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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Jenner and Sawyer: Painfully awkward and honest

Apparently, I was one of 16.5 million viewers who watched Diane Sawyer interview Bruce Jenner on ABC last night.  Sawyer's usual viewing audience is around 5 or 6 million. Give or take a few.

So, if you missed the program, you can catch some of the highlights of that interview here at "The 12 Big Moments". 

I don't know if there were so many "12 Big Moments" as much as the whole thing was a pretty big moment. Well, for me, and I suspect, millions of other people - including some transgender folk.

I admit that I was a bit skeptical at first. Indeed, it was my skepticism that compelled me to watch in the first place. I was ready to turn it off at the first hint of a "publicity stunt." The association with anything Kardashian legitimately raises that question, I think.

Then there was this article by a transgender person who said, simply, that the interview wasn't all that important to The Work that needs to be done.

Okay, I'm thinking. On one level, I get it. But, you know, I watched Ellen 'come out' on national television even though, at the time, I didn't think it would be important, ultimately, to The Work.

Turns out, in the larger scheme of things, it was an important milestone in The Work of Queer activism.

Yes, television and other medias exist to make money, but they can be an important tool. You just never know which step along the journey will be one of the decisive ones until you get down the road a piece and look back over your shoulder. 

So, before we go any further, I feel compelled to note here that Jenner prefers, at this stage in his transition, to be referred to using male pronouns. I am going to honor and respect that.

At this stage in his transition, he refers to his female self as "Her". I think that's pretty telling about where he is in terms of the full integration of his identity and how he is handling this for himself.

I can't imagine the difficulty but I can honor and respect the courage it takes to manage all the various aspects of his life at this point in his transition.

If you leave a comment on this post, I trust you will, too. 

And, if you are unkind in your comments about trans people - even if you leave your "name" (I'm looking at you xoxoMichael) - I assure you your comment will be sent directly to spam. There are lots of places in cyberspace where one can spew one's toxicity.  This is not one of those places. 

Just so we're clear.

So, here's my experience of the program. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Oddly enough, what kept me tuned in to the program was the obvious painfully awkward honesty of both Jenner and Sawyer. She struggled to ask honest questions and he struggled to provide honest answers.

I loved the expression on Sawyer's face when she asked about his sexual orientation. As I recall, she said, "So, you understand yourself to be a woman - "essentially" - but you are still attracted to women, so . . . doesn't that . . . um . . . after you become 'Her'... won't that... um... make you . .. . a . ..a . . .a . . . a lesbian?"

"No," said Jenner, with a calmness that revealed the interior work he's been doing. "Gender identity and expression are separate and different and distinct from sexual orientation."

Pan camera to Sawyer's puzzled face. Hold for a few seconds so others in the audience can recognize what they were feeling in that exact moment. Listen as millions of minds 'pop' to expand in order to hold these concepts as separate and different and in tension with each other.

As a parent and grandparent, I marveled at the self-sacrificial love Jenner has for his family - his three wives and many children and step children and grandchildren -  keeping the fullness of his identity hidden so they wouldn't be "embarrassed" by him.

I loved that his kids and step kids are also struggling but they've mostly come down on the side of love. They love Jenner. That's obvious. He's obviously been a terrific parent. And, he's assured them all that he'll always be "Dad" to them.

Again, I can't imagine that, once he has fully transitioned, it will make him happy to be called "Dad" but if it's okay with his kids, it makes him happy and that makes it okay. For him.

How can anyone not find that absolutely endearing, even if they might be thoroughly confused?

What is clear to me after last night's interview is that the conversation shared by Bruce Jenner and Diane Sawyer, with all of its painfully awkward and honest moments, is that this is something more and more people will be engaging in over the next few months and years.

It's going to take lots and lots of painfully awkward and honest conversations before we can get to a place of greater acceptance. We're going to have to face painful facts like:
The rate of unemployment for transgender people is twice that of the general public.

15% of transgender people live on incomes under $10,000 per year.

Coming out for transgender people exposes them to an increased risk of violence - there have been 7 reported murders so far this year.

An estimated 41% of transgender adults have attempted suicide.

This year, numerous anti-transgender bills have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide - most around fears about use of public restrooms.
And, we're going to have to do something about each and every one of those injustices.

The work is not easy. God knows. Those of us who were on the front lines of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual movement know only too well about painfully awkward and honest conversations.

We've done it before. We can do it again. Indeed, some of us have been and, in fact, are doing it.

Some of those painfully awkward and honest conversations are going to be within the LGBT community itself. As feminist theologian, Mary Hunt, said in 2001,  "The movement for LGBT inclusion cannot simply add 't" and stir, but must confront the changes that taking new people seriously on their own terms demands. No cheap grace here."

That was when Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote her ground breaking book: Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach.  Lots of fine books on the subject have been written since, but this one is not only a sentimental favorite but, I think, lays an important groundwork for all the work that has been done since. If you need to start somewhere to begin to work on your theology, this is as good a primer as you're apt to find anywhere in Christian texts.

You might also like to know that The Episcopal Church, in resolutions D019 and D002 at General Convention 2012, formally added gender expression and identity to two canons that prevent discrimination.

