Like many television viewers, on Friday evening, April 24th, I tuned in to see ABC's Diane Sawyer interview Bruce Jenner. I wanted to understand how the face on a box of Wheaties (1978) became unrecognizable, and why a former male Olympic athlete now wants to be a girl. After viewing the program, I comprehend why Jenner, who once peddled “the breakfast of champions”, now physically resembles a woman, but I still can't wrap my head around the idea that, according to Jenner, inside this popular male athlete there is and always has been “the soul of a woman.” I don't get it...but I don't have to. Immediate comprehension is not required of me; empathy is.
Speaking to Diane Sawyer (who was the consummate, respectful professional), Bruce Jenner seemed nervous, uncomfortable, very much aware the public might not view his honesty in the kindest light. Though I did not gain an understanding of the biological why of the transgender community, as I listened to Jenner's description of his conflicted childhood and his secret, life-long gender confusion,
I went through a range of unexpected emotions.
As Jenner walked the snowy streets of Tarrytown, New York, where he grew up, I felt sorry for him (though he probably wouldn't want me to). Though he is sixty-five years old, all I saw was a little boy in pain, struggling to conform to social norms. As a mother, I wanted to hug that little boy and tell him, “just be who you are” (easier said than done). When Jenner discussed being stalked by paparazzi and being “outed” by reporters who saw him on the morning of his surgery to smooth his adam's apple, I was disgusted by such intrusive behavior. Then a light bulb went off: wasn't I doing the same thing? The only difference between the photographer shoving a camera into Jenner's face and me gawking at him on television was the four walls of my house. Shame on them; shame on me.
People who have never been uncomfortable within themselves and those who grew up confidently, safely within the parameters of society's norms can't easily relate to Bruce Jenner or the transgender community. One could say we, the public, have the problem, not Bruce Jenner. Why is it so important everyone be the same, so imperative each individual walks the common path? Why can't we simply live and let live? Because doing so is not so simple. We are programmed from birth to reject what is not “normal”. What falls outside our realm of understanding is fodder for late night television monologues, SNL parody, and supermarket tabloids. Instead of laughing and gawking, we should strive to be like Bruce Jenner's mother, who loves her son, soon to be her daughter, unconditionally. Though public understanding/acceptance comes slowly, empathy should be freely given. That being said, I admit being uncomfortable when Jenner showed Diane Sawyer the little, black dress he would wear at dinner when introducing “her” to Sawyer. Again, my problem, not Jenner's.
Did the ABC interview advance or hinder the transgender community, help or harm Bruce Jenner? I don't know. I really don't. If one of the program's goals was illustrating the need and importance for putting empathy before curiosity, then the program succeeded, at least for me.