I watched ABC tonight, when, during an interview with Diane Sawyer, Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman. Like Jenner, I transitioned a little bit later in life. I’m grateful for the support I’ve had and wish the same for Jenner and his family. (He told Sawyer he would use masculine pronouns for the time being, so I’ll respect his wish here as well.)
I sympathize greatly with Bruce’s experience, but I also recognize the huge privilege that comes with being able to share your story with Diane Sawyer on national television. Many people early in their transition have been hurt or ignored by those who they believed were on their side. Most of us transition with little fanfare or recognition at all — but each of our stories are important.
Acknowledging transgender people’s existence — as Jenner has helped do for the millions of viewers in last night’s interview — is just not enough. Acknowledging Jenner’s path really requires understanding the journey of countless transgender Americans who live equally as bravely as Jenner does. The truth is that each of us who makes the choice to reveal who we are reaps a huge personal benefit, but also makes a remarkable sacrifice. This is no less true for Jenner.
For some of us, coming out means losing our job — a fact evidenced by an unemployment rate twice that of the general public.
For some of us, coming out means facing near certain economic depression — a fact evidenced by 15% of transgender people living on an income under $10,000.
For some of us, coming out means risking violence or death — a fact evidenced by the murders of 7 transgender people this year.
For some of us, being denied our transition — being denied our true selves — contributes to the mental health crisis facing transgender people: 41% of transgender adults have attempted suicide.
For all of us, coming out as transgender means coming into a society that is increasingly trying to criminalize us for using a restroom or playing a school sport. This year, numerous anti-transgender bills have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide. This is the reality of the America that welcomes Jenner and every transgender person who chooses to declare themselves with pride.
There are surely certain ways in which Jenner’s path has been tough. In the past few months, mere speculation of his transition brought out the uglier side of journalism. Tabloid sensationalism like InTouch Weekly’s photoshopped magazine cover of Jenner made a mockery of gender transition. As I told the Advocate, that anyone is still trying to shock people by using transgender people is disappointing and sad.
The media’s obsession with transgender people (as well as the Kardashians) turned Jenner’s personal experience into a shameful public spectacle. But, Jenner’s coming out reminds us that trans people are everywhere. We’re people working in your neighborhoods, teaching your children, building your technology, and entertaining you on tv. We’re artists, actors and Olympians.
Still, a new Human Rights Campaign poll showed that only 22% of likely voters reported knowing or working with a transgender person, up 5% from a similar poll in 2014. But of those people who know someone who is transgender, the vast majority supports them.
Findings from a joint GLAAD and Harris Poll this year paints an even more distressing picture: 59% of non-LGBT Americans say they would be uncomfortable if they learned their child was dating a transgender person, and 40% of straight, non-transgender parents said they would be uncomfortable with their child playing in the home of a transgender parent.
Indeed, it may be a member of the Kardashian family tree who can help improve these numbers. The growth in public understanding of transgender people is important to acknowledge, yet on balance, the public as a whole must move beyond acknowledgement and toward acceptance. The platforms of the Bruce Jenners and Laverne Coxes of the world help a lot with that. But we can’t ever forget that it is also the everyday acts of trans Americans talking to their families, their children, and their co-workers that is moving public acceptance forward.
I welcome Bruce Jenner into our family. I hope the people watching are really paying attention to the courage that Jenner and all transgender people are showing when they declare their intention to live deliberately and authentically in a society that isn’t always friendly or safe, but which is improving all the time.