The Jenner Diversion

Share This Article A guest commentary by Jenn Burleton, TransActive Now that Ms. Jenner has confirmed the rude speculations of the meat-grinder media, America has a new transgender role model. At long last we have a "matching set" of celebrities who were famous prior to sharing their transgender status. Of course, I’m referring to Mr. Bono and Ms. Jenner. I am referring to her as Ms. Jenner because it was clear to me from the interview (which was conducted several weeks prior to its air date) that she intended for that to be a public farewell to “Bruce†and male pronouns. Admittedly, I was surprised at how gracefully and respectfully Diane Sawyer and ABC/Disney handled things. Of course, my media expectations with regard to transgender issues are fairly low, so exceeding them was not an achievement on par with, shall we say, winning an Olympic decathlon. As the post-interview public reaction began rolling in, I took some time to reflect on my rather complex feelings about transgender coming-out stories. There is obviously much good that can result from public examination of what should be a very private experience. Community discourse becomes a necessity because our gender expression is the public representation of our gender identity, and when that expression transgresses misogynistic societal gender stereotypes it can become a matter of life or death for gender diverse and transgender children, youth and adults. My concerns center on my observation that the vast majority of these stories center on accepting "the transgender other," tolerating or treating "the transgender unfortunates" and extending rights and privileges to those who are afflicted in some way by an "accident of nature." Focusing on the needs of those who are gender diverse and transgender is critically important. It is also a useful diversion from the political and societal conversations we should be having around gender roles and gender stereotypes. For more than 60 years, transgender people have been the "canaries in the coal mine" when it comes to society’s intolerance of gender diversity. The theory was that, when the air in the mines got bad enough that small birds would fall off their perches, the miners would know their environment was becoming incompatible with life. Despite transgender and gender diverse people falling off our metaphorical perches for decades, society seems content to simply observe and comment on the dying birds, rather than examining the environment endangering us all. In my work as an educator, advocate and activist, I encounter many situations in which organizations, school districts, businesses and others want to better understand how to support children and youth who are experiencing and/or expressing their gender in diverse, non-stereotypical ways. When TransActive Gender Center training is added to the schedule, most people attending assume we will be discussing people who have gender identities… you know, transgender people, some lesbian, gay or bisexual people, maybe people who do drag or cross dress. Rarely do attendees expect to discuss their own gender identities or gender roles. They are often shocked to learn that according to a Harvard School for Public Health research study published in 2012, 10 percent of public school students experience heightened levels of PTSD in adulthood as the result of harassment or bullying from their parents, peers or other adults related to their gender expression. They are further surprised to learn that the vast majority of those students will identify in adulthood as cisgender and heterosexual. Where was the documentary special on that? Obviously, there was none. If there had been, it might have discussed the damage done by enforcement of binary gender roles and sex stereotypes to our entire culture. It might have addressed the fact that gender diversity is a natural variation in human development, and that all people experience gender identity even though most people enjoy the privilege of never having to think about it because theirs falls within current culturally acceptable norms. It might have examined the misogynistic and patriarchal arrogance of propagating and enforcing the notion that while the rest of nature is diverse almost beyond measure, humanity is limited to distinctly male or female, masculine or feminine. Such a documentary might have examined why there is only an M or F box to check on birth certificates, despite the biological reality that Intersex people exist and are, essentially, erased from existence for no reason other than to maintain a gender role status quo. Diane Sawyer, Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly might have challenged society’s almost universal acceptance and even celebration of "tomboys" while continuing to stigmatize and torture boys who demonstrate too much "femininity." Transgender people like me and others are useful diversions to society because it allows the powers that be, including some of those in the LGB hierarchy, to relegate discussions about gender inequality and oppression to its impact on “the canaries†rather than the culture. The Jenner story is ongoing, and she has admirably voiced the desire to use her notoriety and privilege as a mechanism for facilitating positive change for transgender people, particularly children and youth. I welcome her with open arms to the struggle. It is important, however, we not continue to embrace the fallacious notion that if transgender people and families of transgender children and youth tell their stories enough times that society will change its attitudes about gender roles and privilege. Cisgender society has its own stories to tell, and they have barely turned the first page. Jenn Burleton is the founder and Executive Director at TransActive Gender Center, a leading national provider of services to transgender and gender diverse children, youth and their families. A nationally recognized educator, speaker and humorist, she has been repeatedly honored for her work as an advocate and activist for human rights and gender equality.