Bruce Jenner is being celebrated as an American icon for announcing that he is a member of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community. He is proud to be transgender, will eventually become transsexual, and has now pointedly spoken out to champion transgender rights. Jenner has become the face and the primary spokesperson of transgender Americans, and he was even awarded the ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage Award after proclaiming his sexuality to the world. Jenner won that award over Noah Galloway, an Army veteran who lost an arm and a leg to an Iraqi roadside bomb, but still competes in marathons and Crossfit events. He beat out Lauren Hill, a nineteen year old student-athlete who decided to play basketball for Mount St. Joseph while she battled an inoperable brain tumor that caused her head to swell, and eventually took her life. By winning this award, Jenner has, in essence, been compared to legendary tennis player Arthur Ashe who faced Jim Crow era prejudice while dominating the sport, and then had to address the world about contracting Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in his later years. Ashe showed poise in the face of immediate danger during his playing years, and grace when he was thrust back into the national spotlight because he had contracted the controversial AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. The stories of Ashe, Galloway, and Hill offer a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit fueled by the love of sports, but Bruce Jenner’s revelation about his sexuality pales in comparison to their stories. A person who comes out of the closet deserves respect, not a full-on media blitz. Bruce Jenner is no hero. Arthur Ashe dealt with constant death threats while exceling at a sport that no person of color had succeeded in before him, in an era when having the wrong skin color could get him lynched. Playing under those particular conditions took courage. And, speaking out about the taboo disease that he contracted through the incompetence of medical professionals while simultaneously accepting that the sickness would eventually claim his life rings heroic. Jenner’s decision to wear dresses publicly, his commitment to getting a sex change, and espousing to the public that he would continue to date women were probably difficult choices, but none of them took the level of courage that deserves a televised award. ESPN capitalized on their growing, newly diverse audience by praising and publicizing one of the more recognizable personas of two separate generations. None of Bruce Jenner’s decisions led him towards imminent harm. One could concede that there is a certain level of resolve that any person must have to proclaim that they want to physically change themselves, and then follow through with the requisite surgery and a lifetime of hormone replacement to physically transform their body from one gender to another. Sexual reassignment surgery represents a challenging decision for any person because it conflicts with social norms. However, that decision does not qualify Bruce Jenner as a role model. Neither does speaking publicly to convince others to make the same decision, especially when that choice comes with dire consequences. Jenner’s words are both irresponsible and injurious to the transgender members of the LGBT community. His crusade for transgender rights unintentionally misleads the people that he has vowed to help. Bruce Jenner is a confused man with a lot of conviction about his cause who will inevitably push a multitude of troubled youth deeper into their own sexual identity problems. Transgender people suffer through more obstacles than all the other groups of people in the population. Transsexuals and transgender individuals struggle tangibly with finding their own identity, and therefore have trouble gaining acceptance with their peers. Approval is one of the most important factors in building emotional security for any person, and with the lack of a strong support base for their cause, trans-Americans often live difficult lives. Jenner wanted to raise awareness and tolerance for transgender Americans. He seemed to genuinely desire to help transgender teens by normalizing trans culture. However, Jenner as a celebrity, has more options than the average American and more resources to fulfill his personal desires. He is infinitely more affluent than the average trans teen, so he is breeding false hope in people who already feel hopeless. Transgender people bear the most staggering suicide rates on the planet. As espoused by Jenner, 41% of transgender people have attempted to commit suicide in their lifetime. And, according to a 2011 Swedish study, people who have had sexual reassignment surgery are 19 times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. The origins of personal sexuality are a muddled amalgamation of genetic predisposition and learned behaviors. Gender, sexual preference, and sexual orientation are similar self-identifying categorizations that are defined independently by every individual, but still fairly intertwined within each person. Homosexuality and many other expressions of sexual orientation may be caused by one, or a combination of genetic, environmental, prenatal, neurological, and hormonal factors. These orientating labels each have intrinsic effects on each other and on a person’s sexual desires. And, trans people are taking their own lives because they can not come to terms with their sexual identity and the social consequences of their sexual predilections.
If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead because the reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there who are coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it. Bruce Jenner
Bruce Jenner took 60 years to feel comfortable with his own sexual identity. He needed 60 years to “accept” who he was, and to feel confident enough to champion transgender people. 60 years passed before he decided to have reassignment surgery, and Jenner has been married three times and had 6 children on his path to coming out. So, he is promoting a lifestyle that he may not fully understand. Some social scientists, physicians, psychiatrists, and geneticists would argue that transsexualism is a pathology. Dr. Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist and a University Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has even labeled it gender identity disorder, a disease akin to anorexia or body dysmorphic disorder where patients see their bodies negatively regardless of the body’s actual appearance. He argues that surgery is not the answer for transgender people. The path to sexual happiness for a transgender person is being minimalized by Jenner.
How can Bruce Jenner effectively lead the struggle for trans-Americans when nothing in his life parallels the life of the average transgender person? He does not know the everyday ordeals that trans people suffer, because Jenner has lived six decades as a straight man. The average transgender man comes out and begins living as a woman at age 20. And, the biggest point of disparity between Jenner and the people that he is attempting to lead lies in income. In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality reported that transgender people were twice as likely as the general population to be homeless and four times as likely to live in extreme poverty. Since a lot of employers are not accepting of their identity, a large percentage of transgender face harassment and discrimination at work if they are hired at all. Those that can not find employment often turn to sex work. The most glaring problem with Bruce Jenner championing transgender Americans and encouraging them to come out is that Bruce Jenner is convincing young people to invest in a lifestyle that he has never experienced. Jenner has been rich and famous since the 1976 Olympics. Because of his social status, even now, after coming out, Bruce Jenner has been completely embraced publicly. He has never faced the ugly prejudices that most transgender teens will face because he has always been socially accepted. He has never had to make the financial decisions that force trans teens to sell their bodies, and consequently endanger their lives. Jenner can afford sexual reassignment surgery whenever he decides to have the procedure. The average transgender person can not afford the requisite two years of $50-$2,000 counseling sessions and the $600-$4,000 of sex hormones that come before the more expensive $15,000-$25,000 genital transformation surgery. Most transgender people never get reassignment surgery because of the price tag, and depressed people who fail to meet their goals generally fall deeper into their depression. The surgery does not solve the emotional baggage that comes with being transsexual, because the same problems that existed before the surgery are there after it. The people who Jenner is emboldening to live their dreams can not afford to live those dreams financially or emotionally. And, Jenner does not fully understand the ramifications of his words on disparaged transgender teens.
Jenner is advising hormone-riddled teenagers who are already fighting to find peace with themselves in society that does not accept them to chase an unattainable goal. He is encouraging transgender teenagers to announce to the world that their differences should be celebrated when most kids only want to fit in with their peers. Bruce Jenner is telling an economically oppressed faction that their dreams are within reach, but he is terribly mistaken. For most transgender people, a lifetime of suffering is ahead, and spinning the triumphant story of a sixty year old former Olympian who brings trans culture into the limelight is reckless and irresponsible.