, and rejection in the trans community. The idea is for us [the LGBT community] to use this opportunity to foster that education and bring light to those issues and to make sure those issues don’t get forgotten.”

In April, a White House executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors went into effect. The order was hailed by LGBT advocates a step forward, although the Washington Post notes that "92 percent of employees of federal contractors in the Fortune 1000 are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy."

While LGBT rights are often considered a liberal issue, Jenner revealed in the April ABC-TV interview that he's a Republican. When Ms. Sawyer asked  if he would ask GOP House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to “champion” LGBT rights, he replied: “I would do that, yeah, in a heartbeat. Why not? And I think they’d be very receptive to it.”

In Norfolk, Va., Glass Artist Abel Valerie (also known as Avery Shaffer) is one of those in the LGBT community who is striving to make sure the struggles of transgender people are not overlooked.

In his May “Starseed” exhibition Mr. Valerie created a glass portrait to memorialize Lamia Beard, a transgender woman of color who was shot and killed near Valerie’s home/studio on January 17.

“Her death was reported in male pronouns by local media and some even used old mug shots, rather than images of her as a woman as representations of the victim,” Valerie says in an interview.

While Valerie didn’t know the victim, he says, “I heard that someone was killed in my neighborhood and wanted to learn more about her so I looked at her Facebook page and realized that she was being somewhat misrepresented and not being appreciated for who she was.”

“I have the ability to make works of art that may be seen as beautiful by some,” he adds. “I thought that would at least be something.”

Asked about the Jenner transformation,  Valerie says that “Americans really love makeover shows and this [Jenner’s transformation on 'Keeping up with the Kardashians'] was a really successful makeover, with the transgender issue piggy-backing on a makeover show format.”

“Middle America is being introduced to trans issues through the makeover of Bruce to Caitlyn. It’s not much different from when Will and Grace introduced middle-America to gay issues,” he says. “It should, ultimately be a positive thing for the transgendered community, but it’s not immediately helping the Lamia Beards of the world.”

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