But, books and resolutions will only take you so far. At some point, you're going to have to have a few "crucial conversations" with some transgender folk.  Some of those conversations will not be easy. Many will be quite difficult for a variety of reasons.

It's a pretty awkward dance, in my experience. Both sides step on each other's toes. A lot. And, it hurts. Pronouns are used incorrectly. It will be embarrassing and annoying. Anger and frustration boil over in ways that seem inappropriate and misdirected. And, some of it will be.

Sometimes, it's two steps forward and one steps back. It's important to remember that one step forward is still progress.

And yet, I am convinced that conversion - not just change but authentic transformation - comes out of such painfully awkward and honest conversations.

Thank you, Bruce Jenner and Diane Sawyer, for getting us started as a country. In a two hour period of time, you prompted 16.5 million people to think in different ways about gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation and how they are different.

That feels pretty monumental to me. But, I guess we'll only really know after we've been down the road together and look back over our shoulders at where we've been.

After a lot of painfully awkward and honest conversations.


Unknown said...

Marvelous, Elizabeth. Honest and compassionate. And, OMG, you're a good writer. Virginia Mollenkott influenced me in the past. Of greater significance for my own journey was June Singer's "Androgyny". (I recognize though that respecting the transgender aspects of myself is a different journey than the tough one trans persons must make for wholeness. I have so much respect for the courage it takes to walk their path.

I also want to acknowledge that in my own experience personal conversations with trans folks (thinking especially of General Conventions 1997 and 2009) have been marked by the extraordinary grace and generosity of those who shared their stories and to an extent their lives. I also want to thank trans* persons with whom I've interacted in Integrity leadership positions in the last year; they have treated me with great respect and kindness. And actually to be honest I've also benefited from feistier interactions on the Integrity group page; the pain behind the honest anger has challenged me deeply.

Again, thank you, Elizabeth, for the eloquence of your Jenner response. A luta continua....

JCF said...

"after you become 'Her'... won't that... um... make you . .. . a . ..a . . .a . . . a lesbian?"

"No," said Jenner, with a calmness that revealed the interior work he's been doing. "Gender identity and expression are separate and different and distinct from sexual orientation."

I'm not disputing this transcript, but I didn't hear Jenner as definitively answering that question. I just took it as he is not ready at this time to ID as a lesbian (indeed, later he said he wasn't ready to envision/predict where, if anywhere, sexual attractions may come to "Her" in the future).

What I couldn't grok, however, was *Sawyer* saying "Let me ask the obvious question: are you gay?" [Meaning, "Are you sexually attracted to men?"]

Bruce has biologically fathered 6 children by 3 women: in WHAT universe would it be "obvious" to assume Bruce was attracted to men??? :-O

You didn't touch on the other (to many) Big Reveal, Elizabeth: that Bruce is (as he transitions, still) a Republican. In the LGBT circles I move in, this is getting major flack. While I *get* that (you do realize, Bruce, that were your TV show to move from California, you could be FIRED on the spot for being Trans?), I'm *for the moment* ready to cut him some slack. If he (or later, she) fails to endorse a LGBT-affirming Presidential candidate, that will change however!

Welcome to the Queer World, Bruce. Be yourself---but be your BEST self.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Nancy. My first introduction to a trans person was a woman named Martha. It was1977. Boston. She had been a professor at MIT. After she transitioned, she believed she ought not hold a "traditionally male" role so became a librarian. I repeat, I t was 1977. I think of her often these days and wonder how she ever managed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - yes, I remember Sawyer askin Are you gay? And I remember Jenner's fumble, but then I remember the follow up about being a lesbian and my memory is that Jenner handled that much better. It's the way I remembered it - it may not be accurate.

And, I have lived with a Republican for 38 years. Yes, Ms Conroy is a Republican. Although in her defense, she voted Democrat in at least the last two national elections and, by the way she had grumbled before that, I think she's been a "closet Democrat" for a long time.

So, if there's hope for ms. Conroy, there's hope for Bruce Jenner. Lol

8thday said...

I wish there was a way that Bruce Jenner could know the impact of his “coming out”. How many young, confused and scared people were able to breathe a sigh of relief and say “I’m not the only one, I am going to be okay”. He performed heroic feats in 1976 and again on Monday night.

I too live with a Republican. I really don’t understand why so many people think that all LGBTQ folks are one dimensional, one issue people. I’m sure there are lots of reasons that gay folk are Republicans. Right now I can’t think of any, but I’m sure they have their reasons : )

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

8th day - I'm astounded by the number of trans people writing online, doing in depth social analysis that discounts Jenner's interview on the basis of his class and financial and racial status. I get it. I understand. But seriously, this movement, like every other movement, will not go anywhere until we are able to find and meet on some common ground. The AIDS movement did not go anywhere until Rock Hudson, good Republican and deeply closeted gay man who was also a supporter and friend of Ron and Nancy Regan, came out as gay and dying of AIDS. It took - and is taking - lots of well known people to "come out" as LGBT. This is how it happens.

Sorry for the rant here.