Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bruce Jenner, transgender superstar

Before we begin, let me bow at the altar of political correctness and assure everyone that I have nothing against transgender persons. Life is a very complicated affair even in the best of circumstances and everyone has the right to make whatever choices they believe will make them happy and whole, including transitioning to the opposite sex. Indeed that has to be one of the most difficult decisions a person can make. I'm in awe of the courage that takes.

I too admire Bruce Jenner for going public with his decision to become a woman though, really, it would be hard for a guy who makes his living in front of a television camera to keep such news under wraps. In his case outright disclosure would seem far preferable than the drip-drip of daily speculation, gossip and harassment by paparazzi.

Also let's hope that his widely watched interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC advances the cause of transgender people and in particular helps reduce the suicide rate among that beleaguered and misunderstood segment of the population, that according the ABC program, numbers 700,000 or so.

With those caveats on the table I must also confess that I found the approximately ninety-minute Jenner interview (net length after commercials) cringe-inducing, a bit like a freak show. Stew and I fidgeted in our seats in front of the TV and I think our reaction had more to do with the messenger than with the message. Two gay friends also told me they turned it off after a twenty minutes or so.

There are many "perhaps's" and "maybe's" why I felt that way. My reaction may have more to do with my own deep biases and preconceptions than with Jenner's interview. Perhaps.

I must confess that after lusting after him during the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the memory of his fabulous physique and face then versus his appearance now—neither a particularly good-looking woman or man—was off-putting. His scrawniness in particular was not flattering to anyone of either sex. And why the plastic surgery, which—my opinion—has not improved his looks?


But those are superficial, maybe catty observations. I plead guilty.

More specifically annoying was his diva-like demeanor, perhaps an inevitable result of spending so much time in front of a camera, particularly as part of a "reality" show with the Kardashians, the royal family of self-indulgence and vapidity. A humbler, more anonymous transgender person could have been a far more affecting and informative spokesperson (though probably not attracted that much attention.)

His sex or appearance notwithstanding, I don't think I would enjoy having Jenner over for dinner; his carrying on would become quite insufferable shortly after the salad course. Or not: His behavior might more subdued or less annoying if no cameras were present.

As it was, "The Interview" (with capital letters, as ABC marketed the program), attracted seventeen million viewers, or about twice the population of New York City. Jenner is about to release a documentary about his transition to a woman, so the trans publicity wagon is just revving up despite his insistence that The Interview didn't involve any self-promotion.

What proportion of the viewers wanted to be informed and how many were drawn by simple titillation, I don't know. Stew and I were just seriously curious to find out more about the transgender issue. Some straight folks think that being gay gives you an inside perspective on the subject. In fact, I'm a gay man and I haven't a clue why a man would want to transition to a woman. Or dress as a woman except as a Halloween joke.

But as a lecturer on the subject I found Jenner not very informative. At several points during the interview, Stew and I groaned, "Huh?"

If Jenner knew of his inclination (if that's the right word) or desire to be a woman, why did he keep getting married, having children and taking female hormones? Those contradictory decisions would make him a seriously confused or self-centered individual, maybe both.

If he wants to be a woman, wouldn't he be attracted to men? Unless, that is, Jenner ultimately envisions himself as a lesbian, which Sawyer asked and he denied. He also denied being gay and his rather vehement defensiveness made me a bit uncomfortable even as he also denied having any problems with gay men. Huh? and Huh? again.

Brief interludes with medical professionals didn't help my understanding much.

I, and I suspect most of the country, are just beginning to get acquainted with the transgender phenomenon and hence my reaction to The Interview.

We would have been much better served, though, by a less breathlessly hyped show—perhaps on PBS's "Frontline" with its monotonic narrator guiding us through the story of a transgender nobody and what she/or he went through, with expert interviews filling in the blanks, But I doubt seventeen million viewers would tune in.

As the topic evolves in the media some of my questions and "maybe's" will dissipate, along with—I hope—the societal bigotry against young kids undergoing that harrowing mental battle over who or what they are, often without support or understanding from parents, teachers or friends.

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